Reading Like a Writer: The Questions to Ask

I’ve had a desire to really break down the novels I read. I want to understand what the author did to make their story work. Or not work.

The goal: learn to be a better writer through my reading.

I consulted several articles on reading as a writer, and I distillated some questions to ask myself after I read a novel. This is a work in progress. If you have any suggestions for more questions or the process in general, feel free to comment.

First Read-Through: Enjoyment

Read as you normally would, that is, as a regular reader. Don’t worry too much about the what’s and the why’s. But if a thought occurs to you as you read this first time around, jot quick notes.

Now it’s time to take off your reading for enjoyment hat and put on your reading as a writer hat. After the first read through, ask these questions about your overall impressions of the story:

  • How did the characters change from the beginning to the end?
  • Was the overall structure easy to determine? Or was it a more non-traditional structure?
  • Was the main story answered with some kind of finality?
  • Were the sub-plots answered with some kind of finality? Did they reflect the main story?
  • Any weaknesses in the story?
  • Ask yourself what the writer is doing with the story as a whole.
  • Continue to add your own customized questions to ask at the scene/chapter interval.

Second Read-Through: Enlightenment

Train yourself to pause and ask questions certain intervals. These intervals are at the end of scenes/chapters (there’s a difference, but you can choose which depending upon how the book is written); the other interval is at the end of sentences/paragraphs. Regardless, the idea is to go from larger chunks of text to smaller.

Interval #1: End of scenes/chapters ASK:

  • Were you hooked by the end of the chapter?
  • What was the purpose of the scene/chapter?
  • How did the scene/chapter begin? With dialogue? Description? Action?
  • What was the conflict or conflicts of the scene/chapter?
  • What was the main goal of the protagonist and other characters?
  • What new information did the reader learn?
  • What part of the story structure is this scene/chapter in?
    NOTE: Whether you use the three-act structure, Save the Cat, etc., see if you can tell where the scene falls in that structure.
  • What were the emotions of the characters at the beginning? At the end?
  • Were any subplots addressed?
  • What was the overall tone of the scene?
  • Was this scene/chapter more external action or inner reflection? Fast-paced or slow-paced?
  • How was the plot advanced?
  • Who is the point-of-view character?
  • What was the setting or settings in the scene/chapter?
  • Ask yourself what the writer is generally doing with this scene or chapter.
  • Continue to add your own customized questions to ask at the scene/chapter interval.

Now, go back and reread each scene or chapter and pause at the end of each sentence or paragraph. Where you pause exactly is your choice, but it should be a dissection of the scene into its smaller components.

Interval #2: End of sentences/paragraphs ASK:

  • What fiction element(s) are being used? (Dialogue, action, setting, description, inner monologue, etc)
  • Why did the author use this word choice?
  • Is there any subtext?
  • What’s the purpose of the sentence or paragraph?
  • Is the dialogue distinct for each character?
  • Was this a flashback or backstory?
  • Was this showing or telling?
    NOTE: Telling is not ‘bad.’ At certain points, it’s necessary in a story. See if you notice when the author is using narrative techniques or expositional techniques.
  • Ask yourself what the writer is doing with this sentence or paragraph.
  • Continue to add your own customized questions to ask at the sentence/paragraph interval.


  • Start off with a short novel, or even a short story.
  • Whether the book is digital or print, highlight and take notes as you go. Write in the margins of the book if you wish. Or use a separate notebook.
  • It may be realistic to “read as a writer” only a couple of times a year.
  • Perhaps you should set aside a time each week to work on reading as a writer for only an hour or so. Or just work through an entire story in its entirety without stopping. The choice is yours.
  • Continually add questions to each interval as they come to you.
  • Be patient with yourself. It takes practice to read as a writer and will probably become easier as you do it more.
  • After you finish answering all these questions, you may want to revisit your observations and notes from your first read-through. Your overall impressions of story may have changed. You might want to update your notes.
  • Adapt how you read as a writer so it works for you. Everyone is different.

This method of reading as a writer is a work in progress for me. I believe I will be honing it over time as I practice it.

Links to resources on reading like a writer:

Photo by anouar olh:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s