Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Why the Best Readers Make the Best Writers

A grade 2 teacher reported to my parents more than 50 years ago that I wasn't reading enough. The reaction? It was like an alarm going off in a nuclear plant. My parents dusted off my library card and sent me to the Bookmobile (a portable library based in a bus) once a week.

Then, they started asking questions about what I was reading. Pretty soon I always had a book sitting in the top right-hand corner of my desk at school and as soon as I'd finished my work, I was allowed to read it. Bonus! Teacher-approved-reading while others were doing math!

Perhaps this quick intervention is what turned me into a lifelong reader. I read at least 50 books every year (see my most recent report here) and I've long toyed with the idea of giving myself a 100-books-per-year goal. (What's stopped me is the fear that if I did that, I wouldn't have the time for my beloved New Yorker.)

But I know for sure that reading is what turned me into a writer. Did you know that sports psychologists tell their athletes to imagine their races and visualize how they'll deal with anything that might go wrong. Swimmer Michael Phelps used this technique in a race when his goggles failed and managed to win a World Record (I learned that fact by reading the marvelous Charles Duhigg book The Power of Habit, by the way.)

Here's what being a diligent reader does for you:

It makes you a better writer by teaching you what's most effective in terms of building sentences, developing a structure and creating metaphors. For fiction writers, it teaches successful ways to build plot and develop characters. What you see, you can imitate.

It shows you how writing can fail in terms of all the issues outlined above. While I never urge people to read bad writing deliberately (because it's too easy to start imitating it, however inadvertently), being conscious of what's wrong can be instructive. Many years ago, I had a management coach who told me that having a bad boss was almost exactly as instructive as having a good one. What you can see as bad encourages you not to imitate.

It's inexpensive. Most books are sold for nowhere near a "profitable" price and the public has become accustomed to the notion that paperbacks should cost no more than $19.95 or less and hard-covers no more than $45 or less. Those numbers haven't changed in more than 30 years! How else could you get taken into another world and another time (or learn a new and valuable skill) for so little money? Finally, if you can't afford even that, there's always the public library, where you can borrow books for no charge at all.

It reduces stress. If I'm feeling worn out by my work or by events in my life (or simply bored by standing in a bank lineup or waiting at the doctor's office) I know that reading will help me feel more engaged and relaxed. Being drawn into another world helps me become stronger and more resilient.

It improves our analytical thinking. The work of Anne Cunningham — a professor in the Graduate School of Education at Berkeley — shows that reading helps develop our brains in a multitude of ways. This is known as the "Matthew effect," referring to a Biblical passage describing the supremely unfair formula of the rich getting richer while the poor become poorer. Basically, readers get smarter the more they read and non-readers are left at an even greater disadvantage. (This made me very grateful that my husband and I spent many dollars and hundreds of hours of our time teaching our dyslexic son to read.)

The best writers are always smart, so do yourself a favour and become a devoted reader.

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