“The most important thing is to read as much as you can, like I did. It will give you an understanding of what makes good writing and it will enlarge your vocabulary” (J. K. Rowling).
We’re always told that to become a better writer we need to read. It’s understandable, but still questionable as to why reading helps make us a better writer.
There’s a few ways to extract the truth from how reading expands our writing skill and how it happens subconsciously or consciously.
Reading Is Like Attending A Seminar In Writing
One way that I tend to think of reading is as a one on one conversation with the author and me. They have something to tell me and I am there to listen.
Until I listen to them and start to understand it for myself, even if I only form a partial understanding, the more I listen the better I will teach it.
They say the best way to learn something is to teach it yourself, but if you can’t teach the very basics first, learn it and teach it as you dive deeper.
Reading is a way to look into the minds of masters and for them to personally expose you to their processes, style, and whatever else it might be that you are absorbing from reading their work.
It may appear that books which explain and teach writing will help and obviously they do, but that’s similar to talking about the Grand Canyon whereas it might be more beneficial to take you to the Grand Canyon.
Writing is visual whether you believe it to be or not, the images appear in your head and overtime the images start to resonate.
Practicing seeing and interpreting the visuals can better help you to form your own visuals.
These visuals are like the examples. Although the lesson might not be directly taught to you, the examples give you a much better idea and understanding of what it is.
When you learn a new word the best way to understand its meaning is using it in an example, a sentence. So while reading may not directly tell you the answer, as it is used you will learn it yourself.
From reading your vocabulary is expanded and your visualization is strengthened. All the while you are enjoying the entertainment of whatever book you might happen to be reading that’s inevitably teaching.
Writing Can Help But Won’t Directly Teach
Because writing is a skill, it would be understandable to say that the best way to strengthen that skill is practice.
However, if you are trying to better your writing, you need a way to compare it as making sure you are getting better.
You can easily tell if you are getting better at skateboarding because you aren’t falling as much anymore. You’re landing the tricks you are attempting.
But in writing, how do you know you are landing your tricks? How can you tell that you are doing it right and not just practicing a technique that should be avoided?
Reading will teach you how anything in writing works whether it be structure, style, or vocabulary. Using those wrongly won’t get you to land on the ground and fall off your board because the physical side of writing is no more than putting building blocks with no connecting parts next to each other.
If you are very new to writing (including myself), practice comes into being beneficial for writing when you are trying to learn your methods for creation. By writing you can learn how your word structure works, what attempts at style you like to involve yourself in and what you might want to write about with more practice.
Reading up on things like horror books can teach you how certain elements in a horror story will play out or should play out. You can practice writing horror, but to see if you have done it right, check with the acclaimed masterpieces.
I’ve talked a lot about the apparent side effects of reading, but what if you are not making an effort to become better at writing and are just reading for the heck of it?
I would say and many would agree that reading will inevitably teach you writing even if you are only in it for the story.
Sure watching movies won’t make us better at making them ourselves. But because reading takes a lot longer and you choose the pace of the story, the writer is the screenplay artist and you are the director.
You will also notice your mind starts acting as if this is true even when you are done with the book.
If you’ve ever taken a walk at night after reading for a while or taken a walk after listening to your favorite song you’ll see a bit of what I mean.
When walking, your mind may play the world out as you describe it as if you were writing it. The story continues in your head but has transferred to what you are actually experiencing.
You were following the great detail of the stone tower sitting atop of the hill with vast landscapes behind it. And now you are noticing and describing the detail of the ominous playground while the swings move with the wind.
Taking a walk after or with music will get that song in your head and the only thing you are thinking of then is how fast you can repeat the fast part of the song.
Reading adds to your mindset an ability that allows you to write.
Reading and writing go together like skinning and leather-working. Writing isn’t essential to reading, but reading will help improve on writing.
Although these subconscious changes take place, we should still consciously be aware of them to further their effect on our writing.