World-class Writers are Avid Readers. But You’ll Be Surprised By How They Read.


Writing and reading are like two different sides of the coin. To read well, you ought to learn how to write well, and to write well reading well is an indispensable skill.

It’s obvious that world-class writers write differently from the rest of us. What I didn’t know until now, thanks to Daniel Coyle, was how differently some of them read.

Here’s an in-depth look at two world-class writers: Mark Twain and David Foster Wallace. Check out the books they read and how they’ve “engaged” with the book. Looking at how they read these books is like looking into the engine room of their minds which provides an important lesson on how we should read.

For many readers, reading is a passive experience. The reader “leans-back” as if they are in a warm bath. But, look at how Twain and Wallace thoroughly engages their mind with the book. Twain’s work show how he challenges, criticizes, scribbles new ideas, steals and admires the book he’s reading. Coyle said it best: “It’s like a writer’s version of a vigorous athletic workout.” It’s like conversing with the author as you share your own feedback.

This may look, on the surface, a minor change. Really, the difference is scribbling notes a book versus thinking a thought in your mind. But the sheer act of writing is immensely different than just thinking because it compels you to create a record that can be linked to other scribbles. As you document your thoughts, this becomes your playing field where real inspiration is birthed. Without the marks on the page, your thoughts just passes away into the sea of nothingness.

What I appreciate with Twain and Wallace’s intimate approach in reading is that it fosters critical thinking. Rather blithely absorbing the author’s views as incontrovertible truth, the process of scribbling your thoughts on the book forces you to choose whether you agree or disagree with the author and helps you expand your thoughts.

Another helpful benefit can be applied to the art of blogging as well. As an avid reader, the more I scribble on the book, the easier it is to steal relevant, timely quotes or stories for my blog posts. This is one of the reasons why I haven’t jumped on the e-book bandwagons. Unless e-books can easily help me smell the “aroma” of books and allow me to scribble on the book as easy as the paperback versions, it’ll take a long time for me to be convinced.

Question: How do you read books? Any other best practices you’d like to share on how to engage with the book?

  • I read with at least three colors of pens nearby, and a highlighter. I also have a series of bullets that I use in the margins to point out certain items: * is insightful. ? requires research. ! very important. A square box means that I want to add something to my quote file, and I check it off when added. Etc.

    I also use the few blank pages at the end of the book for various notes, thoughts, synopsis, etc. Reading is very interactive for me.

    Unless it’s fiction. Then it’s not as mind consuming, and more for entertainment. But even then I keep a pen handy…

    • That’s great Jeff. I also use different symbols to take action. I really like how you have incorporated these different methods to engage with the book. It’s so tempting just to read, but when we engage with the book through this method, it’s more like studying which isn’t too bad.

      • Another practice I maintain… If you follow my blog, you know I review books for publishers. When I realized how helpful that was personally and professionally, I began reviewing every single book I read. Every one of them. I don’t post most of them, just the ones for the publishers. But I write a review for ever single book. I retain much more then I ever did before.

  • Lynn Hare

    I’m intrigued by the idea of marking up a book as I read it. What symbols do you use to mark the pages as you read, Paul? I’ve never really thought about it as an interactive activity. You’ve got me thinking.

    • I made myself a bookmark with my list of symbols. One side is for reading books. The other is for reading the Bible. Here are the links where I describe my methods:

      • These are great posts you’ve written Jeff. Definitely going to share this with my other friends.

    • Hey Lynn, take a look at Jeff Randleman’s posts below – it has some awesome insight and tips. As for me, I carry a yellow and pink highligher. Yellow represents key points in the book, pink represents stories or supporting evidences that I want to highlight. I use symbols like such as:
      (v) look up vocabulary
      (?) Look more into the theory and research the topic
      (*) If I resonate and deem the phrase and sentence as important –> potentially I will use these as quotes

      • The one mark-up I do routinely, when I own the book and it’s not from the library, is I write the words that are new to me inside the back cover, and look them up, maybe after a while, maybe days later.

        Usually that’ll be one or two words per book, but once I found to my astonishment that I had listed eighteen or twenty words I hadn’t understood before I was even half way through the book.
        Every one of them began with A, B or C!



