From the archives: Simple ways to be a better reader: nine tips to read in a more inspired way

While I’m away for the summer, I’m dipping back into some favourite pieces on Our Story Time. This is an edited version of a post that appeared in January 2019.

At the top of my to-do list: read more. And not just read more.  Read better . Simple ways to be a better reader: nine tips to read in a more inspired way

At the top of my to-do list: read more. And not just read more. Read better.

Read to be inspired. Read for escape and imagination, yes, but also read in order to grow as a writer myself. Read to pick apart sentences and wonder how did she do that? when I come across a passage by a writer that blows me away. Read to make notes on the imagery I fall in love with. Read to remember. Read to challenge myself, to stretch my boundaries of language and metaphor. Read to go beyond myself. Read, not to think glumly: oh, but I could never write like this but instead to wonder: oh, but how can I write like this? What can I do better in my own work to meet this sort of greatness?

Read actively, not passively.

In other words: read like a writer.

Writing is my craft in progress; I am constantly seeking out ways to better myself at it. And reading is one of the most important ways. You cannot call yourself a writer if you do not read. In my writing course, The Quiet Words, I dedicate time to exploring the art of reading with a writer’s eye and we uncover what it means to read actively, not passively, and also how to become that reader; how to read towards something. For I believe when you start to read better, when you start to lose yourself in the art of language, of expression, and you begin to understand the very way in which every single word has been chosen and shaped - then your own writing begins to sparkle too, even if it is without realising.

If reading more and reading better is on your to-do list too (and even if it is not!), here are nine simple ways to improve the way in which you read:


1) Make notes

I am an annotator of books (that I own, I hasten to add - I would not scribble in a library or a friend’s copy!). The margins are filled with tiny stars marked in pencil signifying passages I find important in some way. Sentences which move me by their depth or their simplicity are underscored. Corners are turned down. I also keep a separate notebook too and sometimes, if I am so inclined, I then make very brief notes separately. These notes are simple. For instance: “p62 - sky description” or “p181: see how this dialogue works!” On occasion I might even transcribe sentences - the ones I might have underscored in my copy itself - and in this way, I will end up with my highlights of a book surmised in four or five favourite quotes. I don’t consider this an academic approach; nor is it as time-consuming as it might sound (you might also simply do this on your phone if it made more sense to you). I don’t do it all the time, but keeping notes means I have a place to remember the things I want to remember. It keeps me an engaged, active sort of reader, not a passive one.

2) Read closely

Every now and again, look back over your annotations and notes and ask yourself why you underscored that particular sentence or starred that description. Unpick it. Ask yourself what works; what makes it memorable? What moves you the most? Why do you like it? What is it in the imagery, for instance, that stands out? How close do the words bring you into that moment? And how is that closeness achieved? These questions are never-ending. It’s also very addictive to unpick like this. It’s learning from between the lines.

3) Look up words you don’t know

It’s okay to not know all the words that exist in all the pages in the world! I look up words all the time as I read (the other day I had to look up “impel” and “particulate” from the same page). There’s no shame in looking something up and I’m not too proud to turn to a dictionary in order to broaden my vocabulary, so that I may absorb more words and find better ways to express myself. After all, the better we may express ourselves, the less frustrated we become. The more words we have at our fingertips, the more scope there is for understanding of ourselves and of each other. And with that, there is the hope there may be more compassion too.

4) Read the sort of writing you’d like to write yourself

Reading sets your aspirations. Read the work of the sort of writer you’d like to be. If you want to write a memoir, read memoirs. If you want to write poetry, read poetry. If you want to write a thriller, read thrillers. And this goes beyond books too; want to write a first-person blog? Spend a while with your favourite bloggers posts and ask yourself what it is about the way they write that draws you close. Fancy trying your hand freelancing for a favourite magazine? Devour said magazine, at length. Learn from those who are already creating their work and try to understand the way they work too.

5) Read the sort of writing you’d never ordinarily read either

Challenge yourself. So you’d never read short stories, you say? Give Alice Munro a try (or maybe even my collection too). Find memoirs boring? Try this and find yourself surprised. A decade ago, I hardly ever read non-fiction; now, it’s often what I turn to most. More than that - read as many perspectives as you can. Read authors from different backgrounds with different names and different stories to tell, because the chances are in their stories, you will spy a piece of your heart too. A lot of authors simply don’t get a look in when it comes to big reviews and recommendations but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be read. Like introverts, the quietest of books are often the ones that matter and mean the most.

6) Re-read your favourites

Writer’s block? While away an afternoon re-reading your favourite author for the umpteenth time. The next morning, when you sit down to write, the words will flow a little more as if they were just on the tip of your tongue waiting for you to taste them first.

7) Read out loud

And hear the rhythm as words lace into each other. Feel it. Words were made to be heard. And as you read - ask yourself: does it flow? If not, ask yourself why. What word does your tongue stumble over? What words would you change?

8) Make more time to read

Note to self: less scrolling, more reading.

9) do it for the love of it

We may unpick, we may note, we may set ourselves deadlines and goals as we read. But it must all come from a place of love too, for it is all too easy for a pastime to turn into a chore and when that happens, something is lost. Whenever the act of reading begins to feel like a a must-do, a should-do or a tick-off-a-list, then simply set that particular book aside. Leave it awhile or pick up something new to read to freshen up what is in front of your eyes. Reading is precious; so is your time. Don’t waste either on something that doesn’t inspire you entirely.


How to Read More: authors share how they read more. The consensus? Track your reads and keep up the momentum.

See also: The Penguin Reading Challenge and The Goodreads Reading Challenge

I’ve been tidying up, as usual, but my books stopped me in my tracks. Here’s an essay on the heartbreaking difficulty of letting go of books and a non-minimalist view on books.

Did you know you can still buy and download Postcards Home, my summer writing course? It’s available to purchase until the end of August, to print off or upload onto your device and take with you on holiday. For summer writing inspiration, read more about my summer writing course.