How to Read Better to Write Better

Published 25 Mar 2024
by Anca Antoci

Is impostor syndrome hindering your progress?

Judging by my Twitter feed (yeah, I’m not going to call it X), many writers experience impostor syndrome, especially early in their career. I’ve published six books and I still have moments when I feel like a fraud, but I have to admit that the more I fine tune my writing process, the less often that happens. So, hang in there because it gets better.

You know how they say imitation is the sincerest form of flatter? Well, what if you could imitate other writers’ success? Just so we’re clear, I’m not talking about plagiarizing other authors. I’m saying you should read analytically and identify what makes their story engrossing, then strive to implement that into your own stories.

It doesn’t matter what you read

You didn’t see that coming, did you? Sure, I can recommend some books about writing. In most of my How-to articles, I mention where I picked up certain writing techniques and various tips and tricks. But that’s not what I’m talking about in this story. I’m not going to tell you to read something. However, I will ask you to think of books you have already read. I am going to assume that you read for pleasure. If I’m wrong, you might want to skip this story altogether.

I’m a voracious reader and I can’t believe it took me so long to figure this out on my own. Think about your favorite book. If it’s hard, pick your favorite book this week/month. Any genre is fine. It can even be erotica, if that’s what you’re into. It doesn’t even matter if the highbrows think it’s drivel. Remember how criticized Fifty Shades of Gray was, yet it became a phenomenon? I’m not here to discuss tastes. Just pick a book you couldn’t put down.

Now pick a pen and paper and try to jot down what made it such a good read. There has to be a reason you picked it as a favorite. Was it the plot? Maybe, but probably not. Was it the dynamic between the characters? Their struggles? Perhaps the way they deal with challenges? Their character arc?

These are only a few aspects that come to mind when I think of a good story. But everyone is different. Don’t overthink it. Just write the first thing that comes to mind when you think about that book. Reread the story, or parts of it, if you want to refresh your memory.

Helpful notes from “Fifty Shades of Grey”

Since I mentioned Fifty Shades of Gray E.L. James earlier, I’ll use it as an example because I read it. Originally it was a fanfiction for Twilight, which I didn’t know. Although there were quite a few things I didn’t like about the writing style, I found the story enjoyable. If you haven’t read it, here’s a summary so you get the point. The story revolves around the romantic and erotic relationship between the wealthy entrepreneur Christian Grey and a college graduate, Anastasia Steele. The trilogy explores themes of BDSM and has been both praised for its popularity and criticized for its writing style and depiction of relationships. So how come it became a best seller?

The book delves into themes of BDSM (bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism, and masochism), which were relatively uncommon in mainstream romance literature. This exploration of taboo subjects intrigued some readers and sparked curiosity.

Despite some people not liking the writing style, the book had a really engaging story that kept readers interested. The relationship between Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele had everyone on the edge of their seats.

The book has become a big thing in online communities where readers can talk and share their thoughts. The book’s popularity was thanks to the strong community feel.

Now let’s pick a classic. How about Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen?

Helpful notes from “Pride and Prejudice”

“Pride and Prejudice,” a timeless classic by Jane Austen, tells the love story of Elizabeth Bennet and the rich but reserved Mr. Darcy in 19th-century England. The novel challenges societal norms, explores self-discovery, and follows the characters’ journey to find true love.

If I were to put down what made it an engrossing read for me, I’d say it’s the way Jane Austen wrote the journey from initial disdain to love, seeing the characters go the hurdles of societal expectations, misunderstandings, and personal growth. I love reading a good slow burn romance. But writing it wasn’t easy. I know the romantic subplot in Forget Me Not (my debut novel) is awkward at best. I wish I knew then what I know now.

Back to Pride and Prejudice, the slow burn of their affection becomes a central theme. The obstacles they face intensify romantic tension and highlight the depth of their love.

While I don’t write romance, my stories often have a romantic subplot and I make sure to create enough tension between the characters and build the slow burn. I even got some praise for my latest novel’s romantic subplot, but I digress.

Don’t let the DNF pile go to waste

We talked about what you can learn from your favorite book. But did you know you can do the same with those books that landed in the DNF (Did Not Finish) pile? No, I’m not going to ask you to finish that book. Life is too short to read books you don’t enjoy. But when you decide to abandon a book, take a pen and a paper and write down why you stopped reading that book.

It’s important to be specific. Don’t just write “it was boring.” You need to identify what made it boring (in your eyes). Here are a few pet peeves of mine that could determine me to drop a book.

Info dump. The fantasy genre suffers from info dumps more than any other genre. And since this is my preferred genre, I see this a lot. Now I’m not going to DNF a book just for a bit of info dump, but if there is nothing to hook me in from the first chapter, there’s a good chance my mind will wander…to the next book. If you’re guilty of info dumping the world-building in your stories, you might want to consider weaving those details and character’s back story along with something exciting (the inciting incident, maybe?). For instance, the first draft of Blue Shadow Prophecy had a prologue that explained how eons ago, in another realm, there were different species of supernatural creatures. Cross-species breeding was forbidden because the offsprings lacked any magical abilities. Eventually, those who broke the law and their offsprings were exiled on Earth and they became the first humans. Anyway, my prologue was a couple of pages long, full of info dump. So, I gave up on it and chose to integrate the information within the story, here and there in small bits only where it was needed.

No plot. While I love a good character driven story, there still has to be a plot. If I’m a few pages into the story and I can’t tell what is going on, there’s a good chance I’ll stop reading.

Purple prose. If I roll my eyes so much that it counts as a workout, I might not make beyond the first page. I find purple prose distracting and have no patience for it. I might be more forgiving if I’m already invested into the story and curious about what’s going on there. And that’s a testament to how important it is to hook the reader in. It’s probably why Fifty Shades of Gray was an instant success despite so many criticizing the writing. The readers enjoyed the story and ignored the writing.

Unlikable protagonist. No one wants a Mary Sue. Or maybe some do, I don’t. I like a flawed protagonist because it makes them relatable. But some writers try so hard to make the MC flawed that the result is atrocious. It’s tough for readers to empathize with an unlikable protagonist. And if you don’t root for the character, why care what happens to them? Think about morally gray characters. Even with a broken moral compass, they still have redeeming qualities that make them likable.

Excessive swearing. I don’t mind emphatic swearing in tension filled scenes, but if the character uses cuss words in every other sentence because that is how they speak (they’re not even angry), I’m going to DNF that book after the first page. Please remember that these are my pet peeves and yours could be completely different.

I believe it’s important to be aware of what makes you put down a book, so that you can avoid it in your own writing.

Does it really work?

It worked for me. One review for my debut novel mentioned the characters seemed interchangeable. So one aspect I look for when I read is what makes a character stand out. Sometimes you read a story and know who’s speaking with no dialog tag. So I took notes and worked on my characters. When a reviewed mentioned how much they loved a certain character (it was a side character), I knew I did good work.

But this is like saying that if you do your homework, you’ll get a good grade. There’s no guarantee you’ll do your homework well. So whether it will work depends on your ability to identify correctly the elements that can improve your writing. But you won’t know that until you try. The good news is that you can tinker with your writing bit by bit until you’re happy with the result.


Reading is a journey, so stop to smell the flowers and take notes of things that make you giddy, or hold your breath, or go “aww”. Whatever makes it hard to put down the book is worth deconstructing and analyzing so you can replicate in your writing. Learn to play with the reader’s emotions. Equally important, note what bothers you in books (even though the author considered it was important enough to be there), so you can avoid that mistake. Do that with every book you read and apply what you learned in your writing.