Some common advice given to writers is to read. See how other authors put together books. Learn to write by studying their craft.
It’s great advice. As a writer, bringing intentionality and critical thinking to my everyday reading has been some of the best professional training.
But how do you read like a writer? What is a writer supposed to be looking for?
As I learn from other writers and editors, the list of what I pay attention to in a captivating book just grows longer. I want to start, today, with a list of five. And, to make it even more specific, I’m going to focus on nonfiction (that’s any memoir or teaching/self-help book). If you’re looking to write your own nonfiction book, here are five important ways to pay attention.
Table of Contents: how to organize a book
Read like a writer: Spend some time in the Table of Contents (TOC).
To be honest, as a reader, I used to skip right over the TOC (and any foreword or introduction). I wanted to get right to the good stuff.
Now I like to linger on that page. The TOC helps me anticipate what I’ll be reading. Not that it takes the surprise out of reading: it just helps me categorize the information in my head—helping me remember it.
As a writer, I like to look at TOCs because it shows me the structure of the book. I ask myself:
- What did they decide to put at the beginning, middle, or end?
- Are there any obvious sections? How are these arranged?
- How does the author lead the reader through the content?
The TOC also helps you with naming chapters for your own book. Evaluate the chapter titles for yourself:
- Are they descriptive?
- Can you anticipate the content?
- Are they engaging?
- Do they leave you curious about that chapter?
- Do they seem like they belong together or does one seem like an outlier?
By reflecting on a book’s TOC, you can start to organize your own book. See if anything this author does helps you unlock the pattern of your own story. And if a chapter of your own doesn’t seem like it fits, think about taking it out!
Story Questions: how to keep a reader interested
Read like a writer: Look for story questions.
These are a little more difficult to point out (they are not as clearly labeled as a TOC), but they are essential to keep a reader interested. Story questions are what I, the reader, wonder as I go through the book. What questions keep me turning the page?
As you read the content of the book, pay attention to your inner-dialogue. Ask yourself what interests you. Ask yourself if you are bored. When your curiosity is piqued, take out a highlighter. What made you interested? What are you hoping to find out as you read more?
The answers to this can be simple or deep. In Tara Westover’s Educated (a memoir), readers ask questions like, “What difference does an education make?” and “What does it mean to grow up?” Sometimes a question is so straightforward that it can be too obvious to see. For Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, readers want to know how to become effective people. How do I master efficiency? That question keeps us reading.
Beginnings and Endings: how to start and how to keep going
Read like a writer: Notice beginnings and endings.
If readers remember anything, it’s the beginning and the end: whether that’s a paragraph, a chapter, or an entire book, beginnings and endings are crucial for priming the reader for what’s ahead, getting their attention, reminding them of the important points, and keeping their attention. Oftentimes, this is where editorial work concentrates. Take out a highlighter or a pen—or make a comment in your kindle—whenever you come to a beginning or end. There’s not a right or wrong way to begin or end: only styles. See what the author of your book does. Notice its effect on you. Does it work for you? What seems effective (or not)?
Endings are particularly interesting, because there’s really only one end: and that’s at the end of the final chapter (and sometimes not even then–for those of you writing trilogies). “Endings” serve many purposes: they help people comprehend the previous material in a deeper way (make the lessons “click”), but they also keep you interested. In my opinion, a great finish to a chapter leaves me with a feeling of completion but also with curiosity for more.
Back Cover: why this book interests a reader
Read like a writer: Turn the book over and study the back cover.
If you eventually want to write a book proposal (more on book proposals here), you’ll have to write a back cover, so take some notes on how it’s done. Remember, this is one of the first places a potential buyer will turn. It’s important to emphasize what the might gain from doing the work of reading.
The back cover also introduces the author and explains why they are writing this book. For aspiring authors, this can feel intimidating! But, remember, you don’t have to have a degree to be qualified to write. If you speak from experience, highlight that.
Title and Subtitle: how to focus a book
Read like a writer: Compare different book titles and subtitles.
As obvious as this one is, it’s an easy piece to breeze past. We pick up a book, and we dive in. Take a look at different titles–a lot of them. Can you spot any trends? What about subtitles? Ask yourself what “works” for you. What makes a great title, in your opinion?
Titles are one place that authors can get really stuck. It’s actually one of the least important pieces of the early writing process (titles change so, so often in the process of writing and editing). Why I suggest people pay attention to titles of books they read is because, similar to a back cover, a title points to purpose. In writing, focus is one the most difficult parts of the process. The more you can repeat why this book matters to a reader and what your point is, the better.
Want to start writing today? Check out our Prepare to Publish Self Study online course, and learn exactly how to outline a book and bring it into the world.