If you’re a writer, then most likely you’ll want to develop a reading curriculum. “Read a lot” is good advice, but what exactly should we be reading?
Here’s a break-down of the curriculum I’ve developed (and keep developing). My method is highly nuanced to my goals and how I learn, but I’ve tried to distill this for the sake of sharing how I work — knowing that all you writers in the crowd might get a few ideas and use them in your own practice.
Overview of it all
My reading discipline consists of the following main areas:
- Novels (fiction or nonfiction)
I will go into detail on each. I leave a review on all the novels I finish on my Goodreads page, but for the sake of demonstrating the larger principle behind how I choose what I read, I’ll still cover novels here.
1. Novels (fiction of nonfiction)
It makes sense if you’re writing novels that you should read a lot of novels. I devote 1/4 of my total reading time to reading 1 novel at a time. This comes to about 6-8 hours / week.
A quick word on method
It’s important to me to read slowly and analytically. This means I read about 10-20 pages / hour and, depending on the length of the book, take about 3-4 weeks to finish (longer if it’s an enormous book).
It’s worth stopping here just for a moment to talk about this: quality, not quantity. I’m much less interested in how many books I’ve read this year than how deeply each of these books has impacted me. 52 books read in 2018 means nothing if I haven’t taken away from each book dozens, if not hundreds, of unique impacts from interacting analytically with the text; if each book has not changed me radically as a writer and a human being.
There’s no rush! When I read, I imagine I am Bilbo Baggins and that means I have 100 more years at least to read, and oh what an adventure I’m going to have each year, with whatever is in front of me (and what stories each is going to inspire me to explore deeper in my work as a writer).
How to build your novel-reading list:
It’s easy to find a novel to read and I find my pile grows by zeitgeist, but I’ve also developed some structure to keep me from getting blinkered.
The following table is the template I follow when I decide on the order of my to-read pile:(I have this table laid out in an Excel file, but you can easily do this with a ruler and paper, or using Trello lists.)
How to proceed with reading novels by this table:
The process is simple: proceed from left-to-right, top to bottom. So on this table, for instance, you’d start with a book in the writing/editing category (more about that below), then when you complete it, move to “classic” (i.e. Oliver Twist, Wuthering Heights, etc.), then educational, etc.
I put the date next to each row so I know what span of time elapsed. For example, on the first row of my table, I have the date range June 2017 – June 2018 because that’s how long it took me to get across (Pat Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind and the dense, but wonderfully rich Guns, Germs, and Steel were the culprits for the slower pace here).
One of these sheets can represent years of your life. When you fill it up, print/make another, and away you go. You can fold it up and keep it near you and appreciate the broad vista of your reading journey in miniature.
What each column means
Now, this table is somewhat customized to my particular reading recipe. For example, I am a fantasy writer, in my heart of hearts, so it makes sense one of the 8 columns is “fantasy”. For you, replace that column with the name of your genre, i.e. thriller writer? Then this column would be thriller.
But otherwise this table has evolved through the process of surveying the major divisions into which fiction and nonfiction novels can fall, the idea being if you read books across a row, you’ll hit one of the 8 main categories, and will stay quite balanced as a writer.
I’ll talk about each briefly:
If you’re a writer, then learning more about your craft is crucial. It’s the same as a teacher having to attend PD days. There are numerous books on writing and editing and you can put them down in this column so you have a sense of which to dip into on your next pass. I have the Chicago Manual of Style on here and yes, I will read it front to back as a book, and I’m sure it’s going to increase my edge as a writer that much more.
Other books on here for me: Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern, On Writing Well by William Zinsser, Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury. Your list will differ from mine, but the idea here is the ones at the top should be the ones that you are most excited to jump into (and you can make amendments as time passes if your eagerness evolves), with the help of whiteout.
I set classics as their own category because in my mind a good balance for any writer is to dip into the books which are the foundation of the fiction-verse we are building today in the 21st century. Awareness of the novel and how it’s evolved since the 1700s is a very important perspective!
