Building Your Reading List as a Writer
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Building Your Reading List as a Writer

For the most part, successful writers are also readers. For one, a love of reading often propels people into writing as a pastime. For another, the very act of reading builds skills and feeds the well of creativity in writers. In his interesting book, On Writing, Stephen King talks about the important connection between reading and writing: ” If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

Building Your Reading List as a Writer QuoteSo, reading and writing are conjoined activities, and a question we need to ask ourselves is did we do enough reading last year? And how can we make our reading even more valuable to us as writers this year? Here’s how to build your reading list from a writerly perspective.

Keep a Journal

A reading journal is a vital tool for anyone wanting to increase the number of books they read, and how much they get out of the act of reading. For most of us, reading is a pleasure and we don’t have to be jollied into doing it. Unfortunately, we’re trying to fit it into a busy schedule and we spend more time wishing we were reading than we actually spend reading. A reading journal can help with that.

One of the things you want to do first is pick a journal you like. For me, a visual I enjoy being around goes a long way toward using a journal in real life. So I’ll splurge on something I like. I also prefer the journals that have dots over the ones that have lines. With dots, I can draw diagrams on the page easily or maybe sketch images that relate to the book I’m reading. For instance, I’m fascinated with maps, so books with maps, especially if they use interesting elements make me want to remember them. I prefer to pick journals with blank covers in pretty colors, then put stickers on them. Honestly, I love stickers. I’m a kid that way.

Once you’ve chosen your journal, then you need to decide what you want to record. First, you’ll put in the title of the book you’re reading as well as the name of the author, the number of pages perhaps, or number of chapters. I like to include mention of unusual items like whether the book used chapter titles, if it had a prologue, and a description of the cover image. All of this will help me remember this specific book right away when I’m flipping through my journal. Also, sometimes surprising patterns can appear that you barely noticed when you were reading the book.

For example, middle grade books are skewing slightly shorter and many publishers are actively telling agents they’d like to see shorter books. And that pattern will show itself if you read a lot of new middle Building Your Reading List as a Writer CANVA Journalgrade books and record the page numbers. I also like to make notes about illustrations or the cover if I’m struck by something about them.

While I’m reading, I carry my journal around with me and try to record at least one thing from each reading session. If I read a chapter, what struck me about it? Did it seem to move slower than the rest of the book? Or maybe faster? What characters appeared in the chapter? Did they do anything that felt purposeful? Also, I’ll jot down turns of phrase that I really liked or bits of dialogue I really liked. I’ll jot down regionalisms that made me really believe in the setting or character. If I like how the author described something, I may jot that down. I may not ever revisit these bits, but the human brain is wired to pay extra attention to something if we write it down. It gets filed under “important” in our brains and our brains will simmer and learn from these bits simply because we wrote them down.

When I finish a book, I’ll write a review in my journal, listing things I admired and things I felt missed the mark. The journal will never be shared with anyone, so feel free to be critical if you feel critical. And we learn as much from what we didn’t like as we do from what liked. It’s all valuable. I’ll also make a note if I want to visit more of this author’s work.

Read Writing Skill Books

When choosing books to read this year, consider a mix of books for pleasure and books for purpose. You may read mentor texts for purpose, books that have gotten massively positive reviews and a lot of buzz, but you may also choose to read skill books for purpose. I make it a point to read skill books and books specifically about the publishing industry every single year. There is always something new to learn, no matter how long you’ve been writing or how much success you’ve had.

When choosing skill books to read, I often make a list of the skills I feel like I could work on, or the areas of publishing I feel I don’t know much about. For me, books that explain areas of publishing are also “skill books” because when I understand an area of publishing better, I will interact with it better. If I feel I need to brush up on my grammar skills, I might read a solid grammar-related book. I’ll probably choose something that offers voice and fun with the grammar, as I do get bored easily. If I feel there are areas of publishing I find interesting but don’t know much about, I may pick up books related to that area of the publishing industry.

As a result, I’ve read books about writing romance novels, and books about writing science fiction and books about writing horror. Niche genre books really drill down into what defines a genre and help me see ways I might bring elements of one genre into another. Even picture book writers can benefit from understanding genre, because picture books that include elements of westerns or science fiction or noir or even horror can be fun. Once you know the genre, you can morph it into whatever you want.

Building Your Reading List as a Writer CANVA Love ReadingI will also include at least one skill book every year that focuses on something connected with submissions. I may read a book that focuses on query letters or one that focuses on agents. The more I know about submissions and how different writers approach it, the more I can find my own path using the information as stepping stones to the way that works best for me. Knowing how submissions work and how the industry, in general, works will also help keep me from falling for any of the unfortunate myths that spring up around writing and submissions. It can also help avoid taking everything in the process quite so personally.

