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.

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Comments from our users:

Friday February 26th, 2:15 PM
Comment by: Louis B.
Would you recommend Mortimer Adler's "How to Read a Book"?
Saturday February 27th, 11:18 AM
Comment by: Dr. Don (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
I'm grateful for the opportunity of reading your thoughtful article. Thank you so much!

I was a terrible student during all 12 years of public school but a voracious reader — sometimes reading a book every day (while getting C's, D's and F's in my studies because I never bothered with homework).

When I finally began writing, people were surprised — and in some cases astonished — at how effectively I could put words, sentences, and ideas together. I became co-owner of several life-style magazines and saved money by ghost-writing nearly all the articles. Today I am a full-time ghostwriter ( www.drdonwrites.com). It is a rewarding and fulfilling profession, because I always please and often delight my clients, who say such things as, "you me sound like me."

Your article opened my eyes to see that, while I probably have some natural ability, all that reading I did as a child and young person was doubtless a main contributing factor to any success I might have enjoyed.

Thanks again, Daphne, for the clarity you supplied this morning.
Monday March 1st, 8:05 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Dr. Don. I suspect that your reading served you really well. I also wonder if, perhaps, you had any learning disabilities (or ADHD) as a child? They run in my family and while I was lucky enough to escape them, my son has some really serious learning disabilities — as well as ADHD. That said, he is the best read and the most intelligent person in the household.(I got him major tutoring pronto and spend many hours working with hime.)

I also learned that ADHD is really common in newsrooms (where people self-medicate for it with coffee and cigarets!) I didn't know that fact when I was a newspaper editor myself! What's even less known is that people with ADHD have the ability for intense focus (but only in limited areas and in subjects that interest them.) I make these comments only because of the disconnect between your high school marks and your obvious intelligence.

Louis, I have not read Mortimer Adler's book but I've heard of it.
Monday March 15th, 5:28 AM
Comment by: Dr. Don (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
Thank you so much for your reply, Daphne.

I'm not very bright, but I don't have any disabilities.

My problem as a child was that I was a member of a fundamentalist sect that discouraged making close associations with outsiders. Even worse, my dad left when I was 4-years old and passed away ten years later with never as much as a phone call or birthday card. This was before divorce was socially acceptable, and I was the only child I can remember who was from "a broken home." I'm sure the absence of a father and connection with a cult messed me up in many way. I was a strange young person.

For one thing, I cannot remember ever doing any homework — except in 7th grade we were assigned to write a poem. My mom was a dedicated amateur poet. Her sister published a book of poems. I liked poetry and would memorize poems out of the literature book.

So I wrote a poem. The teacher, Miss Skinner, gave me an F, with the comment, "I know you didn't write this." I don't remember feeling particularly upset about it. I was accustomed to getting failing grades and realized that, Miss Skinner had made a reasonable assumption, from her point of view.

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