Reading Really is Fundamental

If you want to improve your writing, you’ll need to read. A lot. It really is just about that simple.

Does it matter what you read? Well, certainly if you limit your reading to weak, poorly edited rubbish, your writing might suffer. Then again, if you only read things that are brilliant, you might back yourself into a major writers block trying to measure up.

The happy middle ground of mixing your reading of some ordinary work with some that is excellent should allow you to see the difference and begin to see how you could improve.

My son’s 9th grade English teacher recently assigned a reading log to accompany reading some classic literature. I majored in English and communications in college and I never once was assigned a reading log. But, I think it is great idea.

A reading log can simply consist of three or four things you want to watch out for while reading. Say, good examples of emotions being engaged, recurring elements, great word play, voice, or anything that is currently troubling you in your own writing. I may not have ever had a reading log assignment, but I do know that just jotting down outstanding examples will better allow your reading to inform your writing.

When I read, especially a good Anne Tyler novel, I tend to lose myself. Relating to the characters, captivated by the plot, intrigued by the tension, compelled to read more, completely entertained and wondering how three hours just slipped by. Reading with awareness about the author’s craft doesn’t ruin the joy of reading for me—but it does make me think more critically about what exactly makes the writing so good.

I hear a lot about how little the American public reads these days. I am not convinced that is the whole story. I know the magazine industry is flourishing (yes, print is not dead—but more on that in a future blog). And digital resources have multiplied what is available exponentially.

Today, I read an article about a researcher who placed study participants in an MRI machine to monitor their brain flow while they read the works of Jane Austin. Her subject’s minds were engaged far beyond what would be expected—including parts of the brain normally used for physical activity. That puts a whole new spin on the value of reading the classics!

The article really stuck with me for another reason. The researcher is writing a book on the history of distraction. She believes that today’s complaints about inattention and diverted minds are far from a modern phenomenon. In fact, she says 18th Century thinkers were very concerned about short attention spans. Sound familiar?

I believe there are still a lot of avid readers, and perhaps even more avid readers in waiting. I admit I fluctuate between the two depending on how busy I am on any particular day. But I always enjoy reading and I do know my writing improves whenever I read.

So, what are you reading? And how do you think it helps your writing?


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