When you’re writing a book, I’ve told you once before the two best pieces of advice I received were: read a lot and write a lot. I also expressed how utterly useless that advice is without explaining the how to accomplish those two things.

For the most part, the life of a writer is not glamorous and is solitary. We spend the majority of our time writing or reading (either reading ours or someone else’s work). The rest of the time is spent on research, marketing, travelling to and from events, or working with our publishers, editors, and/or artists to finalize our manuscripts for publication.

Reading for writing requires an active mental presence of mind. It requires focus and critical thinking. You can’t read for fun if you’re trying to learn. You can’t turn your brain off and just put it into neutral (as so many people have told me at conferences). Not to bash reading for fun, I do it all the time. But if you want to be a writer you have to put that aside for a while. Reading doesn’t, in and of itself, make you a writer.

To read for writing, you need to do many things at once.

Be focused and aware of the text. Don’t go into la-la land when you should be focusing on things like word choice, similes, metaphors, and active scenic descriptions which stimulate you. Don’t get too lost in the book. Focus on how the writer is creating these images. What words is he/she using? What is the writer doing to make you feel so absorbed in the book that you forget you left your burrito in the microwave? That is what you need to emulate as an aspiring writer. So sit up, pay attention, and learn not to get lost.

It’s like you’re back in high school. Find the techniques the author uses to evoke an emotional response from the reader. You must understand why the author is doing things a certain way. Is he/she using similes or metaphors? How does the writer describe things? Why does the author have a character do X when the character could have done Y?

The right questions have the right answers. Notice in the first two tips you’re asking a lot of questions? This is because it is fundamental to your success as a writer. Ask yourself as you read the book, why did the writer write the story this way? Why did they use third person instead of first? Why is it in present tense vs. past tense (or vice versa)? How does the writer handle the characters? How much dialogue does the writer use? How much description? How much of the prose is internal monologue and exposition? How does the writer describe setting? Is he/she so descriptive like George R.R. Martin’s style where you know the number of stitches on a piece fabric or is it more like Herbert or King where you’re lucky to know the color of the garment the character is wearing? And, the most important question of all as an aspiring writer: If it were your story, what would you have done differently? Note I said differently; as writing is subjective and an art. There’s really no better or worse way to tell a story.

Find the themes. Most books I know of have a theme. There are some, just a few, that don’t want to reader to learn anything but to be entertained. However, most great books that I know of have themes. It’s your job as a critical reader and aspiring author to look beyond the words and find out what the author is trying to say.

Read in more than one genre. The Emerald Tablet is a science-fiction/fantasy book based in Egyptian mythology. But, to write in a specific genre does not mean that all you are allowed to read is that genre. Limiting yourself to a particular genre is like being trapped in a room without being able to see the whole house. Maybe you want to go out and take a dip in the pool? Maybe you want to watch the game on the big screen in the family room? There are many successful books out there by many writers that don’t write in the genre you want to write in. Study them too. What could it hurt? And oh my God, you may actually learn something.

I say these things because I love writing, not because I want to suck the enjoyment out of reading. But if you’re writing a book, and I hate to say this, don’t be so damn selfish. You won’t always have the luxury for reading for pleasure anymore. You might be tied down to writing, researching, and critical reading to improve your writing. It won’t kill you to be a better writer, will it? And if you’re not willing to invest a little time in studying great writers and learning their tricks and techniques, why would you expect a reader to read your book?

About Joshua G. Silverman