Posted on: November 12, 2021
In this blog Roslyn Petelin, author of How Writing Works, examines the connection between reading and the development of strong writing skills.
Don’t underestimate the immeasurable value of reading in learning to write.
How does reading help writing?
If you want to learn to write well, immerse yourself in reading. Wide reading, particularly of those who write well, will help you to absorb a great deal about the craft of writing—about structure of sentences and patterns of paragraphs, word choice, punctuation, rhythm, and so on.
Of course, the more you know about the technical aspects of grammar, sentence structure and style, and punctuation, the greater your pleasure in reading.
Francine Prose says: ‘I was a huge, huge reader as a kid and learned just how much being a writer depends on being a reader’.
Zadie Smith says: ’Learning to be a good reader is what makes you as a writer’.
Alan Bennett’s wonderfully witty and touching novella The Uncommon Reader is based on the belief that the right book at the right time can ignite a lifelong habit and create a ‘true bookhound’. Not only that, but, after borrowing lots of books from the City of Westminster travelling library parked in one of Buckingham Palace’s courtyards, Queen Elizabeth II becomes a writer. Bennett’s book is one of those delicious books that you want to start re-reading the moment you have finished it.
At the beginning of every new writing class I remind the students of Henry James’s advice: ‘Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost’.
How does this work in relation to reading? Find writers whose writing you admire and concentrate seriously when you are reading their work. Use your dictionary to look up new words that you come across. Read with a pencil in your hand and copy out great sentences by hand. Take notes, but make sure that you carefully attribute the name of the writer and the name of the book. I once heard the Australian novelist Elizabeth Jolly say that she had used this technique with her creative writing students with surprising results. Some of them had copied out great lines written by Shakespeare, which, when the students returned to their work, they thought they had written those lines themselves!
Try to work out what makes a piece of writing resonate with you. If you keep a double-entry journal, which I recommend highly in Chapter 1 of my book, How Writing Works, respond to the extracts that you have copied and analyse the techniques that authors have used. Imitate. Emulate. (There is a difference.)
If you’re already confident about your writing competence, that is, your writing self-efficacy, reading syntactically challenging writing can be even more enlightening and pleasurable. Try J. I. M. Stewart’s quintet A Staircase in Surrey or any of Barbara Trapido’s novels.
There’s no shortage of endorsements from highly regarded writers about the value of reading:
George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons: ‘A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies’, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one’.
Somerset Maugham, Books and You: ‘The greatest gift is a passion for reading. It is cheap, it consoles, it distracts, it delights, it gives you knowledge of the world and experience of a wide kind. It is a moral illumination’.
Elizabeth Hardwick, co-founder of the New York Review of Books: ‘Whether we’re reading a novel, a biography, or for that matter a book about orchids, we seek an elusive combination of pleasure, utility, and intellectual stimulation, something to pique our curiosity and engage our minds’.
Here are some of the ways that reading helps writing that complement the ones espoused by the authors in the quotes above:
- Reading expands your concentration and your vocabulary
- Reading exposes you to different writing styles
- Reading helps you to subconsciously absorb syntax, grammar, style, and punctuation
- Reading helps you to subconsciously absorb generic conventions, structure, and document design
- Reading gives you increased insight and inspiration
- Reading can make you more empathic
- Reading can help you relax and reduce your stress
- Reading can help you get to sleep, though not in the blue light of an e-book.
Are there any disadvantages?
- You may spend too much time on reading and not enough time on writing
- You might become intimidated by great writing done by others
- You’ll see only the finished product and not how it was created
- You might limit the development of your own style if you depend heavily on imitating the writing of others.
On another note: while we generally read silently, Verlyn Klinkenborg suggests that ‘reading aloud is valuable because it recaptures the physicality of words. Our idea of reading is incomplete, impoverished, unless we are also taking the time to read aloud’.
Concerns have been expressed in many quarters that there has been a decline in reading for pleasure because of the proliferation of digital diversions. Has this happened to you?
Do you agree with those who say that a book’s not worth reading unless it’s worth re-reading?
A final note: Read to be happy!