Good teachers will always recommend that you “read and…” Which means that you read and look for solutions for problems you have in your own writing, build your vocabulary, discover what excites you as a reader, watch how the dialogue unfolds, etc. And one of the best ways to launch your analysis is to ask questions of the author.
Let’s say you’re writing non-fiction. In that case, the books you’re studying will give you the stakes up front. They will tell you what to expect, what question they intend to pose and answer, and, essentially, what they will conclude (although they might be coy about that last bit).
Therefore, you can immediately ask the first question: Will this book center/expand/challenge my work?
If so, keep reading and form new questions about pacing, approach, tone, organization, burden of proof, etc. If you think the book won’t help you…move on. I know that seems cutthroat, but if you tried to read every non-fiction piece on your topic, or in your field/genre, you’d never finish reading. So, make your chosen literature state their case and win you over upfront.
(That said, don’t be frustrated with yourself if it takes you a little while to learn your field and decide which books are worth your time. Book reviews are helpful here, as long as you’re willing to push back against the critics if something works for you when it doesn’t work for them.)
If you are writing fiction, your books should also give you the stakes upfront, but it’ll take the first few chapters. In those chapters, start formulating your questions—does this seem to do a lot with character? Am I interested? Am I hooked? Is this world blowing my mind? Is this plot well-organized? If the answer to any of those is “oh hell yes” and you trust the author to teach you something, continue reading.
Remember, there is no shame in putting a book down and discontinuing it. If you’re looking to learn, and the book isn’t teaching you, figure out what’s missing, keep that as your lesson, and then blow that popsicle stand.
Track what you know you have trouble with
If you find that you trust the book in your hand—fiction or non-fiction—then you’re going to want to read once for the sheer joy of it, and once to educate yourself.
Sometimes you can combine joy and education. With brilliant non-fiction, I tend to do joy and note-taking simultaneously, scribbling in the margins, relating segments to my own work, covering pages with post-its, taking days to ponder a single sentence, writing essays on thoughts it brings to mind, and just generally masticating the book until I’ve devoured it whole.
With brilliant fiction, I absolutely read twice. The first time, I just sink into the world, the characters, the conflicts, the angst, and let everything resonate at a deep and painful level. I let the book expose my vulnerabilities to me, let my soul sit open for a while, and then spend some time sewing myself back up. The second time, I read with an analytical eye, trying to figure out how the hell a book, by a person I’ve never met, flayed me.
Often, great writing has to do with extraordinary dialogue. If you struggle with dialogue, keep a running document of your favorite exchanges and practice writing similar exchanges with your own characters.
Other times, great writing has to do with pacing. In those cases, I open an excel chart and write out the sheer basics of what happens chapter by chapter, highlighting the moments that deeply affected me, so I can see how an author spread out the story—where they sped up, where they slowed down, where they introduced new conflict, where they resolved things.
More than anything, I find I’m taken in by “dialogue tags,” or those little beats that happen in lieu of “he said/she said.” I love watching how authors use body language, inner dialogue, or bigger movements to direct a scene, and I write down anything that makes me go, “ohhhh….I can see this emotion.”
More than anything, remember that it’s the author’s job to move you, or inspire you.
In those cases you find a book that leaves you breathless, feeling magical, uplifted, joyful, inspired, brilliant…lean into it. Let the feeling wash over you like you’ve been caught in the rain. Then write down your most electric thoughts, your rawest emotions, without censuring yourself. Spew it onto the page, even if it’s embarrassing, and certainly if it’s honest.
Then, go back and harvest whatever truth you uncovered.