Rereading is not a waste of your time; it’s a learning opportunity
Stephen King said, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
I maintain that writers must also reread a lot.
Rereading a beloved book is a valuable practice for writers, and here’s why: you’ve read the story once for enjoyment, but you reread with an eye for craft. There’s much to learn from our favorite authors.
When you read a book many times, you develop an intimate familiarity with the story, the characters, and the author’s style. You pay closer attention to structure, plot devices, and voice. You already know how it ends; when you reread, you ask yourself, ‘how does the author go about getting there?’
Ironically, I had a strict policy against rereading when I was a kid. I wanted to get my hands on new books, stories I hadn’t read yet — I didn’t want to waste my time reading something over again, especially because I knew how it ended.
I can’t remember when this changed for me. It may have been late high school or college, when I had less time for pleasure reading, and picking up a new book felt like a risk. Suddenly, reading something “meh” felt like a bigger waste of time than rereading an old favorite.
You’ll learn to recognize a strong story
Rereading our favorite books is a form of study for us writers. As writers, we want to understand what works — and why it works.
The second time around, you’re reading to understand how the author takes you from beginning to end. You’ll pick up on all the little details — clues, foreshadowing — that you likely missed in your first read.
Look for Chekhov’s gun
Have you heard of Chekhov’s gun? It’s that writerly principle that states “every element in a story must be necessary.” I.e., if there’s a gun on the table, at some point it’s going to go off.
There’s a game I like to play when I’m watching movies or TV, and especially when I’m reading… I ask myself, what seemingly innocuous details do I believe will be significant later? You know what I’m talking about — the actress leaves her cell phone on the bench at the restaurant, or the camera pans to a set of initials carved into the tree…
Books are usually a bit more subtle, but Hollywood doesn’t have the luxury. There is no time to waste on-screen.
…And that’s how I have such a solid track record when it comes to guessing the big “reveal” at the end of every police procedural I watch.
Notice the ‘how’ and ‘why’
Not only in understanding how the characters have gone from ‘point A’ to ‘point B,’ but how the author has done so in a way that made you laugh, or cry, or cling to the edge of your seat.
Pay attention to the following:
- Character arcs
- Clues and red herrings
- Romance development
- Subplots and secondary characters
- Markings of genre
- Point of view and tense
Be an apprentice
You may be thinking, “but I want to be different.” We don’t want to risk taking on another writer’s unique voice or style. And I get that — I really do. It takes years of practice to develop your “voice.”
Even the most celebrated artists were imitators before they created their original masterpieces. Artists like Degas and Leonardo da Vinci were apprentices to great painters of their day, and copying played a role in their artistic training.
You have to know the rules before you can break them.
“Read as much as you possibly can. Nothing will help you as much as reading and you’ll go through a phase where you will imitate your favorite writers and that’s fine because that’s a learning experience too.” ~ J.K. Rowling
You’ll learn what you like best
Rereading your favorite novels will help you understand your own taste. Look for patterns across the books you love — what are your favorite tropes? When it comes to romance, think ‘fake dating’ or enemies to lovers. Take notes — how has the author put a unique spin on this particular trope?
Take retellings — are you a fan of gender-swaps, diversity, or out-of-the-box genres? (Think Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles.) Maybe you’ve noticed that you like books with unreliable narrators or sarcastic protagonists.
Maybe you prefer punchy action scenes to exposition or narrative. Maybe your favorite novels reveal backstory through emotional flashbacks.
The idea is that you should know what excites you.
Even on days when you don’t feel “inspired,” you’ll sit down to write because your excitement for the project is motivation enough to persevere.
If you’re not excited about what you’re writing, why should your readers be?
One of my favorite pieces of advice from YA author Susan Dennard is to find your “magical cookies,” or “those sparks in a story that make you WANT to write.” She believes every scene must be a “magical cookie” scene.
If you don’t know what your “magical cookies” are, look to the novels you love to reread — what excites you most in your favorite passage or chapter? Is it the romance? The tension between the hero and the villain?
“Master those books you have. Read them thoroughly. Bathe in them until they saturate you. Read and reread them… digest them. Let them go into your very self. Peruse a good book several times and make notes and analyses of it.” ~ Charles Spurgeon
How to make the most of a reread
You only have so much time, so I recommend you save rereads for your absolute favorites.
We want to learn from those who’ve done it exceptionally well. This is entirely subjective; your shortlist of authors will not be the same as mine. And that’s ok! As I’ve said before, a big part of the exercise is in understanding your personal taste.
Don’t reread the same novel or series too frequently
The trick is in rereading often enough so the story and the characters are written on your heart, but not so often that you get sick of it too quickly.
One of the delights of rereading a beloved novel is in remembering the little details you’d forgotten between rereads.
For me, it depends on the book; but I’ll typically wait about 6 months to a year between rereads. Sometimes every other year for massive undertakings like Harry Potter. It’s such a huge time investment.
There is joy in rereading an old favorite when you’ve entered into a new season of life. You’re not the same person you were — and you’ll have a new perspective, a new takeaway.
“A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight.” ~ Robertson Davies
Return to some of your favorite passages more often
You don’t have to commit to rereading the entire novel if you’re only craving a particular scene or chapter.
I like to buy the ebook version of my favorite novels, so I can reread them on my Kindle (or iPhone) as often as I please. On Kindle, I can mark passages or highlight my favorite lines. A newer practice for me is jotting down some of my favorite quotes or lines of dialogue into my bullet journal.
To be a great writer, you have to study great writing. And there is no better way to do that than by rereading your favorite novels. These are the books that inspired you to write stories of your own. Ask yourself “why?” and then apply what you learn.
Don’t underestimate the value in rereading your favorite books. We should want our favorite books and authors to be written on our hearts.
Stay tuned for a follow-up article with my tips for practical application, including a list of questions for writers to ask themselves when rereading.