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.”
“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.”
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.
“Reading about another era is like armchair time travel — without the baggage.”
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.
“Read to make yourself smarter! Less judgmental. More apt to understand your friends’ insane behavior, or better yet, your own.”
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!
“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.
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!