Three ways reading could help your writing

Allen reading

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I decided to share some thoughts about writing every Wednesday. This is fairly ironic; I am after all struggling with writing myself! This blog serves as living proof … Read any of my posts and you will find mistakes, sometimes many of them. So what then qualifies me to write about writing?

Unfortunately I have no credentials to throw at you, at least not in the context of being a scholar of writing. So, while I don’t think of myself as a scholar of writing, I do think of myself a student of writing, a life-long student that is. I think there is value in thinking about our writing, and there is value in thinking about writing from the perspective of a student of writing and not a teacher of writing.

Writing Wednesdays are not about grammar, or about the formal aspects of writing as I just don’t have the knowledge or skills to offer value there, but it aims at how we can use written words to communicate better.  Yes, sometimes I will refer to grammar rules, specifically the ones I get wrong all the time, or ones that I find useful to explicitly think about in my writing. I will concentrate on the kind of writing I am mostly exposed to: academic and scientific writing.

So my first rambling about writing will start by ranting about reading. I believe that one cannot be a good writer if you don’t read. Of course, a good writer you need to write (duh?), but reading provides a strong base for your writing skills. There are many reasons reading is important, but for me the three most prominent are:

  • You gain valuable knowledge, allowing you to proverbially “stand on the shoulders of giants”.  However, this also means that you must read to learn. I understand that people learn differently, but I cannot see how a researcher can read without making notes. It is your job to read, interpret, distil and integrate the work that you read, and that does not just happen by casually reading the words; no, really reading requires you to actively engage with the text.
  • It improves your vocabulary. However, this only happens if you bother to look the word up when you don’t know it. People surprise and confuse me when they claim to read, yet not know understand the words that they read – no wonder they don’t want to read, it must be an extremely frustrating exercise.  Nowadays you don’t even have to fetch a dictionary, it is as easy as typing “define:word” in google or going to and type in the word. [If you are unfamiliar with the special kinds of searches in google, reading “25 Awesome Google Search Tips and Tricks” will be beneficial for you]
  • You learn ways to express yourself.  However, this only happens when you think about what you read, not only from a content perspective, but also from a “writing” perspective. Of course if you are planning on doing some scientific writing, you must read enough scientific papers to get a feel for what a scientific paper is about; look not only at what gets written, but also at how.

Reading your own writing is also important. Essentially you must put yourself in the reader’s shoes. This is easier said than done; as creator you have the curse of knowledge; you know what you want to say, so you must carefully assess whether somebody without the knowledge would be able to understand.  I agree wholeheartedly with Peter Brooks (@fustbariclation) who said to me “If somebody really understands something properly, then he can describe it simply and vividly.”  While you read and edit your own work with your reader in mind, you must also reflect, testing your own understanding and insight into the topic. If you understand the topic then you can make sure, in the words of Einstein, that your writing is “as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

I hope that you will go on the Writing Wednesday expedition with me. If you are not yet subscribed to the blog, by e-mail or RSS, and you haven’t liked the facebook page, then do so and make sure that you can travel with me.

In praise of Roy Clarke’s Writing Tools, Howell Raines, journalist and author of ‘The One that Got Away’, said: “There are ‘born writers’ in this world, sometimes as many as two or three a century. The rest of us need to work at it.” Writing Wednesdays will be one way that I’ll use to work on my writing, and I hope that you will too.


2 Responses to Three ways reading could help your writing

  1. Laurie says:

    Until recently, written English was almost considered a separate language from spoken English (this is, however, changing) but it supports your view that you have to read a lot in order to write well. It’s just like learning any other “foreign language”

    • rabotha says:

      Laurie, great comment, thanks. I like the comparison with a written English being a “foreign language”, but of course for me (and most of my students) spoken English is also a foreign language 🙂 I think we can distinguish at least three languages that share words, but are in many ways quite different, i.e. a language for socializing (spoken), academic writing (general) and also domain specific (subject discourse). Another important point you make is that the “rules of the game” are constantly changing. I think there has been a huge move in how we speak and how “general literature” is written, but academic writing is changing much slower. But it is changing; for example, some years ago using active voice in academic writing would have been a mortal sin, today it is generally acceptable, preferred in many cases in fact. Personally I like the changes, as I think “scaling down” on the language “thing” can make lots of knowledge much more accessible. If we want the world to be a better place we cannot afford knowledge to be elitist, a property often instilled by “academic language” barriers.

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