On this column’s top rows for me are Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (currently reading, 1 day from finishing), Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, and A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. These might change. The Iliad and The Odyssey are kicking at the door, though, as you’ll see below, this is what the annex is for, so they may get read in that other quarter of my reading routine.
You might notice a pattern in this list: it always alternates columns between fiction and nonfiction. I think this is very important for a writer because nonfiction styles and material will further lateralize your thinking and worldview and awareness of just what it means to be a writer.
Educational nonfiction is a category equally important, in the sense that it’s focused on learning more about the world. Textbooks can go here, as can any educational nonfiction. For example Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond is in this category because it served as a paradigm-shifting text that redefined my understanding of human history and diversity, especially the geographic and evolutionary impacts on how societies form. Can anyone say gold for a fantasy writer world-builder any stronger than that? (My thanks to L.E. Modesitt Jr. for recommending this to writers on this episode of Writing Excuses.)
Also on this list, Life In A Medieval Castle by Joseph and Frances Gies. I read Life In A Medieval City by the same authors, 2 years ago, and this is the companion. Up next for me after I finish Frankenstein will be Sapiens by Yuval Noah Hirari (as it’s the next column in my sheet). At some point, there will be a math textbook here, and a large atlas by National Geographic, special edition, that I’ve had on my shelf since I was 9.
For you, put whatever nonfiction book on here you feel will expand your education about the world and how things work.
If you write a genre of fiction, then this category can be thought of as the generalization. For for me, fantasy books do not go in here. They get their own column! But here will go all the books in genre fiction that cover other genres.
I impose a few rules here to help me further explore the waters:
-every row must switch genre
-an author only repeats after 4 rows
This creates the following beautiful effect:
- Over time, I will explore different genres
- Over time, I will explore different voices in different genres
I even go so far as to try an alternate gender, i.e. prioritize a book by a female author if I’ve read one by a male previously. Diversity is the goal here.
For example, I read The Shining by Stephen King, and as much as I want to read more by this author, I’ve pushed the next read down a few rows deliberately. Unless there’s some kind of Bradbury-esque burning of books, King’s books aren’t going anywhere. So why not dive into another after I’ve not only read books in other genres, by other authors, but also by authors of a different gender. For this reason, J.K. Rowling’s Silkworm, under her Robert Galbraith pen name is next up in genre: it’s not only a different gender author, but a different genre too (mystery).
This nonfiction column is focused on books that improve me. You might have a different goal, but I’m of a mind that this category is universal. Why not devote 1/8th of your novel-reading time on books that teach you how to be a better person.
This doesn’t just have to be self-help. It can also be books on author marketing or marketing in general, or if you’re like me and you run a business, books on how to be more productive and effective. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey is on here, as is Influence by Robert B. Cialdini (next up on my current pass across this row).
Fiction is vast, so vast that sticking to genre fiction is going to cut you off from most of the the known fictionverse. I think it’s important to have a column just for genre, if you’re a genre fiction writer, so that when you get to this fiction column, you can focus on other great literary works.
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson is a good example of a book that would fit here (and which I finished on my last pass). I also try to follow my alternating gender rule, so the next on my list is Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, despite how much I want to read Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins (I’ll get to that on the next pass).
This column might be thought of as nonfiction and “meta”-fictional. By this I mean it’s devoted to old works. Think: Virgil’s Aeneid, Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, or The Epic of Gilgamesh. Sacred texts would go here too. I plan to read through The Quran and The Vedas, as well as other key texts to the world’s major religions.
I think of this category as the one that connects you deeply to the roots of our world’s cultures, the words that all we know in our daily life are built on. As a writer, nothing can interest me more as I search for the truest, most heartfelt stories to tell.
Need I say more? Aside from what I already mentioned above, this should be home base for you. 1/8th of your novel-reading discipline is focused on knowing more about your genre. I have made a list of all the major fantasy authors, and that includes older fantasy works as well. The gender-alternation rule applies as well.
I could say a lot about reading Wikipedia as a writer. In fact, I already did, for those who haven’t read my post on how to read Wikipedia to become a better writer.
