How to Read Like an Editor: 5 Tips to Make the Most of Every Book You Read


There’s an oft-quoted piece of writing advice from Stephen King that goes like this:

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

As a writer, it’s your job to read just as much as it’s your job to write. But what should you read, how, how much, and why?

Here are my best tips to read like an editor.

Writers Read, and so do Editors

But first, a confession.

For years, I shared that Stephen King quote with writers, encouraging them to read as much as they can.

And all that time, the secret I kept hidden was, my own reading habits were slipping.

There have been long periods of my life when I’ve been a voracious reader. When I was in middle and high school, bringing a new book to school every day because I finished the last one on the bus the afternoon before. When I was traveling the world after college, spending endless hours on buses and planes and trains with nothing to entertain me but a book. When I moved to a new city and didn’t yet have friends or demands on my time, the best thing to do was read.

But somehow, not long after I started editing novels, my reading started trending downwards.

For a while, I excused it. I’d think, whew, I’m glad that Stephen King was specifically talking about writers in that quote. It’d be a real problem for me if my skill as an editor depended in part on my reading, because I’m not reading—at least, not like I used to read.

And then one day, I thought—wait a second. As an editor, my role is to step into a writer’s manuscript and teach them how to make it even better.

If I’m helping writers create books, would that not give me an even greater obligation to read so I know what we’re aiming to create? Shouldn’t I be reading maybe even more than writers?

My Journey Back to Reading

In 2019, 2020, and 2021, I averaged reading about twenty-one books per year.

Then I had that wakeup call. And I decided that for the good of the writers I work with, for the good of their books, for the good of my own craft, and for the good of reconnecting with the passion for books that drove me to become an editor in the first place . . .

. . . I needed to change my relationship with reading.

So in 2022, I set myself a goal: I’d read fifty books that year. I surpassed it for a total of fifty-eight books.

I thought, I’m on a roll—let’s see how far we can take it! And I increased my goal to 60 books for 2023.

So far, I’ve read forty-two books, and I’m five books ahead of my goal.

As a result of my new approach to reading, I’m more up-to-date on current book trends.

I have more comparison novels to recommend to writers to help them craft their own stories.

I’m constantly being inspired and challenged by the books I read, because every time I read a book, I’m testing it to see whether it holds up to the storytelling principles I use in my editing, and whether the editing approaches I take could help a writer craft a book like this one.

And best of all, I’ve reconnected with my love of books and reading.

There are so many amazing stories in the world! I discovered that as a child when I first fell in love with reading, and I’m rediscovering it every time I encounter a new novel that absolutely enchants me.

Each and every time I read a book that becomes a new favorite, I feel once again what an honor and a delight it is to get to do the work that I do with writers every single day, helping people tell great stories.

What’s Your Relationship to Reading?

So why am I sharing all this? Why am I giving you a bit of a mini-confessional about how for a long time, I let my reading habits atrophy?

Well, I think part of me hopes that I’m not the only one who’s felt like this. Maybe you’ve encountered a reading slump, too. Maybe you’re in a reading slump right now. And that’s okay—I’ve been there, too.

But also, as I’ve reignited my love of reading, I’ve changed the way I read.

I read with a different kind of intentionality now that I’m conscious that I’m reading as an editor. Every single book I pick up is its own form of research. I know that every one has the potential to give me more tools to help writers craft amazing stories of their own.

In short, I’m practicing what it looks like for me to read as an editor.

I think there’s a difference between reading as a reader, reading as a writer, and reading as an editor.

Readers are typically focused on what they enjoy—what they like and don’t like about the story.

Writers and editors, though—we’re opening the hood of the story so we can study the engine that makes it run.

When Stephen King exhorted writers to read a lot, I don’t think he meant for you to treat every single novel you pick up as a textbook you must study, sapping away any pressure-free enjoyment you might find in it. Maybe he did, but I doubt it.

That said, I believe there are ways you can read with intentionality that will help you level up your writing skills while also preserving your enjoyment of reading.

5 Tips to Read Like an Editor

In this article, I want to share my five tips for how you can read like an editor.

Notice that “an.” I do mean read like an editor—one editor. These tips are based on how I read, but I do not represent all editors or the one true way to read.

Don’t feel obligated to adopt all of these tips. Take what you like and leave the rest.

But if you’re wondering how you can make the most of your reading and think like an editor as you read the books you love, I hope you find some strategies to inspire you here.

All right, ready for the tips? Let’s dive in.

Tip #1: Shift your focus from reading the best books to reading the most books.

Here’s how I used to read:

I’d look for books I had a really good shot of loving—new books by my favorite authors; books that had won the Printz award, the highest award in young adult literature; books that were recommended to me by friends whose taste I liked.

