Amy McNamara

Do You Read Like a Writer?

A version of this post originally appeared on the YA Buccaneers group blog. 


Has being a writer changed how you read? Do you look at words and sentences and plotlines and character arcs differently than you did when you simply read for pleasure?

(Two caveats up front: 1) Obviously, writers can and do and should read for pleasure! 2) I’m not necessarily talking about reading the way your English teachers made you read in high school, mining for symbolism and dissecting a book’s themes from a purely academic standpoint. Unless that’s your thing, in which case, have at it!)

I know that I tend to read differently now than I did before I got serious about my own writing. Reading is a form of inspiration. I look at authors who do such incredible things with words and I want to be like them. It’s also a form of continuing education. I’m constantly on the lookout for that “master class” moment, where an author shows me exactly how something should be done.

How does that play out in my writing life? Here’s an example. With my current manuscript [note: this book became HOW IT FEELS TO FLY], I’ve been struggling with my protagonist’s emotional stakes. The highs haven’t felt high enough and the lows haven’t felt low enough. In layman’s terms, there weren’t enough feels. So I decided to reread Lovely, Dark and Deep by Amy McNamara. This book killed me—in a good way—when I first read it. I felt a deep ache in my chest for the main character, Wren, and her emotional struggles. I cried.

The plot of Lovely, Dark and Deep is nothing like the plot of my current manuscript, but it has those deep emotional moments I felt like my project was missing. So I read it again, looking at how the emotions built to the climactic scenes. I saw how McNamara was often able to show more by withholding speech and action than if she’d filled the page with Wren’s anguish. I felt gutted all over again. And when I went back to my revision, I tried to apply what I’d learned.

The cool thing about this way of reading is that you don’t have to seek out “literature” to pick up writerly skills. If a book makes you laugh or cry, if you cheer for the heroine or swoon over the hero or want to cut off the villain’s head yourself—in short, if you had an honest emotional response to what was happening on the page—you can learn from it.

So here are my challenges to you: The next time you’re reading something—anything—and you think to yourself, Wow, I wish I could do X like this author, or I really admire how this author does Y, jot it down. Keep reading. Keep looking for clues. When you’ve finished enjoying the book, put on your critical thinking cap and start asking why whatever it was that you loved worked so well. Then, file that information away until you need it. I promise, you’ll be so happy when you’re dealing with an issue in your own writing and you realize exactly which of your favorite authors to turn to for advice.

Here’s the part where you jump in. What authors inspire you in specific, writerly ways? Do you read like this, looking for tricks of the trade and skills you can utilize in your own work? Do you have any advice to share that we can all put into practice? Let’s get a discussion going in the comments.

Meanwhile…happy reading!