By the time you finish writing your final research paper this semester, or by the time you complete all your exams, probably the last thing you’ll want to do is open a book and begin reading. Yet, reading is exactly what you should do if you want to become a better writer.
Reading makes you a better writer because you get to see how professional writers organize their thoughts and express their ideas. That’s why you typically have a literature textbook for all your writing courses. This reading-writing connection actually made me a better writer way back in high school. Here’s how it happened.
As a boy, I was a sports fanatic, and I devoured the daily sports pages for articles on my favorite players and teams. I read the pre-season forecasts, the feature stories on the players, the pre-game articles, the post-game summaries, and the end-of-season analysis. By the time I was a junior in high school and eligible to write for the student newspaper, I was all set.
Naturally, I volunteered to write the sports articles for the school teams, and, quite honestly, the newspaper advisor didn’t have to show me what to do. I had read thousands of these articles over the years, so all I had to do was gather my information and begin writing. When writing a game summary, for instance, I knew I had to include upfront the names of the two teams, the date and location of the game, and the final score. I found out later that journalists called this the “lead paragraph.” So even though I didn’t know the terminology for what I was doing, I had absorbed the technique through frequent reading.
Bestselling author Stephen King tells a similar story in his non-fiction book entitled On Writing — A Memoir of the Craft. When King was about six years old, he suffered through some health problems that kept him from attending school. Looking back on that first-grade year, King writes: “Most of that year I spent either in bed or housebound. I read my way through approximately six tons of comic books, progressed to Tom Swift and Dave Dawson (a heroic World War II pilot whose various planes were always ‘prop-clawing for altitude’) then moved on to Jack London’s bloodcurdling animal tales. At some point I began to write my own stories” (27). Most authors could probably tell their own stories of how reading affected or influenced their writing.
Obviously, you can write your own stories without doing much reading, but you’ll probably write much better stories if you’re familiar with the ways words and sentences work together. If you want to write poetry, for instance, you should probably read poems by a variety of authors. If you want to write fiction, you should read short stories and novels. Early on in the process, your writing may sound like the authors you’re reading, but, gradually, you’ll start to develop your own tone and style.
So does that mean you need to read term papers in order to write a term paper of your own? Yes, you really should. In fact, most writing handbooks include sample term papers written by students for just that reason. You can read these papers and see how the various parts — the introduction, the thesis, the organizational pattern, the point of view, the evidence, and the conclusion — all work together to form a unified whole. Some teachers also hand out samples of student work, so you can get a better idea of how a particular assignment should be written.
Personally, I write fiction, and I like to use the summer months to read classic novels that I’ve never read before. One summer, for instance, I read Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. The next year, I read The Illiad by Homer. And this summer, I plan to read One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
So even though you may not want to open a book this summer, why not give reading a try. Choose something fun, something you considered previously but didn’t have time for during the hectic fall and spring semesters. Then, when you return to classes in the fall, believe it or not, you’ll be a better writer.