Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Why Fiction is Better than Truth

You're 13 years old. It's a warm autumn Saturday and you're stuck at home, sprawled across the living-room couch, while all your friends are busy. "Mom," you say — dragging out the word to three syllables. "I'm bored. I have nothing to do."

"Go read a book," she says tartly. And you roll your eyes. Mothers just don't get it.

Turns out, however, that mom was right. And it's not just any type of book you should be reading. It's fiction. According to studies appearing in the June 2008 issue of New Scientist magazine, readers of narrative fiction scored higher on tests of empathy and social acumen than those who read non-fiction.

But here's the part of the study I found most intriguing: People assigned to read a New Yorker short story did better on social reasoning tests than those who read an essay from the same publication.

How interesting is that?

"Fiction doesn't get a lot of respect," said Raymond Mar, assistant professor in psychology at Toronto's York University. "It has always been viewed as false and a frivolous thing that had no bearing on real life. But the fact of the matter is, there are effects that continue on after we close the book."

"Fair enough," you say. "But I'm never bored on Saturdays and my social life is fine, thank you very much. So, why should I care?" So here's the deal. You should care because writing requires understanding why people act the way they do. For fiction, this means nailing characters. For non-fiction, it means understanding what motivates your audience. In other words, to write successfully it helps if you have a high EQ — emotional intelligence.

I know it's profoundly tempting to see writing as a solitary task — stuck as we are in our own little rooms or offices, faced with only the blank screen. But writing, at heart, is a deeply social activity. Unless you're writing a journal — which is laudable, by the way — your job is to connect with others. And fiction, it seems, can help you with that.

The good news is that the homework is pretty fun. Just read. A lot. (If you’re a non-fiction junkie, oblivious to all the fabulous novels out there waiting to be devoured, then speak to friends or your local librarian for some suggestions.)

Reading fiction is a wonderful, life-enhancing activity. But it's also a practical way to improve your writing — and not just because you absorb the craftsmanship of the writer — it's because the story itself helps you understand the behavior of other human beings.

P.S. If you'd like to read the study published in the New Scientist, you'll need a subscription. Lacking that, you can read a summary story in the Globe & Mail.


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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday October 15th 2008, 1:30 AM
Comment by: Conshana (Denver, CO)
The reading of Science Fiction as a teen has carried me through all my life ( I am 65 ), and has enhanced my life in many ways. The GREATEST benefit was the awakening of my own imagination. I would read something, and ponder on it - "What would happen if xxx happened?",,, or, "I wonder if xxx is really possible?",,, or, "Why (or how) could THAT happen~!~?"
Later, in my own writing, I have tried to awaken in my characters this same sense of imagination and wonder. Whether I am as successful as EE Smith, Isaac Asimov or Arthur C Clarke, I have NO idea,,, That will be for the reader to determine. But in myself, I am pleased. And I have never lost the sense of curiousity I developed as a young child.
For that, I can thank "The Boredom Syndrome". And a ready supply of reading material. I now have a library of over 1500 books, and some I have read and re-read, many times over. This is not only in the Sci-Fi genre, but in many other genres as well.
Sad indeed, the person who has not read a good book.
Blessed Be
I AM Conshana
Wednesday October 15th 2008, 1:49 AM
Comment by: Susan B.
The article is great; I even linked it to my writing group. But I'm not too keen on the title. Most of my creative writing is poetry and truth in poetry is definitely better than fiction. But I do get your point with the article.

thanks
Wednesday October 15th 2008, 1:51 AM
Comment by: Susan B.
Um, I meant using truths in poetry rather than using fiction in poetry is better.
Wednesday October 15th 2008, 12:56 PM
Comment by: David D.
I have always been a reader. My mom said she could hardly wait for me to learn to read since I plagued her constantly to read to me. I read all kinds of fiction and many kinds of non-fiction. If nothing else is at hand I read the list of ingredients on my cereal box. Reading has enhanced my life in too many ways to list here. I have been a pirate and a sea captain and a boy floating downriver on a raft. I have been to hundreds of countries and to far away planets, been a hero and a villain, fought wars and explored jungles. On visits to other countries, I felt familiar with places because I had read of them. There is no way I could have experienced in real life all that I have experienced vicariously. I understand people because my reading taught me empathy. I know how to do many things because I can read instructions. I recommend reading to everyone even if the choice at hand is a comic book. The expansion of understanding of the world that comes with reading poetry is a treasure. At 72 years of age, my greatest challenge is to read more of the thousands of books I know about and the thousands yet to be heard from. Of course, many of my books are like old friends and must be revisited frequently. And naturally I do try to write if only to try to link dissimilar thoughts and opinions that I have read.
Thursday October 16th 2008, 7:58 AM
Comment by: James T M.
I hated reading in elementary school, especially the "Round-Robin Read-out-loud Excercises;" I avoided reading as much as possible in high school; and, as a young man, who wants to read when you can chase girls? Not until I found myself on an isolated island in the Aleautians waiting to repel any Japanese attack with nothing to do except read, did I even pickup a book. Through high school I believed I was a dummy with no ability or desire for college. Thirty-five years ago, when I was near fifty, I stumbled into a college course, discovered I liked to study and learn, then kept going to earn a BS, MS, MEd, and EDd and became a university professor. The Nipponese did me a great favor.

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