I will briefly summarize that post here, in brief, but please be sure to read that article on my Wikipedia reading method to get more background on what I’m doing here.
Reading for breadth: a caveat
I mention a caveat in that post that’s worth repeating here: Wikipedia is not sufficient to make you an expert on any topic you’re reading about. I like to think of it as reading for breadth, to complement reading for depth (which you get from the other 3 components of the overall reading curriculum).
Many writers / teachers object that Wikipedia is unreliable. This is true, in some respects. I like to think instead that it’s inconsistent. There is a degree of accountability on article accuracy and some topics have been internally challenged more than others. The general rule of thumb is, if reciting a fact you can trace back to something you read in a Wikipedia article, you better cross reference it before you place any stakes on it.
For a writer though, this whole caveat goes out the window:
The sole purpose of reading your way across the topic-verse that is Wikipedia is to get inspired, break outside of biases and limitations, and do so in a faster way. This is reading for breadth, and by that I mean roving the map to get a sense of all its contours; to complement reading for depth, where you deep-sea dive into the coves that interest you most (books, articles, artifacts).
My general rule is that my mind must get blown 10-20 times every weekday when I do my Wikipedia reading from the various nuggets of information that change how I think. That’s the quality vs. quantity part: if your aim is to learn literally everything and be smarter, you’re guaranteed to fail. When I began this endeavor, it wasn’t to get more smart, it was to get less dumb. In this regard, you can view this as a process that will only help more and more to further inform you, and this will translate into the fiction you write in thousands of interconnected ways, more and more each day / week / year you invest in the practice.
My main Wikipedia tracks
I talk about creating reading tracks for Wikipedia reading in my longer article on the process. Here are the 7 tracks I use:
- Major topic
- Minor topics
I read Wikipedia for 50-75 minutes, Monday-Friday, and during this period I will cycle through all 7 of these, spending about 7-15 minutes on each (the time always depends on where specifically I’m at in any given article).
Currently, I’m reading my way through the English monarchs. I began with William I and just today arrived at Elizabeth II (this took me about a year).
A quick note: when I say “read” I mean I read each article top to bottom, no skimming. I do follow linked articles, with the rule that, unless very short, I read only the summary to get a sense of the topic. No following links within those linked articles — that leads to hell.
The English monarchy was my starter lineage. You might wonder why I didn’t start with Alfred the Great, and that’s a great way to make an important point: there is no beginning but what you make it, since you’ll be able to double back to earlier lines each time you finish one.
For instance, when I’m done with the English monarchy, I plan to sweep back to Julius Caesar then read my way forward along a much longer arc, by way of the Roman Emperors. I will continue forward in time and follow various branches, such as Popes, Western and Eastern Emperors, French Monarchs, Spanish Monarchs, and so on. The rulers of Wessex may factor into this (probably when I read up on the lines for the 7 kingdoms that merged into England), in which case I will reconnect to that partial thread that evolved into the English monarchy.
I’ll update this page periodically as more of that picture unfolds.
2. Major topic
My major topic is math, so this is where my reading might not interest you. If you want to follow the same principle, pick your major topic and work sequentially over its main branching articles. Read my Wikipedia article for more explanation on the method.
You might wonder why as a fantasy writer I’ve chosen mathematics as my focus (why not epic fantasy?). I think this is a good demonstration that one can write fantasy and bring in diverse interests, so as to make that fantasy even more unique. It’s no wonder that my magic system, and the world-building at its core, is highly based on a mathematically-endowed beings (the Dwarf Men), though I promise readers of my books, this will remain background except for those who want to delve into my world-building appendices.
3. Minor topics
You can think of this as the larger parent tree from which the particular major topic you choose branches. What I’ve done is make a list of all the topics I can think of. There are about 40 on this list right now. Here are some of them, so you get the idea:
My main objective is to read my way through the main articles for each topic, i.e. cosmology, psychology, science, medicine, computer science, economics, law, business, etc. Then occasionally, double back on a topic I found interesting and read the main branching topic articles in it. For example, philosophy. I want to go back and read through the articles on the major divisions within this topic (i.e. knowledge, western philosophy, Islamic philosophy, etc). When finished, I’ll resume working my way through the main topic list.
