Mastering this may take some time or it may be a natural extension of your more concentrated focus on writing tips and techniques. Either way, it’s something I believe is important to know.
But what does “reading like a writer” mean?
Books take on a different significance once you’ve written (or even decided to write) one. Suddenly they’ve become competition or sources of inspiration, ways to make you sure of your success or certain of your failure. Whatever the case, reading like a writer means diving deeper into the book than just a surface read.
If you like a book—you find yourself skipping over words just to get to the next page faster and so involved in the story that putting it down is like contemplating cutting your arm off—stop. Why are you so connected to this book? What about this book makes you want to devour everything in it? Is it the characters? The narrative? Does the author make new points about old themes in an inventive and original way? Is the world so fully realized that you feel as though you are a character in the book yourself? Whatever it is, figure it out. Know what it is that makes YOU love books and hold onto that—use it in your own writing.
If you don’t like a book, what made this happen? Was it the trite descriptions? Were the characters one-dimensional? Did they act out of character just to move the plot along? Does the world seem more like a cardboard cutout movie set than a real place? Are the descriptions terse and unhelpful? Are they overlong and superfluous? Is it the lack of purpose or drive? Or is everything very well done, but you find yourself hating every character in the book so much that you can’t read it (this has happened to me)? Whatever it is, figure it out. Know what it is that makes YOU hate books and remember that—NEVER use it in your own writing.
Reading like a writer is allowing your inner editor—that voice in your head that you lock away while working on a first draft—free reign. Let it ask questions (Why did they choose to put this scene here instead of at the end of the chapter?) and make comments (I would have made the difference between these two countries a little more obvious). Let it look at sentence structure or word choice and make changes (Didn’t they just say this? This whole repeated scene could definitely have been cut out.) and listen to what it has to say. The changes you would make to other people’s writing can give you a big clue to the way you write. If you’re always itching to cut flowery, extensive sentences into pieces, you may have a simpler style than even you realized. If you groan every time an author uses the same word too many times, learn to pay attention to that in your own work.
Most of all, let the lessons of those who have already done what you want to do teach you. Learn from their mistakes and figure out how to avoid making them yourself.