  • I have just started making notes in books as I read. I also make sure to note them electronically also because it does not fade away. But never as many markings so it looks like I have some restructuring to do when it comes to how I read books.

    • yeah, definitely Lincoln. Give it a try and let me know how you like it!

  • DS

    My style varies from book to book on how I take notes. Some books, I just obliterate with notes, quote gathering, dog-earring pages, etc. Other books I take pages of notes in notebooks. What I’ve found is that there are a few books I go back to a ton, and other’s I go back to some. If it feels like a “some” book my notes are going to be in the notebook and I’ll depart with the physical book.

    • Sure thing David. It’s about knowing what books to write on. Some books are to be chewed, some digested, and some swallowed, right?

  • Dr.Enock,Maligeze Ndlovu

    Thank you for your discution is helpful to us as I want to start writing a book.
    From Dr.Enock Ndlovu

    • No problem Dr. Ndlovu. Glad you enjoyed the post! Thanks for stopping by.

  • My reading goes in waves. Sometimes when I get really into my writing my reading drops off a bit but I try to still be regular in it. I also like reading out loud, which I do with my wife. There’s something about seeing and hearing the words that really helps me process the thought better.

    I know what you’re saying about e-books, as much as I love their convenience I do recognize their limitations. There’s something about having a physical item in your hand that you can interact with in a real way!

    • Yes, the more senses we employ in our learning, the more powerful our learning becomes. I’m with you e-books. There’s nothing like real, physical books. It also makes up as good furniture and decoration in the house lol

  • I’m a book highlighter. I also write notes in the margins.

    • Awesome Jon. I definitely do the same thing. 🙂

  • My books look like that pic. I make notes all through a book- even my Bible. It’s so helpful, because when I go back I can see where I was, who I was and how much I’ve grown or how much I still need to grow.

    • That’s awesome TC. I need to get better in writing more thoughts in the book and extend my line of thinking. It’s going to definitely help when I review the books.

  • Whenever I read an engaging book, I write all over it; highlighting, asterisks and bending the pages. Also, the most captivating books that I read take a really long time to finish, mainly because the ideas presented and concepts discussed spark my imagination to write. It sucks in a way… sometimes I’ll read fiction to mix it up so I CAN just sit back and read.

    • So true Chris. Some of the best books require all our energy and investment of time!

  • Jerry Kitchel

    For much of my life, I read hard-copy books. These days, I am absolutely enamored with my kindle. I have been reading electronically for two years now, and have amassed countless highlights, which include intriguing phrases, new vocabulary, engaging metaphors, and new information. As I add more books to my e-library, I’ll often do word searches in other books I’ve read to see how similarly or differently they’ve been used; all of these achievable within a few clicks. It’s a whole new way of reading, but at 62 years of age, I’m enjoying it immensely, and especially loving how it helps and strengthens my writing ability.

    • That’s awesome Jerry how you’ve been an early adopter and embraced the e-book system. For me, it’s still hard as I need the e-book market to develop and evolve so that it satisfies my expectations. It’ll be interesting to see how things evolve in the next several years.

  • Well said. I love to scribble and mark and underline things in my books. I like the feel and touch of books – especially old books.

    • Yeah same here…it really does make up good furniture and decoration in the house. I hope to have a library of my own some day. Perhaps a collection of 3000 books.

      • Stuffed Bear

        I hope you don’t think that this question is dumb, but I am wondering, what kind of books do most people write notes in, and thoughts and such?

        I suffered a hypoxic brain injury 7 years ago, and I am trying very hard to love reading again, but for the reading is new in a sense, I have been working at my reading for 5 years post injury. I had double vision that wasn’t correctable for two years.
        I apologize I am babbling now.

  • Douglas Koch

    I have been an avid reader since elementary school. There are many books of interest in my home as well as many more on book apps. My most used app is from Logos Bible. The Logos Bible app has a great search system with helps my reading to be more syntopical. One of my favorite books is How To Read A Book by Mortimer Adler. I use the elaborate markup systems that are available in the various apps as well as the note taking options also. I also tend to use the arching system from Fuller’s Hermeneutics course. It would be very nice to have a discussion group while reading however I can’t seem to find people to make the commitment.