The list will grow a bit as time goes on, each time I think of another vast topic that’s worth exploring. This way each time I finish one article, I have plenty to choose from.
My original reason for wanting to add a linguistic track to my Wikipedia reading was to gain a broader appreciation for the different languages in the world and how they work, the idea being that this will further inform how I use my own language, English, when I write stories. (It also helps me make more realistic languages in my fantasy world.)
So, I started at the top, reading the article on language. After reading it through, I decided I would maintain a meta-focus for a while before going into a survey of the main language branches, then starting to read more about some of the 6,000 languages of our world.
Of course I’ll never get anywhere close to reading about all of them, but the point of this process is to always give me a sense of “where to next?” that will drive me forward like the narrative of a story.
Just like with language, I started meta on this one by making my parent article the list of sovereign states. As with language, it will take a while before I begin reading about the individual nations/states/regions of the world, but this time in the dugout is important to appreciate just what “nation” means, and how this concept has formed (and is forming) in our world today.
I’ll update this as I go, but for now it’s safe to expect once I finish the main branches of the parent article, I will focus on the commonwealth states, then the original 51 states of the UN.
Should I wish, as I proceed, I can read about the divisions of states, or former states no longer in existence, by way of doubling back. But the overall logic behind this track is I can always be reading about the world from a geographic lens.
Reading with a chronological lens is also useful because it allows me to follow stories not tied to a region / individual. For example, I can read about the Middle Ages, ancient history, World War II, or the major battles of the War of the Roses. It also broadens my perspective a lot to avoid the tunnel vision I’d get by sticking to history through dynasties (i.e. English monarchy tells me a lot, but what was happening in Japan? China? Southeast Asia? America?).
As with the previous two list-based tracks, I started at the top with the timeline of world history article. From here, it lets me read through all the major divisions and sub-divisions of historic events.
There are more than 100,000,000 books in existence (according to Google). I’ll be lucky if in my lifetime I can read 2,000. But meanwhile, I want to have a bit of a survey of the major books and read summaries of a wider vista, so I created this track.
- Narrative (currently reading)
This one is not as easy to navigate, so I’m following my nose a little. You can use this as your guide (just be sure to refresh the page as every time I finish an article, I’ll be adding it to the tree). If you prefer not to, then the general principle is to start with the parent article (i.e. fiction or nonfiction) then read the main topics branching from it.
For example, within the narrative article I’m reading, the first paragraphs are a goldmine of major branching links, i.e. anecdote, myth, legend, short stories, novels, etc. I’ll likely branch off on those before I go back in and start reading about all the specific genres of fiction and more on representative authors and works.
8. NO MORE TRACKS
As much as I could keep going with this, I’ve set a limit, because I want to be able to spend 5-15 minutes / day on each one.
This brings up an important caveat: the goal isn’t to read all of Wikipedia.
The main purpose is to learn several interesting things every day. These tracks just keep that happening in a way that drives it all like the narrative of a story. Otherwise, reading Wikipedia is no different than reading an encyclopedia — there’s no order or structure to make it cohesive.
The story that comes together as you invest in this process evolves into beautiful perspectives over time, as you appreciate your progress, and how it can continue and continue. And Wikipedia will only continue to evolve into a more efficient epicenter of information as time and our technology progresses.
Articles are the other major component to reading.
I read from a curated mix that, like with Wikipedia and novels, I’ve created to try and balance me across my biggest areas of concern. It’s quite simple:
- Every article of every issue of Scientific American
- Every article of every issue of National Geographic
- Every article of every issue of Discover Magazine
- Every article of every issue of Writer’s Digest
- Every article of every issue of Nutrition Action
- Every article in the occasional miscellaneous magazine (i.e. Wildlife)
When I say I read every article, I mean that. I even will read ads and study pictures, this more as a writing exercise where I try to notice details about composition and how I would describe these, and what I can learn or appreciate differently.
