How to Read Like A Published Writer

Written by Caitlin Jans | February 27, 2017

I was a reader long before I was a writer. As a child I fell in love with books like The Balloon Tree, A Wrinkle in Time and Ramona Quimby, Age 8.  That love of books has never left me.

When I was a teenager I remember being shocked by the fact that most of the adults around me didn’t read more than one book a year. But they all told me that they were busy, and when I was older I would understand, and I wouldn’t have time to read.

I now read around a hundred books a year. I did that before I had a full time job. I continued to read that much after getting a full time job and getting married. When I was pregnant I assumed having a child would change all that. And while becoming a mother has changed every aspect of my life, I still read one hundred books every year. I am not counting children’s book either. The habit of reading is such a part of me that while other things have gone by the wayside (watching anything), no matter how busy I am, I always make sure I have time to read, even if it is just ten minutes before bed.

I believe that reading is an important part of being a writer. I think of it as part of my job as a writer to continue reading. There is a lot of attention paid to the idea that writers have to read to be good writers, and that is true. But I think to be a published writer you don’t just have to read, you have to read strategically, in a way that supports your life as a published writer.

If you are not convinced that you have to read to become a writer at all, the article is for you.

If you want to learn how to read in a way that best supports your career as a published writer, this is the article for you. You might already be doing a few of these things, but you are probably not doing all of them. As a published poet with three collections under my belt, and an aspiring novelist, I feel all of these steps have helped me get where I am, and they are going to help me get further.

Read the Genre You Write in

I know a lot of authors who write young adult (YA) fiction and don’t actually read it. A friend of mine who is writing a YA novel confessed that the last YA book she read was in high school. She is now in her fifties.  The same goes for literary fiction, surprisingly. I think this is less likely to happen in genres like science fiction, but I might be incorrect.

I am going to use YA as the example genre in this section because most people have some familiarity with it. Even if that familiarity is dated.

Even if you don’t love the genre you’re writing in, you should be reading it. You should have read the classics. In the YA genre that includes books like The Outsiders and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. You should also have read at least three books that have been published in that genre in the last few years, if not more.

This is important for a number of reasons. If you don’t read within your genre you don’t understand what is standard and what is not, what is controversial and what is just par for the course. You can’t come in with just a one book filter, if all you read of YA was Divergent your filter would be very different than from someone who had only read The Fault in Our Stars.

The more you read in your chosen genre the more you can learn from the good choices (and the mistakes) that other authors make. One of the YA books I read and loathed, had a very well written fight scene. The book was mostly a waste of time but that one scene really helped me write one of the most important scenes in my own novel. Of course, you can learn some of those lessons outside of your genre, but not always.

You need to read books that have been recently published

First, you learn what is being published right now and who is publishing it.  But even more importantly, at least from a publication standpoint, is that many publishers and agents want you to compare your book to two or more recently published books in your query letter.  The more you read, the more accurate those comparisons can be.

It is important to read outside of your genre too. I think the best writers are diverse readers who read a whole range of writing.

Research for your book with books

I love researching on the internet. It is so easy to look up facts. The novel I wrote relies a lot on geography and so I found myself Googling a large number of maps and also asking the internet specific questions, like “how long does it take to get from Venice to Umag by boat?”.

But in order to get deeper into the lives my characters really lead, I had to read books. The internet is a great way to resolve specific questions, or look at maps or pictures, but much of the information lacks depth.

My book involves refugees in transit between countries. I found that while podcasts helped, nothing beats a good long book for really conveying the experience. Not all stories require research, but if yours does, including books as part of your research is always a good idea, because the information is more likely to be correct and because books tend to go far deeper into a subject.

Pay attention to the publishers

The first thing I do when I see a book is look at the publisher. Now it seems obvious to me. But for over two decades I read books without, for the most part, noticing who published them. Most readers don’t notice the publishers, and if they do it is just in passing.

If I have never heard of a publisher before and I enjoyed the book I usually look the publisher up and do research on them. If the same publisher has published a number of books that have something in common with mine, I add their name to my “To Submit” File.

I have learned quite a lot by paying attention to who publishes the books I read. Some of it is relevant to what I write, and most of it is not. for example I know a lot about children’s book publishers because my child loves books, but I don’t ever plan to write one. Still, that information helps me be more informed about how publishing works. It is part of the bigger picture.

Even if you are not submitting directly to a publisher, it helps to know what publisher might be a good fit for your book. Author friends of mine who have mentioned the potential publisher for their novel in their agent query have had a very high success rate of landing an agent, and often a publisher that way.

Browse in bookstores, buy in bookstores

When I go into a bookstore I also pay attention to a publisher. Sometimes, if I have read an eBook that I like and the publisher claims to have good distribution, I look for the print version in the book store. If I can’t find it, I ask the booksellers about it. At a good bookstore they often know if they carry that publisher or not. The same goes for publishers I have read about online but am not otherwise familiar with.

Browsing through a bookstore educates you in many ways. You should be looking at covers. What trends are prevalent right now? What subjects seem well covered? What books seem to move? What are the booksellers recommending?

What a lot of people do now is browse in bookstores but buy elsewhere. Often just taking pictures of the covers of the books they want to buy. This is not good. Good independent bookstores help authors sell books. They support independent publishers. They help raise children into readers with story hours.  It is important to support their financial health and ongoing existence.

Read the Front Matter and Back Matter

Front and back matter are a wealth of information, particularly in certain genres. Front matter is everything before the actual text of the book. Things like the table of contents and acknowledgements.  Back matter includes bibliography and authors bio.

The acknowledgments and the authors bio can often be the most helpful parts of books. Acknowledgments often reveal the author’s agent (if they have one) and editor (many who freelance, and who you could theoretically hire to polish your book).

In the case of poetry and short story collections acknowledgments are very helpful because they reveal where the author’s work has been published before, what journals and magazines have published them. The literary journals listed in there are usually a mix of the established and known (such as the New Yorker) and newer up and coming journals that are still becoming established but are most likely already respected within the publishing community.

Focus on submitting to those literary journals and magazines and your odds of having a full collection published usually increases dramatically.


Bio: Caitlin Jans is a poet, a novelist, and the editor of Authors Publish Magazine. Her writing can be found in The Conium Review, The Moth, Labletter, Literary Mama, and elsewhere. You can follow her on Facebook.