I concluded last week’s post by saying that the best way to become a better writer is to learn how to read like a writer. So let’s take a look at that statement and determine how to really do that.

I don’t know about you, but once I started writing regularly I started reading much differently. Whereas I used to simply read for the story or to gather facts, I began reading with the intent of discovering why the writer did what he did, and probably more importantly, how he did it.

While I’m certain everyone has his or her own method of reading to learn more about the craft of writing, here are a few things that have helped me along the way:

1. One of the first things I look for when reading nonfiction is to determine what approach or angle the author used. In other words, what one aspect of the topic was used as the focal point? In training myself to look for this, I’ve learned to become more cognizant of the many creative angles I can use to make a subject more interesting. Some writers have a way of highlighting the obscure or overlooked angles, which can totally bring a topic to life.

2. One of the keys to great nonfiction writing is the masterful use of fiction techniques, such as quotations, setting, description, and story. When reading, I’ll think about which techniques the writer used to bring her nonfiction article or book to life. Instead of simply noticing the various techniques used, though, I try to take it one step further and determine how they were used in balance with one another as well as how the writer wove the facts and information into them. A good writer will do so in such a way that the nonfiction information reads like a story. When I read, I always try to look for new ways of presenting factual material in interesting ways.

2. For works of fiction I love to focus on points of conflict. As we know, without conflict there is no story. Some writers are masterful at creating conflict and drawing the reading in–and keeping her there. How do they do this? As I read, I try to discover the writer’s tricks. With good writing, conflict is not just spelled out. Pieces of information are slowly given up at just the right moment. I like to find out: How does the writer allow this information to be trickled out, and when? Is it during conversations…or narrative? Does the writer leave the reader to connect the dots for himself? If so, what’s his technique for doing that?

Internal conflict, which is even tougher to successfully create, presents new questions for the writer-reader to ask: Does the writer show internal conflict through inner dialogue? Does he use personality traits or quirks to emphasize this conflict? What actions does he use that are effective at showing conflict–and why are they effective?

3. Also for fiction, I always pay attention to how the writer develops his characters. Often, I’ll get half way through a book then go back and read in the beginning when a character was first introduced to pay close attention to how the writer unfolded the bits and pieces about the character. What did the writer not allow the reader to know in the beginning, and why? How might it have changed the story for us if we knew too much about the character all at once? But at the same time, what were the important pieces that we had to know up front?

Also, I look for how a character’s traits are presented. In some cases, it’s more effective to use narrative to describe a character. In other cases, it needs to be done through behavior and actions. I like to take notice of how writers do this and why it works. Character development can make or break a story. As writers, we can learn so much from other writers on how to effectively introduce and unfold a character to the reader.

5. For both fiction and nonfiction, there is the issue of point of view. To me, an effective use of POV is a great way to have a lot of fun with your story (nonfiction as well). One thing I do when reading is to think about the story from a different POV than what the writer used. In fiction, I’ll pick a scene and try to imagine it from the viewpoint of another character. I think this is great training in learning to write creatively. I’ve never done this, but I think it would be very helpful to even re-write a scene from a different POV.

Even with nonfiction, instead of the information being written from the writer’s POV, if the story is about a person, what if it was written from the subject’s POV? I once read a fun nonfiction piece about an animal written from the animal’s POV!

No matter what you read, so much can be learned if you constantly ask yourself why you think the writer did something the way he did it, and how might it have been different if he chose another way. Look closely at word choice–the strong verbs the writer uses to describe (instead of adjectives), how he makes a character jump off the page, how he creates conflict and suspense, and what fiction techniques he uses to make his nonfiction interesting.

It seems like a lot to look for, but once you start training your eye to see these things, it will soon become a natural part of your reading, and you’ll find yourself asking a lot of “how” and “why” questions of the writer along the way. Then, hopefully, you’ll be able to incorporate those answers into your own writing.

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With a simple browsing of the library or bookstore shelves, you can locate many wonderful books written on the subject of writing. Topics include how to hone your craft, how to write for certain genres, how to write for children, how to navigate through grammar rules, and so forth. I’m not knocking these books, because they all do (if well written and researched) have some merit and will offer a certain amount of help when it comes to putting pen to paper. But few discuss the best way to become a better writer.

You could also attend the many and diverse writers conferences that can be found throughout the country–and world, for that matter. Here, you will hear from bestselling authors, sought-after agents, career-making editors, and other giants of the literary world. From morning to night, you will scurry from workshops to keynote speakers and from critique groups to panel discussions. You will be exhausted from overbooked days, but you will gain much knowledge and insight into the joys and tribulations of writing. But it’s doubtful that you will ever hear the best way to become a better writer.

Finally, you could shell out hundreds, if not thousands of dollars for writing classes or even one-on-one mentoring, where you will spend much time working through writing exercises, learning how to overcome writers’ block, and discovering new ways to unleash your inner creative self. But, alas, you still will probably not learn the best way to become a better writer.

I can say all this because-with the exception of the mentoring–I have done every one of these things. And, to a degree, each one helped in some targeted manner. But I can honestly say that none has helped me become a better writer more than this one thing…are you ready?

The best way to become a better writer is to become a better reader. What? Are you serious? Yes, I am! Writers are readers–or at least they should be if they want to become better. But there are rules to this (of course!). For instance, you can’t be like my 15-year-old son whose reading, outside of required reading for school, consists of the sports section of the newspaper. And, you can’t just read FB and tweets all day and call that reading–or you will end up writing everything in acronyms.

I know that reading is an absolute integral part of a writer’s toolbox. It has worked for me, and every other writer who is serious about getting better. I can even see it working with my 6th grade daughter. Cayla is an amazing writer and has been since about the 3rd grade. She doesn’t always spell everything correctly, and she doesn’t always get the grammar rules right (who does, really?), but her creativity, story formulation, sentence structuring, and vocabulary usage are far beyond her years.

Her secret? Cayla reads every single day. It’s her absolute favorite thing to do. She constantly challenges herself with the level and content of what she reads. And, without even realizing it, she has learned to read like a writer. When I read her stories (she always writes fiction when she has the choice–unlike her nonfiction mom) I’ll ask her where she got certain ideas or why she decided to use the point of view she did. Her answer is always, “Oh, they did that in the last book I read and I thought it was really cool, so I wanted to try it.”

She has discovered that the key to reading is to learn to read like a writer. Next week, I’ll talk about exactly what I mean by that and how to do it.