If you’re here, right now, reading these words of your own free will, I’m going to say you probably consider yourself a “reader,” by one definition or another. Maybe you were a bookish kid, or maybe you hit your stride reading for research in the freelancing world. Whether it’s by necessity or for pleasure, you fall into that special category of people who read. And that’s a great place to be.
“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.”― Ernest Hemingway
Reading has countless benefits—it expands our capacity for empathy, teaches us things outside of our own experience, and, as a general rule, makes us much more interesting conversationalists. But delving into the written word has other benefits, especially for those of us who also identify as writers. Here are 3 ways that I’ve found reading has helped me become a better writer.
Whether or not you realize it, reading quality writing is instilling you with a baseline understanding of how language functions. From the time we first start reading, we’re picking up example after example of how words can convey an idea.
Think about it. Once we make it past word/image associations in books and start getting into full sentences, we learn the rules of English.
“Dick likes Jane.” (Dick and Jane, Gray/Sharp) We pick up that there’s a person who does something (a doer, or subject) and then a person or thing that has the action done to them (a recipient or object).
“It came without ribbons, it came without tags! / It came without packages, boxes or bags!” (How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Suess) We start to understand the nature of rhyme and meter.
As our reading level increases, we pick up on more complex rules. “Maniac Magee was not born in a dump. He was born in a house, a pretty ordinary house, right across the river from here, in Bridgeport.” (Maniac Magee, Spinelli) This helps us start to understand clauses and commas.
“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” (Catcher in the Rye, Salinger) After a decade or two of reading, you’re understanding qualifiers and voice.
And so on. There’s a reason reading is such a high priority in language classes: It’s example after example of how to implement linguistic rules.
Knowing Which Rules to Break—and How to Break Them
The more you read, the more you’ll start to notice small things—often stylistic choices—that don’t always line up with conventional rules. Some writing may feature stylistic formatting. Fragment sentences. And don’t even get me started on sentences beginning with conjunctions!
You probably get the point. A lot of writing (especially conversational writing) doesn’t always heed conventional rules.
This brings us to the second way reading can buoy up your writing skills: You can learn which rules have some give and how to bend them successfully. Learn from what has (or hasn’t) worked for other writers in your field. Sure we’ve all been told to vary sentence length and structure, but Cormac McCarthy cemented his style doing close to the opposite. Virginia Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness works convey certain feelings better than clear, concise writing ever could. Recent works, like House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski and Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer, play with the very way that words sit on the page.
Obviously, depending on your audience and the type of writing you’re doing, rule flexibility can change. If you’re writing for a client, you’ll have slightly less freedom than if you’re writing poetry for a local zine. Either way, the more you’ve read in the sector where you’re writing, you’ll better understand the liberties you can take.
Orienting Yourself to the Conversations Happening Around You
Before writing this post, I learned what other writers had to say about the benefits of reading. Because, as I’m sure you’re largely aware, information that can easily be found elsewhere on the internet doesn’t carry much weight.
Imagine for a moment that you’re engaged in a conversation at a party. You just made some comments on how Jurassic World reinforces gender stereotypes—a witty and unique opinion. Now imagine that another party guest comes up to the conversation, doesn’t stop to pick up on what’s already been said, and immediately starts repeating the point you just made.
More likely than not, the guests involved in the conversation beforehand won’t be too impressed. Some will be annoyed. A good portion may stop paying attention.
This same thing can happen with writing. Publishing a piece of writing is carrying on a conversation in the public sphere. And it can be pretty damaging to your credibility if you don’t take the time to orient yourself to what’s already been said.
Whether you’re writing for WritersDomain or working on the next big supernatural young adult novel, this rule applies. Be aware of market saturation. Take the time to research what you’re saying and make sure it really adds something to the conversations in progress. Read what others have said before you in order to make an educated and informed contribution.
Remember, these are just a few of the things reading can do to expand your writing abilities—the ones I’ve noticed the most as I’ve read and written through the years. What does reading do for you? Have you noticed changes in your writing as you’ve spent more time reading in the genre? Let us know in the comments!