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One Writer's Ravings:
A Logophile's Blog
for Language Lovers

Good Writers Are Good Readers

One of my high school teachers once said, “When you’re all grown up, you’re going to remember only ten minutes of what you learned in high school.”

I think that assertion holds true for most of us. You may remember quite well the tribulations of your life in high school—your extracurricular triumphs and failures, your angst-ridden struggle to establish an authentic self—but how much of what you were supposed to learn from your classes and textbooks and assignments do you recall? I can’t remember a single thing I wrote in my term paper on E. M. Forster’s novel A Passage to India, but to this day I carry with me a few precious words of advice from my English teacher that junior year.

It was an off-the-cuff remark, part of an informal exchange before or after class, I can’t remember now. I’m not sure what led up to it. All I know is that this wise teacher, aware of my juvenile literary aspirations, said to me, “Listen, Charlie. If you want to be a writer, then you must read, read, read.”

Reading lays the groundwork for writing in every way. Reading good fiction teaches you about plot, character, narration, imagery, and detail. Reading good nonfiction teaches you about theme, argument, description, proportion, and substantiation. Reading both will teach you about voice, tone, idiom, syntax, diction, cadence, and rhythm.

Reading teaches us how words work. From reading we learn what makes sense and what sounds like windy trash or gobbledygook. From reading we learn what kind of writing commands attention and what kind makes the eyelids droop. From reading we discover how words can be used to confuse and stifle us, or to stir our hearts and stimulate our minds.

People sometimes ask me what I learned in college, and when they do I tell them that I learned three things: how to read, how to write, and how to think critically—but not necessarily in that order.

First I learned how to open my mind to the infinite possibilities of language. I learned how to lurk in a line of poetry or a page of prose until it undressed itself for me and I saw its beauty bare. By doing this I learned how to think like a writer, how to ask pertinent questions and discern a writer’s intentions. I learned that knowledge is in the eye of the interpreter, and that, contrary to popular belief, the writer is at the mercy of the reader. Finally I learned that you can read for pleasure, for profit, or for enlightenment—and the greatest of these is enlightenment.

All this insight, gained from reading, helped me learn to write, but not all that well. Although college gave me many opportunities to exercise a raw talent for writing, it didn’t do much to refine it.

With the exception of the first essay I submitted, a two-page paper that came back with 37 red question marks on it, I didn’t receive any rigorous writing instruction in college. I was expected to write often and write thoughtfully about things that I had read, but I don’t remember getting much advice on how to do that effectively. The essays I wrote in college were good practice in putting my thoughts into words, but it was the thoughts that came under scrutiny, rarely the words.

Only later, after much autodidactic effort plying my trade, did I come to understand a thing or two about writing, and the revelation that struck me the most was that everything I knew about writing I had learned from reading.

I’ll say it again: Reading lays the groundwork for writing in every way.

There is a maxim I am fond of, which I often use as an inscription when signing copies of Tooth and Nail, my first vocabulary-building novel for high school students. This is what I write: Read, read, read, and you will succeed. I think my high school junior English teacher would be pleased.

Let me sum up these thoughts on the relationship between reading and writing with two aphorisms: 1. A good writer is always a good reader. 2. How you write reflects how well you have read—not just how widely you have read, but how well.

“We must become a nation of truly competent readers, recognizing all that the word competent implies. Nothing less will satisfy the needs of the world that is coming.”

Those words are from the classic guide How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler, first published in 1940. What was true seventy-odd years ago is only more true today.
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