The Importance of Reading
Though I do hope you stick around and consider my message, I don’t think it’s a particularly groundbreaking or urgent one. I’m pretty sure we’ve all had some form of “reading is good for you” pounded into our brains. When I tell you “If you want to be a better writer, the first thing you need to do is READ,” I’m not glad you’re reading my little instruction because I think I’m delivering some world-shattering revelation.
No, I’m glad you’re reading this because it means you’re following my little instruction. Like, right now. Isn’t it great?
The whole point of writing is to communicate with an audience: to connect with a reader, to help that reader inhabit your ideas, imagine your thoughts, experience your perspective. The process of writing is the process of imagining a dialogue with your future readers, of responding to any questions they might have and eliminating any confusing tangents. You have to edit your message to make sure that it’s clear, concise, effective. You have to make sure you’re writing what you mean to write, that you’re not projecting your own understanding onto your readers and leaving logical gaps that will frustrate and confuse readers from different backgrounds than yours.
And—perhaps most importantly—you have to keep your reader interested. Which is why it’s so important to read. When you become a reader, you become sensitive to the ways that writers succeed—and fail—at keeping your interest. You notice when a rhetorical device doesn’t work, when a joke falls flat, when a sentence goes on for too long.
And it’s not just crappy writing that helps you become a better writer. Well-written prose seeps into your subconscious. You notice when an argument is convincing, when a writer’s voice seems to snuggle into the folds of your brain and make you feel like you could be friends with that writer—like you could be that writer—if only you were more eloquent.
In the world of words, to be a writer is to be a reader. After each draft, you have to comb over your words and imagine reading them for the first time. You have to remember what it’s like to be a reader, to draw on your experiences and remind yourself what you like to read, to consider whether your authorial self is living up to the standards you’ve established as a critical reader.
As you’ve read this, I’ve forced you to imagine yourself as a critical reader, to consider the clunkiness of my prose (though I hope it’s not too clunky) and to imagine your own writing in contrast to it. But even less self-conscious writing allows its readers to gain this level of insight into the writing process.
And that’s why I’m glad you’ve (nearly) finished reading this—so you can go on to read something else. So you can go on to accumulate a nice cushion of opinions on authors and their styles, adopt the elements you like and abandon the ones you don’t. Don’t be afraid of stifling your own voice by exposing yourself to the voices of others. The more you read (broadly and for pleasure, not just instructive blogs by professional editors like myself) the stronger your sense of who you are as a reader will develop. The sheer volume of material out there can be daunting, but finding your niche as a reader will help you find a niche as a writer.
Read on, brave wordsmith!