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Why Does Reading Make You a Better Writer?

The answer to the question of whether being an active reader will make you a better writer won’t be news to most authors – it’s advice we’ve all been given on many occasions.

But why does reading make you a better writer? How much should you read if you want to get the most benefit? Does listening to audiobooks on a commute count as reading?

Let’s dig a little deeper into this mainstay of writing advice.

 

Go On… Read More

One of the most common pieces of writing advice you’ll see is read more. Great authors across all genres agree – if you want to write, you must read.

“Read, read, read. Read everything  –  trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”
–William Faulkner

 

“You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page. Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write.”
–Annie Proulx

If we were to be cynical, we could say that authors have a vested interest in coaxing us to read. After all, that’s their product and how they pay the bills! But there is solid science that backs up the benefits of reading.

Here we will focus on three reasons to read, all of which feature a scientific stamp of approval.

 

Intelligence

“Reading about another era is like armchair time travel — without the baggage.”
―C.J. Fosdick

Children are taught to read at an early age for a reason. Storytelling, both written and verbal, is how human civilization passes on knowledge, experience, triumphs, and failures. There’s plenty of evidence that children who read more also have higher scores on a range of tests, including IQ tests. This benefit continues on into adulthood, so long as you keep reading – non-fiction as well as fiction.

 

Brainpower

“Read to make yourself smarter! Less judgmental. More apt to understand your friends’ insane behavior, or better yet, your own.”
―John Waters

Regular reading is like strength training for your brain. As we age, our memory and brain functions slow down, but this can be inhibited or even reversed by regular reading. Sharp minds make for better stories!

 

Empathy

“Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.”
—Joyce Carol Oates

Reading can help us relate to others. By getting absorbed in a good story, we open ourselves up to the lives of different people – and as we fall into step with the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of people we would never have previously understood, we learn to empathize. As a writer, a highly developed sense of empathy widens your creative and storytelling horizons.

 

How much should you read?

The simple answer is: As much as you can.

Studies have inspected the amount of time you should read for the biggest benefit. In one, the University of Michigan conducted a study into health and retirement. They discovered that 30 minutes of reading each day, every day, offered the biggest improvement in wellbeing. Another fact they uncovered was that reading fiction gave more positive effects than reading non-fiction.

 

Can you save time with audiobooks?

It seems like 30 minutes a day isn’t much, but life can get in the way more easily than you’d expect. With that in mind, can you multitask by getting your daily book time through audio, during your commute or while working out at the gym?

Well, audiobooks certainly save time and can be more immersive for some people – something to which the increasing demand for them, leading to higher quality products and fully theatrical adaptations, can certainly attest.

As to whether the effect of the spoken word is the same versus the written, there has not been much research – but one expert on reading’s benefits, University of Virginia psychologist Daniel Willingham, argues that the mental processes involved (increasing intellect and reducing stress) are largely the same.

Still, there has been little in-depth investigation of the pros and cons of audiobooks for writers – but if you consider it from the perspective of reading as a developing author, the gut feeling suggests audiobooks cannot be as effective as having the printed book in your hands.

Why is that? It’s because, as a writer, the physical makeup of the page is important. Aside from the actual words being used to convey the story, there are many lessons to be found within the structural and rhythmic makeup of a novel. When the pages are in front of you, it’s much easier to see how the author has created effects such as tension, comedy, and excitement through their use of punctuation and word choice.

Sure, a good narrator will use these clues to read with the right tone and expression in their voice, but when you’re passively listening, you lose the opportunity to let your eyes drift back over a paragraph, dissect the construction, and truly appreciate the author’s skill.

Ultimately, reading like a writer takes more than an appreciation of the story itself – you need to go deeper, and that’s extremely difficult with audio only.

 

Final thoughts

Reading offers great entertainment, promotes deep thinking and human empathy, and has the ability to take you anywhere in the world with the turn of a page. Just 30 minutes curled up with a novel each day offers you a wide range of benefits – but if you’re looking to level up your technical wizardry and want to gain the greatest advantage from your exploration of the work of fellow writers, stick with the printed book, not the audiobook.

What do you think? Are we on the same page about reading as a writer? How often do you make time to read, and do you make a distinction between reading for entertainment, and reading to study? Let’s chat in the comments below!

 

 

Join the Discussion on “Why Does Reading Make You a Better Writer?”

  1. Sid Gardner says:

    Exactly true, in my experience. The aging part of it, however, has to be taken into account. With macular degeneration and other eye disorders, the reading /listening tradeoff gets more and more challenging. Knowing the benefits, do you accelerate the decline of your vision by reading as much as you want to in the late 70s and beyond?

    Tough decisions.

  2. Arloa says:

    I think audiobooks are important in learning rhythm and cadence of words and sentences. So, perhaps the biggest benefit would be to poets or screenplay writers. Audiobooks also help with empathy and experiencing time travel. But, audiobooks do nothing to help with the mechanics of writing. You won’t learn punctuation, paragraph structure or how to set off dialog in your writing. You will learn flow and story structure. If I am listening to non-fiction, I learn more if I can take notes. There’s something about the brain-writing connection that helps learning. (Not possible while driving, but …) The best way of learning writing might be to read the book while listening to someone else read it aloud. That involves multiple sensory inputs, and lets you see the mechanics of writing while hearing flow and cadence. But, it sure doesn’t save time!

  3. David I says:

    I’m of two minds about audiobooks (Am not!). I had a visually impaired sibling who listened to records called Talking Books. I grew up listening to a lot of fiction read to me, often in a male voice. To this day I hear the narration when I read. When I review my own writing, I hear a narrator speaking (not my voice – not a parrot voice either) and I judge the quality of the writing by how it sounds to my ear. That said, for me, knowing how to structure writing so it sounds good requires a lot of exposure to reading. So I’d say (and I would too) that a combination of reading and listening is beneficial. If I had to pick only one mode, I’d read. I’m not saying my preference should be universal. There are people whose main mode of learning is through listening. I’ve even had bosses who insisted on telling me very complicated things instead of writing them down. I didn’t get what they were saying until I wrote it down and they didn’t get why I didn’t get it. So, learning to write from reading or audiobooks may depend on whether you learn by reading or listening.

  4. wade M. says:

    I like to read so I can see where this now is opening the door to writing read at least 1 hr a day. I think a combination of audio and print, I see benefits in both I also notice the difference in print in comparison to digital.
    I agree with reading as an essential skill to writing and yes entertaining reading and study are different in my opinion they can overlap at times. Write on fellow creatives
    Wade M.

  5. Kathy S. Mehl says:

    I like both reading and audio. When I’m driving I listen to my favorites and have trained my brain to look for certain forms of speech or writing, or listening for the voice of a certain character. However, I agree the written form of making eye contact and highlighting or rereading a paragraph is an all powerful method of learning. Taking notes is where I gain my solid ground for a better understanding of whatever I am researching at the time. I think whatever works for you to improve your writing may involve both audio and actual reading. Sometimes, I order a book to hold and mark and I also order it on eBook so I can study when I’m away from home and don’t have the book on me, but have the time to read. I also like the audio when I’m driving. Whatever works best for you is my motto.

  6. GLC says:

    I just want to thank David I for making me smile multiple times with his comment. Loved the bit about the bosses!

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