On Reading

By David L. Brown

From time to time I have written on various aspects of writing. Today I’m looking through the other end of the telescope to consider the subject of reading, for without the ability to read no one can either write or learn from the writings of others. And, as we’ll see, by “reading” I mean far more than the ability to recognize letters and spell out words.

This subject was brought to my attention about a week ago when I attended an awards banquet for an international writing contest (yes, I was there to receive two awards, one first place for best novel in the mystery/thriller/suspense/adventure category and a third place for a non-fiction book). Someone on the program prefaced the awards presentations by reading a long document that was supposed to be amusing and entertaining. Unfortunately, she could not read in any useful sense. She stumbled over words, put emphasis in wrong places, mispronounced words, failed to “get” some of the jokes, and sometimes read… each… word… in… a… sentence… spaced… out… like beads on a string as if there were no connection between them. It was painful to watch.

The person in question, who shall remain unnamed, describes herself on the website of something called the “Albuquerque Metaphysical Reading Group” as “a writer of metaphysical fiction and nonfiction”. Hmm. She actually belongs to something that identifies itself as a “reading group.” Curious.

Anyway, the experience got me thinking about the connection between writing and reading. To my mind it’s not a chicken-or-egg thing. The ability to read clearly and well is a necessary prelude to good writing. As we enter the adventure we call life, our brains are empty vessels waiting to be filled with content. Think of them as like hard drives. We can choose to fill them with whatever we want, from meaningless babblings to rap music to pornography. Or, we can fill them with ever more complex knowledge about the world and how things work. That’s what a classical education was supposed to be about, in the days before higher education turned into a kind of holding pen and party central for young adults.

And how do we fill those empty spaces in our heads with useful content? By listening to a teacher drone on about something? By comparing opinions with others whose heads are equally vacuous? Through some kind of magical osmosis in which we sit on a couch watching the Cartoon Channel? Well, no, the real answer is that if our brains are to be supplied with useful stuff it will be through reading quality pieces of writing. Anything else is just static and background noise. GIGO, as the IT folks like to say, garbage in, garbage out.

No person who has failed to master reading and acquired a deep understanding of the written language will ever be able to produce clear, analytical writing. It follows as night after day that the ability to read and understand good writing is the key to being able to write same.  If you fill your head with junk don’t expect to generate pearls of wisdom expressed in stately sentences.

And as mentioned above, reading is a lot more than just being able to recognize letters and words. As in the case of the contest chairman who read sentences as if each word was a separate bullet from a gun, it’s the connections between words that are important, the flow of the words in their total effect.  Words are only the bricks and mortar from which sentences, paragraphs, chapters and entire books are built. To stretch the metaphor, look at it from the point of view of the architect, not the guy who carries the bricks.

Reading really well, like anything else of importance, requires practice, a lot of it. There is a rule-of-thumb that to master any difficult task requires ten thousand hours of practice. This applies to such things as brain surgery, concert musicianship, baseball and, yes, reading. Then, on top of that, schedule another ten thousand hours of writing to master the craft. Excellent writing, in other words, may require a twenty thousand hour commitment.

Unfortunately, many people travel through life without ever learning these skills. The Calvin and Hobbes cartoon at left illustrates one form of so-called “writer’s block,” and in that case it may be real. The other kind of writer’s block is the more fundamental lack of proper preparation through having mastered reading and thus the art of writing. Frankly, I consider it to be bogus. When I managed a public relations agency sometimes staffers would plead “writer’s block” when their work was past its deadline. “I don’t know how to start,” they might say. I never accepted that, telling them to just begin to write and the proper beginning would come to them later. That’s what scissors and paste were for (yes, that was in the good old days before PCs and word processing).

There is a related and much-ignored art that was once taught alongside reading and writing. It’s called diction and it’s all about how words are used in speaking and writing to communicate clearly. One of the best ways I know to judge a piece of writing is to read it aloud, and I don’t mean in a monotone. Read the piece as an orator might and you can get the feel of how the words are working together. Sometimes having them pass over your tongue gives you a clearer sense of how well your sentences are crafted. In speaking as well as in writing, the “flow” of the words matters.

Reading aloud is also a good way to improve reading skills. Remember that the written word is a relatively recent arrival in history, and it’s nothing more than an often imperfect method of recording speech. Speaking, reading and writing are the great triad of human communication, evolved over a long period of time. Each is related to the other, and none can stand alone.

Final conclusion: Want to write? Learn to read.

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