People dislike or avoid reading for all sorts of reasons. Some associate reading with schoolwork or struggle to focus for long stretches of time. Some lack access to reading material. Others would simply prefer to spend their time pursuing something else.
Even writers sometimes avoid reading, albeit often for different reasons. Writers who hesitate to devour words usually give explanations relating to their writing practice such as: "I'm too busy with my own work to read anything else." Another writer might say: "I don't want to pick up any external ideas." As if an idea was an infectious disease!
These feelings and concerns are understandable, and almost any writer could fall prey to them occasionally. But if they're left unchallenged, they become dangerous to the writer's craft.
Not Reading Is Dangerous for Writers
For many people, a general distaste for books won't mean the end of the world — their lives don't require them to read recreationally. However, for writers, reading plays a much more vital role.
Failing to read could hinder a writer's career progress and make them less able to write well. The good news, though, is that the inverse is also true: reading more can make you better at writing.
If you're curious about how reading impacts the brain and improves writing, read on.
Reading Strengthens Brain Function
Whether you enjoy it or not, reading exercises your brain. The task requires extended concentration, memory, language comprehension and analysis. Your brain must extract meaning from every sentence, every word you encounter. That's serious work. So give yourself a pat on the back.
Though reading can feel difficult — as demonstrated by the struggle of making it through “The Grapes of Wrath” — that difficulty encourages the brain to grow and thrive.
One study found, for example, that reading fiction improves brain connectivity and function. It can help readers empathize with other people and improve embodied cognition, a type of visualization similar to muscle memory. These skills are essential not only to writing creatively, but also to living compassionate, fulfilled and happy lives.
Reading also has more direct effects on the brain's ability to work with language. One longitudinal study of UK teenagers found that those who read in their spare time knew 26% more words than those who never read for fun. In fact, recreational reading predicted higher vocabulary regardless of background and family influence.
Reading's impact on the brain suggests that those who read more have the edge when it comes to composing language and narratives professionally. However, you don't need to study neuroscience to see how reading improves writing.
Reading Also Improves Writing Skills
In addition to changing the brain, reading frequently also familiarizes writers with the tenets of good writing. The most obvious examples of instructive reading materials are craft books. These are books by established authors and experts meant to teach others how to write more effectively.
Craft books take many forms — memoirs, textbooks, essay anthologies — but they are all essentially books about writing and related topics. Reading books about writing can teach you new ways of viewing your craft, and it can also help you define your own unique theory of writing.
Some authors may speak to your soul, others might threaten to crush it. Whether you accept or reject their theories, other authors' thoughts can be useful.
Reading also teaches writing more indirectly. In fact, it's fair to say that reading broadly and often is the best way to understand how writing works.
Reading in the genre you write is most important. If you're an aspiring web writer, for example, read articles and blogs from respected web publications and writers. If you write science fiction, read a lot of science fiction and related books.
When you read in your genre, you familiarize yourself with that genre's tools of composition. You gain understanding of tone, voice, sentence structure and organization. You see which strategies work and which don't, and you better understand how to approach your writing to fill the needs of the audience.
Writers who read are like jazz musicians listening to a chord progression — they understand what they're working with so when it's their turn, they can go for it.
Golden Rules of Writing to Remember
When you read in your genre and keep your own writing in the back of your mind, you inevitably learn things that make you better at your craft. Reading works by authors you admire can inspire, instruct, and motivate you. After all, writing, like all art, is a conversation.
Even if you end up reading works from authors or topics you don't particularly like, you'll still grow from the experience. Understanding what makes for unfavorable and bad writing is also important for writing well.
By reading works you disagree with and considering how you might have approached the topic differently, it can help you avoid the same mistakes and even inspire you to write it better. Ernest Hemingway only wrote the acclaimed “The Sun Also Rises” because he first read F. Scott Fitzgerald's “Tender Is the Night.”
The takeaway point here is, reading is an essential part of writing. The two cannot exist apart.
So, for writers, the "Golden Rule" of writing is: read widely. If you want others to read what you write, you must also read what others write.
The more you read, the better you treat your reader because you have been them. You will know that they do not want five pages of rumblings with only semi-colons for punctuation... Unless they do, which you will know because you will have been in their shoes.
This is a long way of saying: Please develop a strong reading habit — it is good for you. The world does need good writings, so go out and discover what that good writing might look like.
And thank you for reading this far.