How Reading Makes You a Better Writer

Readers are leaders, right? That’s what they told us in elementary school, anyway, to get us to read the required number of books each summer. Whether reading affects leadership abilities or not, I don’t know. I know for a fact, though, that as a writer, your reading will affect the quality of your writing, and here’s how:

Reading grows your vocabulary

Have you ever been stuck in the very-really-thing-stuff rut? This unfortunate writer’s disease makes you use empty words when a better word would do. It happens when writers have a limited vocabulary and are too lazy to break out a thesaurus. Reading, however, is one of the best ways to cure it. I like how the guys over at The Art of Manliness put it: “Reading offers not just an awareness of words, but a real feel for them.” When you read a new word, the context of the word provides you a pretty good idea of what the word means as well as how it should be used. Unfortunately, reading doesn’t necessarily tell you how to pronounce a word. You’ll need a dictionary for that. Or was I the only one who grew up thinking that thesaurus was pronounced like some long-extinct dinosaur? (thee-a-saurus, anyone?)

Reading enhances grammar and syntax

I remember back in high school or college I was on a big Charles Dickens kick. I worked my way slowly through several of his novels, and I noticed that all the academic papers I wrote during that time had a Dickensian feel–the long sentences and colorful (if not overdone) descriptions. I’ve also noticed that whenever I read poor writing–sloppily written novels or hastily written articles–I struggle a little more to make my writing flow. I’m not sure it’s a scientifically proven fact, but I think most writers can attest that their reading material of the day has at least a small affect on their writing. The better-written the novels and articles you read, the more likely you are to pick up on correct grammar and syntax for writing.

Reading strengthens your brain

I was always quoting a movie I watched as a kid to my more athletic sisters and friends who occasionally teased me for being a book worm. While I don’t remember which movie, I think it had something to do with a girl who wanted to be an ice skater but whose mother wanted her to be something more academic: “There is no shelf life on the mind,” the mother told her daughter. It’s a nice sentiment, but I think I would have to disagree now that I’ve grown up a bit. Just like the body, if the mind is not taken care of and given daily exercise, it will eventually shrivel up and fail us. Reading is one of those exercises that will help keep your brain sharp.

According to a study performed on elderly participants, those who stayed mentally active through reading or other mental exercises had slower mental decline than those who had more inactive brains. Strong brains make for strong writers. There may be a shelf life on your mind, but you, to some extent, can affect the length of that shelf life.

Reading boosts your creativity

If you’re a writer, you know how hard it is to constantly create. Reading opens up whole new worlds to your creativity. You can travel with Dickens to the slums of London or with Tolkien and his hobbits to Mount Doom. Fiction isn’t the only genre to influence your creativity, however. Some of the most inspiring books I’ve read are nonfiction–anything by Malcolm Gladwell, Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc, and Sally Hogshead’s How the World Sees You. Reading anything–fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose–introduces you to new ideas and, in turn, helps you create new ideas of your own.

Reading increases your empathy

Ever wondered how it feels to be a dog released to the wild? To fight in the Civil War? Or to live in a world with no books? (20 points if you can guess where those references are from.) Reading allows you to experience life inside another person’s mind. For the time it takes you to read a book, you can be whoever you want to be–a fairytale princess riding in a pumpkin or a young woman roaming the bleak moors in 19th century Britain. Empathy is an important part of writing. Before you can write well, you must know your audience. To know your audience, you have to understand them. In a sense, you have to insert yourself in their lives, know their habits, understand their frustrations. Reading and empathizing with characters in fiction gives you practice in understanding the lives of others. It helps you see past yourself for a few minutes into how other people live, work, and play. And that, my friends, will take you far, both in writing and in life.

Conclusion I don’t know if readers are truly the leaders of the world. I would suspect that they are. But I do know one thing: you can’t be a writer unless you’re first a reader. So get at it, folks.

How has reading influenced your writing? What are your favorite books?