Read well to write well

The old saying goes like this: “The more you read, the more you know.” But what you read matters, too—especially if you’re trying to improve your writing skills. For writers, the old saying merits an update: “The more high-quality content you read, the more you know about writing well.”

Image source: loc.gov/pictures/resource/fsa.8a22095

Image source: loc.gov/pictures/resource/fsa.8a22095

If you’re reading an abundance of poorly written content, it’s easy to pick up bad writing habits—consciously or subconsciously—from that low-quality content. (To use a dirty cliché: garbage in, garbage out.) Reading better writing helps make us better writers. That piece of advice might sound obvious, but we often forget to seek out better writing—instead contenting ourselves with reading the same old news sites, the same old blogs, the same old industry publications. And plenty of people who must write as part of their jobs fail to do much reading beyond their immediate work-related boundaries. (They read corporate e-mail and reports from colleagues, but they can’t remember when they last read a novel or a “think piece” in a magazine, and they might rarely visit major national news sites.)

Reading great writing helps build your sense of the rhythm of written language—a sense that will help you craft more fluid language for your readers and give them content that they can more easily process. (When your readers can process your content easily, your message gets through to them better.)

Reading great writing increases or reinforces your vocabulary by exposing you to words and phrases that can help you communicate more clearly and more crisply, helping you to maximize the reader’s comprehension.

Reading great writing can better inform you of news and developments in your areas of interest and expertise—giving you a better grasp of information that you, in turn, can convey in your own writing.

Reading great writing gives you a sense of how high the language bar has been set in a particular field, and it helps you set writing goals and objectives. (How does your writing compare to the “good writing” you’re reading? How does your writing compare in terms of clarity and descriptiveness—or in terms of the usefulness of information or the quality of sources? How can the great writing you’re reading be made even better?)

The quality-of-writing spectrum runs from “rotten” to “poor” to “fair” to “good” to “very good” to “excellent” to “exceptional”—with plenty of room for debate at each slice of the spectrum. In looking for better content to read, don’t get mired in the middle of the spectrum. Content that you consider “good” might be “poor” to a friend or co-worker. “Excellent” and “exceptional” content tends to garner greater critical consensus, and it’s often clearly labeled as “excellent” or “exceptional” or “the best”—thanks to literary and industry awards.

Seeking out award winners, therefore, is a smart way to find the great writing that will help make you a better writer. And there’s no shortage of award-winning material to read. For starters, you can find scores of examples of exceptional writing at www.pulitzer.org, and the literary-awards category on Wikipedia can help you discover several hundred more examples, from comedy writing to science writing.

Copyright © 2014 by L. Scott Tillett, lstillett.wordpress.com. All rights reserved.

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5 responses to “Read well to write well

  1. I have always disliked the assumption that anything other that award winning literary fiction is less than worthy of consideration. The great classics of today were yesterday’s popular fiction and examples of pop culture. Charles Dickens, Mary Shelley, Byron, Jane Austen and don’t forget the Brontes were all considered a little low brow in their time. Let us also not forget Shakespeare and his contemporaries who work was risque at times for the era and was banned on occasion due to lack of suitable gravitas.

    It hypocritical to encourage a wide range of reading material and at the same time place limits on what is considered appropriate examples of the fiction medium. How is a person to determine the own taste and define that which interests them if they approach particular works or styles with the preconceived idea that these offerings are somehow less.

    I’ve enjoyed Stephen King just as much as Isabel Allende or Gabriel Garcia Marquez because I read them for different with the same open heart and mind that can appreciate each as master storytellers even though they weave a different cloth.

    Over exposure to reading material be it of higher or lesser quality is always good because over time you will come to recognise what carries the story and reaches readers as compared to words assembled on a page. Reading is always a good thing – how do you know what is bad or good if you are only exposed to a select material or approach books as if they are already judged before you’ve even read the first word.

    • Excellent points, Jenni. We can extract value (lessons, wisdom, joy) from nearly all forms and levels of writing, from a 5-year-old’s misspelled love letter to “War & Peace.” Note: I’m not encouraging writers/readers to read *only* excellent content; I’m encouraging them to seek and read excellent content. And there’s a lot of it out there, waiting to be discovered … even if award-winning Stephen King isn’t their cup of tea.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_King#Awards

      • I have a little tendency to soapbox on that subject at the drop of a hat so my apologies for jumping on only part of the post. Still maintain even poor content can have value even if providing a gauge to work up from.

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