Each time I picked up a book, I did so hoping that it would be my next great read, the next book I’d fall in love with. That meant I was pretty selective, even picky, about my reading.

If a book didn’t live up to that standard, I’d be disappointed and less motivated to pick up another one.

And if a book did live up to it, if it delivered everything I’ve ever wanted in a novel, I’d sit with that story for a while, just delighted to have found it. And then I’d get nervous about the next book I’d read, because how could it possibly live up to what I’d just read? And so I’d be less motivated to pick up another book.

Do you see a pattern here? By looking for the best books to read, I actually demotivated myself from reading.

When I set myself that goal of reading fifty books in a year, suddenly I changed my target. I was no longer measuring my reading success by whether I discovered a delightful gem of literature—something I really can’t control. Instead, I was measuring my success by how many books I could consume in a period of time.

If I didn’t like a book, that was fine. I could rush to pick up the next one.

And if I did like a book, what a treat! I could savor it for a few days, then go pick up the next one.

The best part of all of this? By maximizing the number of books I read, I’ve actually discovered more books I love than I did when I was carefully picking and choosing the ones most likely to deliver.

Last fall, I had an amazing streak where I read six delightful books in a row, each one somehow better than the last.

That doesn’t always happen. I’ve absolutely read some duds through this method, too. But simply by shifting my priorities and increasing the volume of books I read, I’ve put myself in the path to discover more books I love, too.

Mini-Tip: Integrate Reading Into Your Daily Life

One thing I want to note here is that in order to accomplish my goal of reading a lot of books, I had to find ways to integrate reading into my daily routine.

When I was reading books on the bus home from school as a child, I was always reading paper books. Ebooks hadn’t been invented. And smartphones weren’t a thing at that point, and so in order to listen to an audiobook, I’d either have to bring a portable CD player and a stack of CDs to listen on the bus, or sit next to my boom box in my room and trade out CDs every few chapters while staring at the wall.

And now I feel like I sound ancient. This is recent history, you guys.

Now, though, I don’t have long stretches of time when I’m sitting down and not doing something else. My empty space to consume content happens when I’m on the move—walking or running or in the car or brushing my teeth or making dinner. So audiobooks, which I can now download from the library to my phone in seconds, are my best friends.

Maybe you listen to audiobooks. Maybe you prefer the convenience of ebooks. Maybe you still love paper (honestly, I do too!).

Whatever form you choose, look for the ways you can incorporate reading into the nooks and crannies of your day. You might be surprised how much you can read when you’re filling all the gaps in your day with books.

Now, we could have a whole podcast episode on tips and tricks to read more books in a year. People have written tons of blog posts and think pieces about that, though, so I’ll just say, if you’re looking for more advice on how to read more books, google it. There’s loads of great advice out there.

Tip #2: Read widely.

Okay, sure, the advice to read widely isn’t revolutionary. Let me get more specific.

Here are the categories of books I intentionally seek out, categories I suggest you consider too:

Category 1: The books you want to read.

Look, all of us get into this industry because we love stories! Don’t lose that love. Read the books you love, the books that inspire and delight you, the books you want to read!

Category 2: The big books getting lots of hype.

If a book is making waves, it’s doing something right.

Maybe it’s a really incredible story, masterfully told. Maybe it’s a story that resonates with us as a culture right at this moment. Maybe the story itself is fine, but the marketing push is masterful.

Whatever the case, I consider those books worth reading, if only to help you see what’s being successful right now.

Category 3: Comps for your novel.

When you publish your book, it will be placed on a bookshelf next to other, similar books. What books will it be next to? You need to know.

You need to know what your readers love to read. You need to know the books that are successful in your genre right now.

You need to be able to make a compelling case to agents and acquisitions editors that your book belongs on that shelf. Or if you’re self-publishing, you need to know how to categorize your book on Amazon so readers can find it.

So look for books that are similar to yours, and read them.

Category 4: Wild card books outside of your typical genre interests.

It’s easy to find a few genres that you like and read extensively within those genres, to the exclusion of everything else. Every now and then, throw in something completely different to shake it up.

Pick up a classic or a masterwork in a genre you don’t normally read. Or pick one of the big books getting lots of hype that’s normally not to your taste.

Get inspired by what other authors are doing in other kinds of stories. Who knows, you might discover something exciting you want to explore in your own writing!

Tip #3: Choose an element of writing craft and pay attention to it as you read.

Okay, I told you that reading novels shouldn’t feel like reading a textbook. And I stand by that!

But I do think that it’s worth studying how books are crafted. That’s how you can consciously learn how to replicate the things you love in the stories you write.

So choose some element of writing craft and pay attention to it as you read.

Right now, for me, that’s story structure.

