On Reading and Writing

If we are blogging regularly (or semi-regularly in my case), then we should have at least a hint of motivation to becoming a better writer. And not just a more fluent writer (“it’s just so easy for me to write”), but a more clear, persuasive, and captivating writer. Those of us who write on a regular basis will find that our writing often improves by sheer repetition. Personally, I have had the opportunity to observe many of my friends hone their writing skills over the past few years through blogging and other means; in their case, the practice of writing has made all the difference.

But there is an essential element to becoming a better writer that doesn’t involve writing at all—well, at least not our own writing: it is the discipline of reading. Just as a musician does not perfect his craft by only practicing on his instrument, but by listening to others as well, so the writer who desires to further develop his abilities will immerse himself in writing that is not his own.

Reading for the purpose of enhancing our writing has several immediate benefits. First, we are exposed to words we do not typically use. We will find ourselves incorporating fresh words and phrases—normally, without even consciously trying—and our writing takes on new flare. On the other hand, fencing ourselves in around minimal vocabulary acreage will probably have a negative affect on our readership. Unwittingly, we can lull our readers to sleep by simply using the same words over and over, from paragraph to paragraph, essay to essay. And our (former) readers may not even be able to identify why they don’t read our stuff anymore, but somewhere along the line, they got bored and went looking for another writer who was more interesting.

Secondly, as we read what others have written, we are encouraged to explore different stylistic elements in our own writing. Back to the musician illustration: the only way a drummer will ever try 32nd notes on his kick drum is by hearing it hammered out by another drummer; otherwise, he may not even know that 32nd notes on the kick drum even exist, or if they do, it is only in the realm of theory. And when we observe different stylistic elements by reading other writers, we become more courageous in trying new literary endeavors when we see them attempted—and pulled off— by other writers.

But reading will also keep us from making the mistakes that other writers make. We can take note of what works and what doesn’t work; what sounds good and what sounds forced, or repetitive, or dull. We will learn from our own experience in reading that long, cumbersome sentences are rarely helpful, and that precise expression is usually best. We will observe that word choice is essential in accurately conveying meaning, and so on.

At this point I should mention that reading across the gamut of literary genres is very beneficial here. We should be exposing ourselves to more than what we naturally drift toward, and purposefully seeking out books that will push us into unfamiliar literary terrain. For me, the theological genre consistently resides on my night stand, so it is important that I bolster the stack with some American history, a New York Times Bestseller, a few biographies, and a good work of fiction now and again.

Writing is a craft: it takes time, practice, and the help of others to form and refine our skills. But those of us who have been helped by good writing know how thankful we are for those authors took the time and made the (sometimes excruciating) effort to produce a well-written piece of literature. May we labor in the same way for our readers, by not only writing, but by reading as well.

3 thoughts on “On Reading and Writing”

  1. I absolutely agree that good reading is key to the development of a writer…as long as he/she doesn’t use the excuse of reading to keep from, y’know, writing. I disdain creative writing classes and workshops and would never join a writer’s group. To me, I can learn all I need to know from past and modern masters of the printed word. Why waste my time listening to the prattle of some regional hack who uses this creative writing gig to subsidize their bad poetry when I could be reading Robert Stone or Colson Whitehead? No thanks…

  2. DB, good post. I’ve been astounded recently by the low literary quality of some recent theological publications. A few shining examples are still out there (esp. Neal Plantinga, David Powlison, etc), but much of what is printed by evangelical publishers today reads like an automobile manual. This is too bad, because good theology shouldn’t equal stale prose! Interestingly, Augustine asserted the exact opposite, that wisdom presents herself in an appealing manner. God’s peace, ak

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