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How to Read to Write

Updated: Dec 21, 2021

"If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot." - Stephen King

I have never read any of Stephen King's books. In fact, I probably couldn't tell you the name of any of his books (I think he's a horror writer??). But I have heard writers whose books I have read say something very similar to this exact quote. Writing requires reading and writing. And it requires a lot of the two.

I have never been to college for writing and I never will go to college for writing. My knowledge of the skill is entirely obtained from my reading, my large amounts of practice of the skill, and Pinterest (thank you to whoever invented Pinterest!)

How exactly do I manage to learn from reading, you might ask? Do I read a lot of self-help books? How to Write Magnificent Dialogue and How to Craft Beautiful Characters? No. I read fiction books. The kinds of books I review on this site. But as I read them, I pay attention.

I read to write.

This, I have found, has taken some learning to do in and of itself. Though I do believe there is some element of learning from reading that can be done simply via osmosis, I think there is a lot more valuable learning that can be done if you know where to look, how to take it in, and what to look for.

Many writers advise reading books that are in your genre. Those that are like the one you want to write. They advise you read the books that will be your competitors on the market.

So, for me, that is retellings. I have not been able to find any YA Goldilocks retellings worth reading but that doesn't mean I shove my reading learning aside. I read for the next book and the next. I read Belle twists and Cinderella twists. I read King Arthur's twists even though King Arthur makes no appearance in my book. I learn how the writers twist their stories. How they use magic or don't. How they wrote the different elements of the fairytales. Whether or not multiple fairytales showed up in one book.

But not just that. I look, also, for how writers wrote kiss scenes, action scenes, and intense emotional scenes. I learn from what they did well and what I didn't like. I borrow words like "crossguard" and learn what the character should feel when they kiss their crush. Because, after all, I've never held a sword or kissed a boy.

It doesn't stop there, though. And it shouldn't.

All of this reading has been done before. All of this learning is done via osmosis, no outside utensils are required. However, I have come to realize that there can be more to reading to write and that I can learn from even books that are not in my genre.

I have begun to post-it-note books.

My books are a rainbow of paper notes sticking out on all sides (actually, that's not true. I tend to use one color but still). I mark anything that calls to me. This scene is something that inspires me for a scene 5 books out? Mark it! This quote should be used as inspiration for the way that two characters interact in this book? Mark it! This character reminds me that I should know something in particular about each of my characters? Mark it!

I mark words too.

Though I started post-it noting years ago, I have recently begun to note single words or phrases that are beautiful descriptions, nouns, or verbs that I could use. Words like "sweeping vee" or "feline smile." I mark them with a different kind of post it. And I note where the kiss and fight scenes are for reference with the same post-its.

So do you want to be a writer? I may not be repped by an agent, published by some fancy publisher, and sold all over the globe but I will give this advice nevertheless: read and write and read to write. Write constantly. Read constantly. Mark up your writing and your reading both. Learn from it and move on. Never stop.

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