It’s almost turned into a game for me. I play “guess the midpoint” when I’m watching movies—meaning, I literally pause the movie and check the time stamps to see whether I’ve spotted the midpoint. (I’m really fun to watch movies with.)

When I’m reading novels, I do this too. I’m constantly thinking about where the acts break, where the inciting incident is, where the climax is, where the “all is lost” moment is.

You don’t have to study structure in every story. You might decide that you love the characters in a novel, and so you’re going to pay attention to their character development. You might study dialogue. You might study point of view.

I recently read Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin, and I spent the whole book in awe of her masterful use of third person omniscient point of view. That’s a really challenging point of view to use well, and she does an incredible job of it.

I was honestly enjoying the book too much to study it in depth on that first read, but I did consciously admire the point of view on every page, and I’m sure I’ll come back to it.

Tip #4: Notice what you like and dislike about the books you’re reading.

Do you love how a novel uses third person omniscient point of view?

Do you love how the characters are developed?

Do you love the snappy dialogue?

Do you love the way twists are revealed?

Does the story make you feel really big feelings, this amazing, cathartic upswelling of emotion?

And are there things you don’t like?

Do the dialogue tags bother you? (This can be a big one for me. Don’t get wild trying to avoid “said,” please. Just use “said.”)

Are the point of view shifts jarring or confusing?

Do the character motivations not make sense?

Are there places where you’re bored and want to put the book down?

Readers like and dislike things about the books they read all the time. And honestly, even early in my reading, long before I became an editor, I started analyzing those things—trying to figure out what exactly I liked and what exactly I didn’t like, and how I’d fix those things if I had a chance.

Really, that’s what reading like an editor is all about, I think: paying attention. Pay attention to the books you read, the things that you like, the things that you don’t like.

You don’t necessarily have to do anything with those observations (although you can keep track of them if you like!).

But just cultivating that awareness will help you start to pick up on patterns in the things you love to read, the things you want to create in your own writing, and the things you want to avoid.

Tip #5: Track your reading.

One of the best ways to help you accomplish all the previous tips is to track your reading.

When you track your reading, you can set a reading goal that’s based on the quantity of books you read and know how close you are to hitting it.

You can see what kinds of books you’re reading. Have you picked up a recent best-seller lately? Have you read outside your genre?

And you can keep notes on the things that you’re noticing in books—the things you’re paying attention to, the things you discover you like, the things you really don’t like.

You can keep your tracking as simple as you like—a list of titles on a piece of paper is great.

Or you can get as complicated as you want, tracking all kinds of data about your reading.

Personally, I use an app called The Story Graph to track my reading. I love it because, as the name suggests, it creates a lot of graphs to display data about my reading.

There’s a bar graph to display how many books I’ve read in each genre (this year, fantasy is topping the charts at fifteen books), and a line graph to display how many books I’ve read each month (so far, June and July are tied for the top at seven each).

In addition to Story Graph, I also have a spreadsheet in my own files where I break down the internal genre, external genre, and subplot of the books I read.

In fact, if you’d like a copy of that spreadsheet to get you started tracking your reading, I’m happy to share it with you. You can get that spreadsheet by filling out the form below:

And once you get that spreadsheet, feel free to customize it so it works for you!

You could track the elements of craft that you admire in the books you read, or the things they don’t do well at all. Then, if there’s something you’re trying to master in your own writing, you can look back at the books you’ve read and see whether there’s one that nails that thing you’re trying to do.

Or, if all that is anathema to you, keep it simple! Remember, a basic list on a piece of paper is a wonderful way to keep track of your reading.

Whatever You Do, Read

So there you go: five tips to read like an editor—one editor—specifically, this editor, me.

Here they are again:

Tip #1: Shift your focus from reading the best books to reading the most books.

Tip #2: Read widely.

Tip #3: Choose an element of writing craft and pay attention to it as you read.

Tip #4: Notice what you like and dislike about the books you’re reading.

Tip #5: Track your reading.

You don’t have to apply all these tips all at once. Take the ones that resonate with you and leave the ones that don’t.

If I were to sum all this up into my best, most impactful advice, the mindset that has most transformed my reading, it would be that very first tip:

Shift your focus from reading the best books to reading the most books.

When I decided to truly embrace that approach, I nearly tripled my reading in one year. And my editing skills, my clients, and my enjoyment of reading have only benefited from the change.

Which really could be summed up with another quote from Stephen King:

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

Maybe I should have had Stephen King write this podcast episode.

I hope this inspires you to pick up another book. I hope that book becomes one that you love, the kind that reminds you why you wanted to be a writer in the first place.

And if that book doesn’t thrill you—or even if it does!—I hope you follow it up with another book, and another, and another.

Happy reading!

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