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More Reading = Better Writing

April 15, 2013

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
Stephen King, goodreads, quotes about reading

 

My best student writers are avid readers.

I first made the connection when a student said she read “Jane Austen” with her mom at age five. That student was a strong writer. Subliminally I had probably known this reading/writing connection for a while, but that student, that class and that biographical detail was my “aha” moment.

Figuring out the formula for being a good writer—and how to teach the formula to the next generation—has become my passion.

To make the “reading-is-fun” connection, I created a “Favorite Authors” presentation so students could share their favorite works with each other, thereby reinforcing the value of reading. More than a few brag that they “don’t read many books.” I’ve heard reports on everyone from J.K. Rowling to F. Scott Fitzgerald to Dr. Seuss. But over the years I’ve noticed two things: the broad-ranging readers are also the strongest writers, and most students hate this exercise. What does pleasure reading have to do with writing a news release, they wonder aloud?

Recently a student commented on his experience with my class, asking for “less busy work,” specifically Favorite Authors. I bristled at the feedback. “Busy work! Harumph,” I muttered stubbornly. Not surprisingly, this student struggled with good, clear, clean prose.

But I wondered, did he have a point? Determined to convince the majority of my students that reading makes them better writers in any medium, I looked to some experts:

  • In his new book “How to Not Write Bad” journalism professor Ben Yagoda supports the premise that reading matters. After 20 years of grading papers Yagoda observes “almost without exception, good writers read widely and frequently.” He further assures his audience that reading is the “best and most painless way to absorb the rules of the language.”
  • Choreographer, author and MacArthur genius Twyla Tharp quotes Mark Twain, “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.” In her book “The Creative Habit,” she explores how she uses reading to inform her creative process, for growth and for inspiration. Most importantly, she reports reading “archeologically”—going from the present sources to earlier and earlier literature as she delves into a new topic.
  • Recently I asked some former students about how they viewed the connection between reading and good writing? Here’s what one had to say: “I enjoyed that exercise [Favorite Authors]. I feel that it’s a good way for students to learn what their peers are reading and interested in, and it’s a way for students to learn about other authors that maybe they’d never heard of but might enjoy reading….P.S. I got the internship.”

See? Good readers are good writers. Good writers get hired for internships. I’m convinced. Now, how do I convince my students?

Jill Stewart is a lecturer in the College of Communication at DePaul University. She is convinced her reputation as a good-enough writer boosted her PR career.

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