If You Want to Be a Better Writer, Be a Better Reader
Your mention of "deep reading" got me thinking today. How is it that I forgot a very important fact about myself? That fact is that I've been trained to be a deep reader. Good lord, I have a PhD in English. I spent years learning how to read. For whatever reason, I don't practice my graduate school habits at all anymore.
So, for the benefit of my reading life, I'm going to highlight the practices I honed in graduate school that made me a good deep reader, back before my smart phone and social media, when I had an actual attention span now. Now I'm a really good scanner. A really good eater of popcorn and doughnuts. An excellent waster of time. A champion worrier. But deep reader? Not these days.
How to Read Better
1. Reading for pleasure and reading to learn are two totally different things. While it can certainly be pleasurable to learn, and one can certainly learn something while reading for pleasure, the acts are distinct and have to be done differently. Reading for pleasure can happen anywhere. You can do it on your couch while little people (or husbands) talk to you. You can do it before bed when you are so tired, you only remember a word or two. You can listen to an audiobook on the train or while pulling weeds or while on the treadmill (all places that I read).
But none of these reading practices are good for reading to learn. Reading to learn is hard. You have to have set times to do it. You need more than 30 minutes to do it. (I think you need at least an hour). And you have to be in a place that's conducive to deep thinking. You need quiet, you need a notebook or laptop, a pen, and absolutely no distractions.
Reading to learn is a workout, and you can't "trick" it by running in place for 5 minutes and calling it exercise (which I do all the time with real exercise, by the way).
2. Deep reading is close reading. And close reading actually requires a very specific structure. You never start a close reading without first preparing.
2a. Pre-reading: You come to the text with questions in mind, with ideas you are wrestling with, with a purpose for reading. You understand how the text fits into a larger canon. You identify your own gaps in knowledge. You think about why you are reading this book or article.
2b. Reading: You take notes. You underline. You read actively by asking yourself to identify the passages that are most important to your pre-reading questions and goals. You look at diction, style, structure, and development--but not all at the same time. It depends upon your goal. How are you using this text? That should drive the kind of notes you take. You should always know the "lens" you are using to read. What angle are you coming from? What's your agenda?
2c. Writing/Reflecting: You write about everything you read, but not always in the same way. Sometimes you need to take notes. Other times you need to write a response. Sometimes you need to email DFL in all caps to say, OMG, GUESS WHAT I JUST LEARNED?!?
In graduate school, I talked a lot about what I read with like-minded people, but most of my "conversations" were with myself. I kept a journal in which I recorded notes about how each book or article I was reading fit within a larger project or idea. I always had multiple projects going on an any given semester--at least two, if not more. The reflection process helped me see which readings required deeper analysis and which could be set aside. Not all reading requires the same level of notes or analysis.
3. Close reading isn't easy, so like any tough exercise, it requires some mental practice and grit. It was a habit because my professors required me to read at regular intervals. I had due dates for everything. Class discussions and semester due dates kept me on track. Semesters are a wonderful way to block time and stay on-task. Most of all, though, writing is exercise. Like you said, hit the gym.
I fully believe that following these three basic guidelines will turn us into better readers. And good readers have a chance--a chance!--of becoming good writers.