Reading helps writing–but how? And reading what?

It is an accepted fact that reading helps with writing; the best writers usually read voraciously and as continually as they can while still living their lives (and of course the time they spend writing). But why does reading matter to writing?

I don’t have a completely definitive answer to that, and I certainly haven’t explored any studies, but I can say from my own experience and what I observe that two things happen when we read that matter to writing. The first has to do with the fact that although our brains are innately wired for language, written language is a relatively new phenomenon, in terms of how long the species has been around, and it involves a brain hack: we have to use parts of our brain that are wired for other things in order to read. I won’t geek out on this, but because reading and writing are both things we have to learn–and because they aren’t things that belong purely in muscle memory, like riding a bicycle–they work best when they are practiced, a lot.

So just working with the written language, either taking it in or producing it, helps keep those skills well oiled and working great. But when we read, we also start to absorb things about how the language works at its best. The opposite is also true. After years of reading student writing that was filled with errors–especially of the “there/their/they’re” and “its/it’s” variety–I started to make errors that I don’t think I ever made in my life before, even when I was a kid learning to write. I’d absorbed the errors my students made and they started to sneak into my own writing. (Fortunately, I know what I’m doing well enough to catch myself and fix the mistakes, but it was shocking to see those problems cropping up from time to time.) But reading stuff that’s better than my students’ papers has a more beneficial effect.

I often told my students that it didn’t matter what they read, they just needed to read. Threads on Reddit, Cosmopolitan magazine, gaming blogs, manga, whatever: just read. And for people who don’t usually read at all, that advice holds. I’d rather you read something than nothing, and if you’re not reading much to begin with, any increase is to the better. But, as is evidenced by my experience starting to make mistakes after reading hundreds upon hundreds of student essays, the quality of what we read will also affect how we write.

I have a young friend who is working on a novel. She’s very intelligent, and adores books and reading, and her novel is generally very good indeed. But on occasion, she makes a word choice that is absolutely the wrong word–and I attribute that to the fact that although she reads a lot, and what she reads is well written and informative, I don’t think she reads a lot of what I would consider very high quality literature. Consequently, as much knowledge as she’s acquired from books, she hasn’t had enough exposure to truly artistic use of the language to understand nuance–or to have developed a vocabulary that is more than sufficient for her needs. (A word to the wise: the thesaurus is not always your friend. Words that are in the same ballpark can have very different connotations, and choosing one with the wrong connotation is worse than using a word that’s less fancy but is comfortably within your repertoire.)

Students want to increase their vocabulary. How do you do that? Read–and read works that challenge you, ones that send you to the dictionary on occasion. (Pro tip: don’t stop to look up the word until you get to a good stopping place. Mark it in some way so you can come back to it, then, when you reach a point where it makes sense to stop–like the end of a story or chapter–look up the word and go back to reread the passage where you encountered the word. Further pro tip: if the meaning you find doesn’t seem to make sense, go back to the dictionary–or find a better dictionary–and look for the second definition, or the third, or however many there are until you find one that fits the sense of what you’re reading.) If you find an author whose work you like, find everything you can by that person–and then do a little research to see if you can find out what that person reads, and then read that, too. Stretch your boundaries: pick up things that wouldn’t normally appeal to you but that are said to be particularly well written (by people who know what they’re talking about). Learn to be OK with things being not like what you expect or are used to. I’m thinking about someone who posted a negative review of one of Jane Austen’s novels, saying it was just people going to each other’s houses. In one way, that’s not wrong: that is the only “action” of the novel. But all the real action happens inside the people, and between them, and has to do with what they’re thinking and feeling, not what they’re doing.

I admit that the hardest thing about reading for most people in our society is that it takes time, and there is really no shortcut. (Yes, you can listen to audio books, but what’s happening in your brain is very different from what happens when you read it yourself. We’re hard-wired to process language through our ears–even people who are deaf have that wiring, though they have to process language differently because they can’t hear sounds–so listening does what our brains already know how to do, and remember what I said about reading being important to keep that skill well oiled and properly functioning.) I know I have a profound bias, given my own preference and my profession, but I really think reading may be one of the most important things a person can do with any time the person has to spare. Yes, I, too, can get caught up playing dopey electronic games on my phone or computer, and watching things on TV, so I know the appeal. Reading actually requires that our brains engage in a way they don’t have to with those other pursuits. But I think that’s actually a really good thing.

And that’s another way that reading may help us write, because writing also requires that we sit down and spend time on it, and again, there’s no real shortcut. (Even people who have impaired vision and who therefore use voice-recognition software or a scribe have to spend time putting those words together and then going back over them to make them better.)

I guess, in sum, I’d ask you just to take it on faith, and trust me. If you want to write better, you need to read, often, as much as you can, and stuff that’s the best of the best. All of that language soaks into your brain, and it ends up coming out of you again, transformed by having been inside your mind, when you write.