Friday, January 22, 2010

Read More = Write Better

I believe we can become good readers without being good writers, but we cannot become good writers without being good readers. Good reading requires reading practice, but good writing requires both reading and writing practice.

What do I mean by being a good reader? By my definition, good reading equates to four factors:
  • Frequency. You have to read every day, and read more than just the daily newspaper. You should read at least an hour each day--at the low end. And no vacations or sick notes allowed. In fact, take advantage of those lulls in activity to read: when in bed nursing an illness, when in line at the bank or post office, when in a public conveyance, when parked in a car waiting for your kid to leave soccer practice, whenever.

  • Diversity. The broader the range of reading material, the better chance you have of expanding your vocabulary and developing fresh writing ideas. Read fiction and nonfiction, the technical and the poetic, books in your field, on government, geology, marine biology, human anatomy, astronomy, technology, medicine, history, entertainment, art, music, cooking, travel, sports, real estate, education, investing, economics, psychology, sociology, anthropology, theology, gardening, home improvement, race relations, whatever.

  • Depth. Challenge yourself by reading material that you suspect is over your head. If you have an unhinging aversion to all things scientific, read The Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas or Billions and Billions by Carl Sagan. If you are confounded by the geopolitical landscape, read The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order by Samuel P. Huntington or The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukayama. If you're positive that literature is over your head, read How to Read and Why by Harold Bloom or The Well-Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer. Once you do, it won't be long before you find such material and more specialized content easier to grasp, and you even might refer to such resources in your next article, story, white paper, or school paper.

  • Consciousness. This means reflecting on not only the themes you're reading about, but on the author's narrative strategy, sentence structure, and word choice. For example, why does John Steinbeck spend the first chapter of East of Eden, 3,000-or-so words, describing the geography and history of the Salinas Valley without introducing one character? Why does he start three of the first six sentences with the repetitious "I remember"? Why does he choose the word swale in the second sentence and not swamp or bog? The answers to these questions are not as important as the questions themselves. By asking the author, you are really challenging yourself to make choices that writers make every day.
OK, this post counts as some reading, but it's not enough. Go ahead: read, and then write about it.

How to Write Fast Under Pressure by Philip Vassallo is on sale at