Reading craft books is a quick and easy way to learn new tips and tricks to sharpen your skills. Most craft books are light reads, entertaining as well as educational. And hey, since we’re all writers, we’d better be readers, so occasionally inserting a craft book into your rotation shouldn’t be a hard stunt.

A craft book can either cover a wide range of topics or delve deeply into one. The subject could be characters, plot devices, grammar, or even publishing. Craft books can help writers advance their mastery and are valuable tools in the hands of a young author. Stephen King’s On Writing and Stephanie Morrill’s Go Teen Writers (one of my favorites) are some well-known examples, but others are worth checking out too.

Not all craft books, however, are created equal. Although reading a subpar book wouldn’t be a catastrophe (and it’s happened before), it’s not ideal. After all, time spent reading isn’t spent writing, and should thus be invested carefully. Luckily for us, a few benchmarks can help us separate the studs from the duds.

First though, ask yourself this question when you pick up a craft book: Has the author published any fiction? If so, maybe you should browse some of it. Do you like it? Is it something you would aspire to write, or is it not your type? If it isn’t, maybe the craft book isn’t for you. Writing is an art form, so many different styles and methods exist. An author’s advice will naturally reflect his style, so keep that in mind as you choose what to read.

Now, without further ado, let’s talk about three characteristics any craft book should have. (If the book you’re reading doesn’t meet these criteria, maybe you should switch.)

1. Encourage Note Taking

I’m not the kind of person who scribbles notes in my books. I’ve tried to be, but I just can’t do it. Craft books, however, are an exception (and I think they should be). They’re stuffed to the rafters with content—so full of ah-ha moments and pointedly stated rules of writing that you can’t possibly absorb everything at once. You’ll read it, love it, and forget most of its counsel.

That’s okay.

But it’s also a problem. You need to remember this stuff when you sit down to write. The solution is to highlight quotes and record notes in the margins, on a separate notepad, on your phone, or wherever works best for you. If you’re in the middle of a book and aren’t sure what you would write down, maybe you should consider another book. A concept needs to be laid out clearly enough to be easily broken down so you can apply it. Jotting notes ensures that your takeaways will be crisp and to the point.

2. Cause Excitement

You shouldn’t read a craft book and not feel excited about writing. Craft books should be encouraging and uplifting. They should remind you of the glories of writing well and your own love for stories. They should reveal a new detail about a magnificent work of art, and that should invigorate you. If the craft book isn’t sparking enthusiasm for your own writing, it probably isn’t teaching you or granting you fresh perspective. Move on.

3. Prompt New Ideas

BEWARE THE PLOT BUNNIES.

No, no, not like that. A good craft book will flood your mind with ideas for the story you’re writing right now. Sure, it will spawn ideas for other stories and you’ll have to sort through distractions like you do in the rest of life, but underneath all that, you should be able to harvest new ideas for your work-in-progress. If you can, that means you understand how to apply what you’re learning.

If a craft book doesn’t inspire relevant ideas, it might not be bad. Maybe it’s just not the book you need at the moment. Set it down and substitute another book that helps, then revisit it later when you’re looking for irrelevant ideas to get a new story on its feet.

Still struggling to find a writing craft book that will do these things for you? As I mentioned before, On Writing and Go Teen Writers are two great books to study, and the KP staff has also compiled a list of twelve informative books on the writing craft that you can download at the end of this post.

Craft books are tools. If the one you’re reading isn’t providing results, don’t feel obligated to finish it. If it’s fantastic, don’t expect yourself to remember it all the first time. Read it again if necessary. I’ve read my favorite three times now, and I’ve taken new notes every time. You read craft books with the specific goal of improving your writing. If that’s not happening, try a new title or note-taking method or something else. Don’t ever feel trapped by a craft book. Use it to become a better writer.