As a teacher and an avid reader, I know that people who read extensively are better writers. They have an intuition, an instinct for language. They can sense the rhythm. They possess a wealth of patterns to draw from, a more extensive vocabulary than their peers, even a greater store of experience.
But I’ve always wondered which came first. I mean, if you have an inherent love of language, a feel for it, then you would naturally enjoy reading, right? So maybe readers already have the gift; that’s what makes them love to read in the first place. So you couldn’t just tell people, go read and you’ll become a better writer.
But so many teachers (including myself) do just that. Read widely, in a broad variety of disciplines. Read fiction and non-fiction to see how to tell a story in a variety of settings and contexts. If you’re a technical writer, read popular articles to see how to explain your work to a layperson. And if you’re a popular writer, read technical works to expand your vocabulary. Sound familiar?
But I never thought to reverse the question. And that’s why I’m so grateful that there are people in this world smarter than me, like Steve Graham and Michael Hebert from Vanderbilt University who conducted a study they call Writing to Read. (And Anna Biunno, who brought it to my attention in last week’s blog comments – thanks Anna!)
Graham and Hebert recognize that reading and writing go hand-in-hand. Reading allows the student to take information in; writing gives them the chance to process what they’ve learned and truly make it their own. Together the two acts complete the cycle of education.
Their report is directed towards educational practitioners working in a K-12 environment. So many of the suggestions that they offer might remind you of your high school years. But I think that as adult professionals, we need to revisit some of these best practices if we’re serious about becoming good writers for two good reasons.
For one, I’m an advocate of lifelong learning. I agree with Socrates, that the recognition of my own ignorance is the beginning of wisdom. One of my favorite quotes comes from a play by Howard Barker, called the Bite of the Night: A Sentimental Education. In that play, the main character, Dr. Savage, waxes philosophic about the nature of knowledge:
Knowledge is a suite of rooms, dirty rooms, unswept as museums in the provinces. And to enter each room you must leave with the woman at the door some priceless thing, which feels part of yourself and your identity, so that it feels like ripping skin. And the keepers sit in piles of discarded treasures, like the pelts of love or children’s pity, and at each successive door the piles are less because few stagger such long distances until there comes a door at which there lies a small, white rag stained as a dishcloth, which may be sanity. And if you think that is the end you are mistaken, it is the beginning.
It’s not the most uplifting quote I’ve ever read. But I find it profound; at times, even encouraging.
But also, so much of what we write begins with a close, careful reading of what someone else wrote. If you’re writing a letter to a client, you need to read their letter first. Academic publications include a literature review, as do white papers and briefings. Even blog posts (like this one) are often in response to what others have had to say. Face it: in our information age, we are rarely on the cusp of a “new” idea. Instead, we are often “reading” what others have had to say. So we should do that thoughtfully, with care and precision.
How? According to Graham and Hebert, we should write about what we read. And they offer some simple, concrete suggestions that I think we could all use to improve our reading skills.
As you know, I advocate keeping a reading journal to enrich and prolong the reading experience, provide a reference for what we have read, and offer a space for reflection. Here are some ideas about what to include in that journal, from Graham and Hebert’s report:
1) Summarize what you have read. This will require you to:
a) identify or select the main information
b) delete trivial information
c) delete redundant information
d) write a short synopsis of the main and supporting information for each paragraph
(qtd. from p. 15)
2) What were your personal reactions to the characters and situations in the text? Did you agree or disagree with their behavior? (p. 14)
3) Take structured notes, perhaps visually in the form of a chart or a concept map. (p. 16)
NOTE: I like to make family trees, print maps off the computer, diagram the action, and create
4) Generate questions about the text and answer them in writing. (p. 17)
NOTE: The Writer’s Triangle can be a good tool to use for brainstorming these questions. Consider the historical context in which the book was written. Think about the author’s attitude toward the characters, his or her “voice” in the narration, and the point of view. Question the purpose or theme of the text. (You’ve already addressed the audience when you wrote out your personal reactions in point 2).
If Graham and Hebert are correct (and I think they are), these exercises, performed regularly, in writing, with fiction and non-fiction texts over the course of our lifetimes will help us become writers. If you’re a member of a book club, this would be a great way to either prepare for your sessions or debrief afterwards. And if not, welcome to the world of professional development.