Does reading for pleasure make you a better writer? It’s a theory that has been tossed around and debated numerous times. Many people maintain that writing is a craft, and that all crafts should begin with an education from the masters—for instance, if you want to be a modern artist, you should go to Florence to study the works of Michelangelo and Da Vinci. Others, as represented below by the esteemed Lil Wayne, will staunchly argue that saturating yourself in the works of others will only keep you from developing your own style.
Honestly, I don’t listen to nobody else’s music but my own. It’s kind of like sports to me. You don’t see Kobe Bryant at a LeBron James game—he just works on his own game. And that’s what I do. I only listen to me, so I can criticize and analyze and all those things. —Lil Wayne
No offense to the creative habits of Lil Wayne (and I swear my disagreement isn’t at all influenced by his use of double negatives), but there is some interesting research that shows reading for pleasure can actually make you a better writer, both mechanically and meaningfully.
Early reading and performance
Research has linked early reading habits with better performance in school-aged children. Cullinan’s “Independent Reading and School Achievement” examines several studies indicating that students who engage in free reading outside of school are better developed in vocabulary, reading comprehension, and verbal fluency, which then translates into practical writing ability. Children who establish reading habits early (at the age of five) exhibit continued academic success in later years. Cullinan states that even “six years of schooling could not make up for the loss children suffered by not engaging in literacy events in their early lives.”
In a study of 230 children, the most academically successful were frequently read to by their parents, were provided with materials and spaces for pleasure reading at home, and visited libraries purely for enjoyment. Assessments of children in grades one to five revealed that “among all the ways children spent their time, reading books was the best predictor of measures of reading achievement in reading comprehension, vocabulary, and reading speed, including gains in reading comprehension between the second and fifth grade.”
A book title recognition test of middle school and young adult students revealed that those who had been most exposed to literature were also the most advanced in vocabulary, spelling, verbal fluency, and general word knowledge. In Writing: Research, Theory and Applications, Stephen Krashen notes that the highest-achieving college students report high levels of pleasure reading, especially in high school, compared to low-achieving students who engage in little to no reading for pleasure.
Krashen concludes that “voluntary pleasure reading contributes to the development of writing ability; it is a more important factor than writing frequency in improving writing.” Some famous examples include Malcolm X and Richard Wright, whose literacy success came not from formal education but from recreational reading.
Reading, language, and writing
Krashen compares the formation of writing ability to the learning of a new language. He states that reading for pleasure is the greatest boon to natural language development; the same goes for becoming an accomplished writer. Languages are best learned by indirect absorption (e.g., reading) rather than overt instruction (e.g., grammar memorization). Krashen calls the art of writing a “special dialect” that, like language, is acquired, not learned. In a paper presented at the RELC conference in Singapore in 2004, Krashen stated that “those who do more recreational reading show better development in reading, writing, grammar and vocabulary. These results hold for first and second language acquisition, and for children and adults.”
The effectiveness of recreational reading on ESL learners can be seen in this case study of a Korean woman and also in this report of Sophia, a Taiwanese girl who immigrated to the United States at the age of six with no real English ability. The Korean woman claims that her prowess in the English language comes not from grammar books but from careful study of the feel and flow of language as she encounters it in literature. Sophia’s case presents some interesting data: her English test scores drop at the end of each school year but skyrocket after a summer vacation full of voluntary free reading.
Like learning a language, writing successfully requires not just mechanical skill but a feel for words. Grammar lessons and exercises in story construction can certainly help fill the holes in a writer’s ability, but they pale in comparison to the foundation of skill that literature gives to aspiring writers. In the words of William Faulkner,
Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.
Exposure to fiction means greater empathy
Good writing employs sophisticated style, a feel for language, and mechanical expertise. But let’s not forget that writing is also an art and a way to connect people across continents and generations. People read to understand life; those who write do so to help others understand it. How can we, as writers, access this world of understanding and empathy to become better writers? The answer is obvious: through reading. Renowned author Neil Gaiman speaks on the effects of exposure to literature:
. . . [The] second thing fiction does is to build empathy . . . Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.
A good book is good because it is relatable; it taps into the human condition to make its readers feel something. You develop this kind of skill by broadening your own emotional scope through reading.
Like any craft…
Writing requires practice. Reading supplies a foundation of style and empathetic understanding in ways that formal education cannot. Technical instruction (such as the courses offered at GrammarCamp) simply fills in the gaps to help you become an even better writer.
Can I be blunt on the subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.—Stephen King
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