Read in Your Writing Love

Smart writers read deeply in the areas they write. I’ve heard writers say they never read anything in their actual genre or niche because they don’t want to be “influenced” by other writers. These writers worry about losing their voice or letting the conventions of the genre bind up their creativity. I don’t ever worry about that sort of thing.

First, I know it would be impossible to lose my writing voice as it comes out of who I am and the experiences that I’ve had, and at the same time, I accept that my writing voice will evolve simply because I’m always changing. Reading books won’t do anything to my writing voice that simply being alive doesn’t do. Since reading a book won’t fundamentally change who I am, it also won’t have a lot of effect on my writing voice. I may temporarily find myself trying out some new things, but those things will either stick or be revised away based on whether they resonate with who I am.

What I find from reading in the areas I enjoy writing is that it’s a boon to my creativity. By showing me all the many ways different authors approach a given genre or format or whatever, I free up my own creativity to try new things and go new places. Reading extensively in my niche broadens the niche for me and makes it less likely I’ll end up writing the same book over and over.

And honestly, it’s so enjoyable to read the books I love. I write in that genre because I love them. Part of a reading list for the new year should be about joy. Read the books that give you joy. For me, when an author I love comes out with a new book and I get my hands on it, it’s like getting a present. I get a little giddy. Reading has always been like that for me. It’s extra special that the reading is also helping me with my writing.

Expand Your Reading Options

This year, make it a point to add something in a genre you don’t normally read to your reading list. Maybe something you don’t even think you like. Ask friends who love that genre for recommendations. Then dive in and see what it might have to show you. Maybe you’ll end up still not caring for zombie novels or teen romance, but maybe you’ll see what that genre does well. I’ve always said that if you really want to learn how to make readers care about a character fast, read really well-crafted horror since characterization is essential to making the scares work. When you read a book in whatever genre you don’t normally read, ask yourself, “What is required of writers in this genre in order to make the book work? How did the writer accomplish it?” When you know the answers to those questions, you will have gained a nugget that will help you with your writing.

Building Your Reading List as a Writer CANVA Emma by Jane AustenOne thing I plan to add to my reading this year is at least one classic. In 2023, I read A.A. Milne’s novel for adults, The Red House Mystery. Finding Milne’s very distinct voice in such a wildly different genre was fascinating. I enjoyed the book, though I could see its flaws, but I can also learn things from books I don’t really like at all. I was discussing Pride and Prejudice (a book I do not like, sorry Austen lovers) with my daughter recently, and while I talked about my feelings about the novel and the specific elements that annoyed me, I also found a new admiration for the author even though I still don’t like that book.

In classic literature, there is almost always something I find wearisome, but there are also the seeds of all the books we have today. That makes it worthwhile to read really old books and see the things they have to teach us. I’ve never read Austen’s Emma, so maybe I’ll do that one this year. We’ll see what it might teach me. If you’re expanding your reading options this year, may I strongly suggest you add a classic? See what the past has to teach authors in the present.

So, good luck with your reading list. Take up your reading journal and join me in a year of discovering great books, bad books, and all the many things they can show us.

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With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.

3 Comments

  1. Jan,

    That was a deeply fascinating article about reading and writing. You used a few phrases that really resonated with me and my ‘voice’. Thanks for a refreshing inside look into the heart of a devoted reader and writer. I totally agree
    with your philosophy “If you love to read, eventually you will want to start writing yourself”. It’s a natural evolution…people who watch painting instructors grow the urge to paint, and so on. It’s the “Well, I could do that too…maybe better” mentality of truly creative people. Subjects that fascinate me go on to prompt me to begin my own creating along the same line – I paint, write, design jewelry, and participate in nature. Currently wrapped up in assisting the raising of Monarch butterflies. You just never know what’s next!
    Former student and graduate of the ICL
    instruction,
    GG
    P.S. I still maintain a friendship with my ICL instructor ?

  2. Hi Gail,

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments. I’m glad the essay resonated with you. That’s so cool about the Monarch butterflies. I love butterflies. The process of remaking themselves to go from caterpillar to butterfly is amazing.

  3. Dear Jan,
    Before I read your article, I had no clear direction on how to proceed with a reading list. I’m so grateful for your insight regarding reading in other genres. You’ve given me a purpose to read in genres that I otherwise would have avoided. Thanks to your helpful suggestions, I am excited to begin a reading journal today!
    Thank you,
    Mary

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