  • I have this thing about not marking in books but I take notes on the side. It’s a great way to remember the key points and I can then easily go back to that page if I want to read it again. I’m challenging myself to read at least 52 books in a year which had been on my mind but after listening to you on the Live Your List podcast I decided to go for it. I blog about it each month doing a quick summary on each book which also is a great way for me to remember what I thought of the book.

  • This is exactly why I have a legal pad or notebook with me when I read!

  • So related to this! Thanks for the encouragement. Feel like I’m in good company 🙂

  • Stan Stinson

    I sort of do this with book on my Kindle. The highlighting and note taking features are two of my favorites for Kindle versions of books. If you have a Kindle you should take advantage of these features.

  • Peter Gillam

    I have recently grown into this love for reading but I always had this notion in my mind that I shouldn’t disturb the pages (except for textbooks). I am definitely going to change my approach now because I also want write more in my life. Thanks for the post

  • All of my books look like this. Perhaps I should write my own after all. Kindle has some great features, but since I can’t scribble on the pages, its hard for me to read an e-book. Just a note to some people who think ebooks will take over in the future… not if people like me are still alive! lol.

  • There are three people in Toronto reading all the same library books on quantum mechanics that I am.

    I wish the Chinese guy would write his translations more neatly. His swift clean grass-script is for the moment totally illegible to me. {sigh} Maybe in five years…

    The Eastern European guy with the sharp HH pencil is about where I am in his studies, probably more knowledgeable but also a little more gullible in his reactions to the wonders.

    The guy with the yellow fluorescent marker is just a fool. In some books he simply highlights 80% of everything for the first ten or twenty pages, and then gives up. Sometimes he marks twenty percent of everything, utterly at random, throughout a book.

    My policy is, when I run across a clear factual error I put an erratum slip on a 3M sticky paper in the table of contents. They’re the library’s books, after all.


  • Peggy Salvatore

    So timely for me to find this 6-month-old post today. As a blogger on training and development, I write every week. Just yesterday I dissected Tony Robbins’ new book, Money Master The Game in my blog because his technique intersected with one of my areas of interest. Thanks for the post, Paul! If anyone is interested, my blog is at

  • Paul!!! Thank you for validating my form of reading! I may not get through as many books as others, but I have pages and pages of notes for the ones I do read!

  • Hmm interesting tactic.. I always have kept my books pristine and write in a journal with pg numbers as reference in case I shared the book. ..that and did not want to appear totally crazy..then again as an aspiring writer I must be a little bit anyway. .

  • I devour hardcopy books with notes, underlines, codes, etc. I do it to a lesser extent with ebooks. Something I do when I read is put the letters LUK (it stands for “Listen Up Kids”) next to things that I want to make sure I one day share with my kids.

  • This gives me hope that I can be a great writer, because I love to write all over my books.

  • I can’t write in the book itself but I do have a notebook which I constantly write in when reading. Does that count?

  • Jennille Spellman

    I love this! I highlight A LOT! I love the idea of adding the notes to it, as well. I typically talk it through with my husband or a friend, but if it’s recorded…Good stuff! Thanks for sharing, Paul.


    I do this on my Nook by highlighting, screenshot, and cropping quotes or important information for my blog, Facebook or Google plus posts. There’s so much great information that I don’t want to miss anything. Additionally, I read 10 to 12 books simultaneously while highlighting quotes from Noam Chomsky, James Baldwin, etc.

  • Ben Sadler

    Great article! That’s why I don’t do e books either. I really like to interact with the writer by writing all over their books

  • If it is a physical book I use an idea I got from Michael Hyatt. – I am a major highlighter but if something really stand out I will star it then reference it in the front or back blank pages – Creating my own index. I also add marks if it give me a blog or sermon idea or if they reference a book I want to check out. Depending on the book I will then copy some of the notes to evernote. If it is a kindle book I will copy my highlights from the kindle cloud into evernote.

  • Great thoughts. So true. Whenever someone loans me a book I actually read, I have to buy them a new one as I destroy it. With e-Books I have to use a notebook to pull that off–but it’s just not the same. Wish you could use some kind of “Paper” style app alongside Kindle or something with a stylus and a book… that would likely do it for me. Underlining, writing graphs and notes and pictures–that’s what I need in an ebook.