Writing has a bunch of clichés surrounding it about how to be successful. Work more, write every day, go for walks, write drunk, etc. (Big fan of this post that makes fun of some of those clichés.) One of the more often repeated ones is that to be a good writer, you need to be a good reader. Like DFW points out, though, sometimes those common, simple, omnipresent clichés turn out to be true. What doesn’t get talked about, though, is how one can become a better reader beyond just reading more. In the past few years, I think I’ve done a better job at reading, and I’d like to share what has helped me.
1) Be mindful about what you’re reading.
This has a sort of unstated first part, which is that you read for a purpose. Of course, not all of your reading has to be for a purpose, but I have gained a lot in being more conscious about what I’m choosing to spend my time reading. For example, three weeks ago I started /r/contemporaryshortform and since then I’ve made myself find a recent short-form prose piece every day to post in that subreddit. This forces me to become familiar with a lot of the venues that I would seek to publish short-form pieces in, and it gets me reading some really cool, more nontraditional stuff. I’m typically more drawn to spending my reading time on books, but this gives me the motivation to mix it up some. Beyond that project, I’ve also started finding reasons to read books beyond having heard the author’s name, or it being popular. I’m working on a nonfiction project with a fairly specific format, and normally the simplistic way of reading for that project would be to look at books that have tackled the same subject. However, I think it’s been more useful looking at books with a similar structure to what I want to do. (Hey, on that note, suggest to me nonfiction books about a subject, the author’s experiences with that subject, and the culture/people around the subject. Thinking of books like Pack of Two by Knapp, Of Dice and Men by Ewalt, Absolutely American by Lipsky, Teachers Have It Easy by Eggers and co., Eating Animals by Foer, etc.) I think this idea really clicked for me when I took David Lipsky’s workshop, where he had us read Martin Amis’s piece “Emergency Landing” for humor, the first chapter of Nabokov’s Pnin for understanding how to set up questions and answers for readers, and the beginning of Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark for understanding how to build tension. Finally, I also read books to be a part of a conversation (more on that with my second point). Reading recent popular/award-winning books gives a great frame of reference for talking to other readers, and thus I seek them out a lot more than I used to.
Which is not to say you shouldn’t read for fun. I still read stuff with no “purpose” beyond thinking that I’ll enjoy the book, and I think that’s important. Definitely not an either/or situation, you can do both.
2) Talk about what you’re reading with other people.
One of the reasons that I’m pursuing an MFA and have greatly benefited from writing retreats/workshops in the past is that talking about writing gets more excited about writing, but it also gets me thinking about writing in a different way than I would when I’m off writing by my lonesome. Talking about reading accomplishes something similar. Another one of those clichés is that the person who is being workshopped doesn’t benefit as much from the process as the people doing the workshopping, and that’s another thing that I’ve found to be absolutely true. Talking about someone else’s writing, whether it’s a piece being workshopped or a published book, forces you to think about what that writing does that works and what that writing does that doesn’t work, and it forces you to be able to articulate it. Our default setting when we read, I think, is to just think positively or negatively toward a work and not examine why we feel that way. Being able to express those ideas then allows us to turn that lens onto our own writing and see how it can be improved.
Side note: Tips on starting a successful book club?
3) Take notes.
This has been the big breakthrough for me as a reader. I started being better at taking notes as I read due to graduate school, but it became cemented as I began writing book reviews. Now, I take notes for a majority of the books I read, even if I don’t intend to do anything with them. These notes serve to accomplish a lot of what talking to other people does, but it has an added benefit of giving you something to reference after the fact. Often, there are particular scenes I want to reread when I’m working on something specific, and having a folded up piece of paper inside that book on my shelf (or a typed up note about the excerpt on Google Drive) that helps me find that passage and reminds me what I liked about it is invaluable. My notes highlight things that work, summarize structure, make a reference to other literary works cited/discussed in the text, ask questions I want to look up the answers to later, and more.
Like many things, I think this just boils down to a heightened awareness. Hopefully laying out some specifics helps someone else.
Finally, the cancellation of Jesus Christ Superstar has made me very, very sad.