On Saturday, I read:
- Articles in email that I starred during the week (includes links to online articles I’ve decided are worth reading)
- Highbrow courses
- Other longer emails that require attention (i.e. author submissions)
On Saturday, I also always finish whatever magazine I’m reading. I read 1 magazine per week. I find this pace, with Saturday as catch-up-if-needed day, lets me read all those magazines listed above.
I also read the weekend issue of the local paper, The Winnipeg Free Press. I try to read it all. Even the obituaries. Actually, those are probably the most inspiring to read as a writer, not just the details of real lives lived, but the perspective through which those lives are told. My favorite one so far? “Goodnight.” That was all — nothing else, not even a funeral announcement. That had my creative brain going for a while (still does).
Reading the paper was the one part of reading I resisted the most, but I’ve been surprised. I would now say that, of all the things I read, the articles in the paper are a goldmine (x 1,000) for storytelling.
But there’s more behind my decision to read every article: I don’t want to be one of those people whose opinions about world events are based only on reacting to headlines or skimmed summary, but rather on the nitpicking details, all the angles behind different issues. I try not to have an opinion, since as a writer I feel my role is to focus on what’s behind the opinions one might draw from the basic details. This leads me to tap into more interesting characters, conflicts, and moral arguments than I’d come up with on my own.
Occasionally I just want to throw all the structure out and read freely. When I do this, I have a pile of things I like to think of as the annex.
The annex is what it sounds like. It’s the extra space where I can build a completely random reading queue, for that reading I might want to do above and beyond my targeted reading.
For example, my editor for my book gave me targeted reading on surrealism, and as I’ve tackled this reading, I’ve put it here. I also use this to explore wild cards, like comics or graphic novels. Beta reading, when applicable (but I do say no to 99% of requests because as you can imagine, this annex is small and must be filled with care).
5. Beyond all this…
Structuring reading time means having to say no to a lot of things, and be okay with that.
That said, I do practice skimming. Once in a while, usually on my breaks (I work in 25-minute blocks and take 4 minute breaks between), I’ll wander into a post or chat thread. I try to see what I’m missing, but admit I miss a lot.
A simple technique I use to add blogs or online articles that come up during the week:
1) Open a compose email in my email
2) Copy link to article in body
3) Subject: name of article
4) Email to myself
5) Open email and star it
This means I’ll read it as part of my Saturday star email reading. There, done. Now I can get back to work without getting off track.
There are a lot of great blogs and other feeds. I’m missing those. But I’m not missing them.
I feel inundated by information, especially online. I avoid it all as much as possible. I’m quite active on Twitter for the networking and for promotion, but when I’m on there, it’s to connect and share and be open to opportunities.
I don’t feel like I actually get to read until I’m unplugged, and that’s the whole reason for developing the system I’ve developed. Take this or leave it, but my hope is if nothing else you’ll see the idea behind it and it will inspire you to create your own system so you can read with more purpose. There are so many books and articles out there, and our time is limited, very very limited (with respect to how much there is to read); therefore, there isn’t even a minute to waste on reading the wrong thing.
Some last words
I’ve been criticized by some other writers about how I read. “You take the joy of out reading, making it so systematic,” would be a common kind of comment I’ve heard in conversation.
While this may be true, it’s also true that any job takes the fun out of the activity (in a sense). For instance, if I had to make espressos and fancy drinks at Starbucks for a living (which I once did), I wouldn’t have the same fun making those drinks as I would making them for myself at home for friends.
The same goes with reading as a writer. What I’m doing with this method is defining reading as a job. Like any job, I want to do it as best as I can. Why? Because I fully believe (and have seen results) reading is as critical to my writing skill as triceps workouts are important to bicep curls for overall arm strength.
For the record, I don’t find this takes the joy out of reading at all! In fact, I love my job! I have even more fun seeing how this practice is evolving and growing. I also enjoy how every day I read I learn several small things that change me in large ways.
If you’re resisting this kind of structured practice because you’re afraid it’s going to take the joy out of reading, then I’d suggest you challenge that assumption. Reading might be fun right now, but with more tactics and strategy, you’ll trade in fun for deeply rewarding, and never look back.