Can You Read Your Way to Better Writing?

There is a certain line of thought – and since nearly everyone seems to be a proponent of this line of thinking I dare say it is more than a majority opinion, but a consensus opinion at this point – that says that reading more will allow you to eventually write more and write better.  This line of thinking flies in the face of logic.  If you have a finite amount of time to devote to writing would it be a better idea to read during that time or write during that time if you’re let’s say trying to write your next book in 30 days?  The answer should be obvious, but people who teach the craft of writing would tell you that you need to do both.  That is kind of like telling someone that they can overpower the emergency brake on their car by hitting the accelerator a little harder.  Sure, it may work, but you’re going to be dealing with quite the mess when you arrive at your destination.  This is my reasoning for just writing.  If you have to read a lot and then write a lot your brain is taxed twice as much.  It’s hard enough just to write most of the time, but add a ton of reading into it and it becomes almost impossible to keep up with your writing quota.

I know this is true because this is the conundrum I find myself dealing with now.  Being told to write a lot, read a lot, all while developing papers for other classes, and doing other things like you know, working every day is a quick recipe to becoming overwhelmed.  If you’re overwhelmed you’re not going to get anything done unless you tax yourself to the point of exhaustion.  Of course naturally I simply work myself harder and harder until my head hurts so much I need to deal with the stress headache.  If you tax your resources beyond what you’re capable of you’re ultimately doing yourself a disservice.  It may not come today, tomorrow or the next day, but it will catch up with you it always does.  So, what are your options when you find yourself in this kind of scenario?  We all find ourselves being asked to take on more than we’re capable of handling.  In order to do one thing very well you have to neglect doing something even remotely well to get it done.  That would be my thesis on how I survived college.  I worked ridiculously hard at school and neglected everything else in my life.  For those of us who aren’t geniuses we don’t have much of a choice.

Most people – lacking the where with all to think outside of their own experience – will prescribe as a solution something that was equally tedious and difficult for them.  They look at the ridiculously difficult as a way to promote that good old Protestant work ethic.  Naturally such people would see work as the only logical medium through which anything noteworthy can be accomplished.  No one has challenged this idea.  Sure there are the “live in the moment” crowd, but these are people who don’t have a legitimate outcome-oriented solution for the issues in their lives they simply have ways of averting what they often term “outcome dependency.”  And outcome dependency should be averted, but not at the expense of growth.  We shouldn’t have to choose between working harder and working smarter is the point I’m trying to make here.  Work harder is the mantra of the crazy deluded boss while work smarter is the mantra of the overzealous teacher who believes that what worked for them must, according to their own permeating syllogism, work for you.  We all know that dazzling theorem has never been disproven before…

So, is it all that surprising that I believe the key to becoming a better writer is simply to spend more time writing?  It might be.  If you’re the kind of person who believes people don’t work hard enough to begin with it stands to reason that you will likewise believe that they won’t work hard at their craft to produce good art.  I understand that logic.  It makes sense.  But, telling people to stop writing in order to start reading more and that reading more will in turn lead to better writing even if they’re not writing at all anymore is absurd.  It’s like telling someone to work out harder and harder every day, but then in turn telling them to eat more and more McDonalds at the same time.  You may – by some miracle of modern weightlifting – lose a few pounds, but the more likely result is that you will simply get really, really sick.  Why?  Because, yes, working out is good for you, but eating fast food is terrible for you.  A lot of a good thing does not negate a lot of a bad thing.  Such reasoning does not make sense.

What then is the solution?  Should we not read at all?  This very much depends on the person as well as how much and what kind of entertainment they consume.  I listen to a lot of podcasts for instance and a lot of audiobooks and watch a lot of movies.  I’m not able to do those things when I have to do a lot of reading.  Thus, my net intake of information is actually decreased by pursuing this line of thought.  Any time you have to devote resources to one thing you will have to take away resources from something else.  Your mind is like your computer.  You can’t have twenty tabs open in your browser, iTunes playing, six Word documents and ten Excel spreadsheets open in the background as well and expect the same efficiency from your CPU as you could if half that stuff was closed.  You need to offset some things that aren’t as important if you’re going to really do the things you need to do well.  The less you tax yourself the better off you are.  This is why routine works so well for artists.  Whole methods of producing art are devoted to the idea that good routine begets good art.  The whole idea of “flow” is centered around this idea.  Efficiency is whatever works best for you.  Sure, there are lots of ways of getting there and finding out what works for you, but the idea that you should do more and expect better quality of everything you’re doing at the same time is simply very poor logic.


2 thoughts on “Can You Read Your Way to Better Writing?

  1. Pingback: Can You Read Your Way to Better Writing? | TruLeeMe

  2. Hmmm…I learned grammar primarily by example, not by memorizing the rules, so I’m not sure I completely agree with you. However, to become a better writer, yes, the first thing you must do is write. The question is, what tools do you bring to the table when you start to do so? An education on writing and examples of good writing, I think, are two of the most valuable resources we have. We need to balance how we spend our time, whether it’s work or recreation, creative or the necessary mundane, to have the most to offer as writers.

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