If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that – Stephen King, On Writing
A recent article from the New York Times describes Americans as poor readers. We’re notoriously bad at reading comprehension. Consequently, we’re not reading enough to fully comprehend complex books and articles. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. We’ve known for years that Americans simply aren’t reading enough. According to a 2015 Pew Research study, there is an overall downward trend in reading among American adults. Frighteningly, this same study shows that over a quarter (26%) of American adults haven’t read a book in a year. Though two years have passed, I’m willing to bet that this trend hasn’t improved. In fact, it’s probably worse.
Now we’re certainly reading. Everyday we’re bombarded with the electronic word through social media. And while we tend to focus on the ‘media’ part of social media, we’re actually reading a lot of content across posts, tweets, and forums. Personally speaking, I’m constantly bouncing back and forth across posts and article links from morning till night. Unfortunately, the time we spend on social media isn’t creating better readers. As a matter of fact, it’s making us worse. Social media and the internet has led to an array of bad reading habits.
I don’t want to disparage against social media. I still think that it has the potential to create well-informed students. However, we’re going to need to adjust our social media habits if we want to become better readers and students. Furthermore, I believe that better reading habits, including more quality reading, will improve our writing skills.
In the past, I’ve had a number of students ask: “how can I learn to write better?” My response is usually: “read more.” There’s no secret magic formula to writing well. It’s not a mysterious skill that only a few possess. I believe that every single person has the potential to become a good writer. Does this mean that we all have the potential to be the next Shakespeare? Probably not, but there is absolutely nothing stopping you from becoming an effective and skilled writer. Writing is a skill, and you must immerse yourself in it to develop that skill.
Nothing will turn you into a good writer overnight. Much like learning a new language, writing skills take practice and patience. Yet, there are things you can do to speed up that process. Practice makes perfect of course, and learning to write requires doing more of it. However, that is only half of it. One of the best (and easiest) things you can do is read more!
Academically speaking, you’ll want to read more in the field you’re currently studying. Reading Harry Potter probably won’t help you write a research paper (you should still read Harry Potter). This means that you’ll need to tailor your academic reading to the top books and articles in your field. We learn by imitating and emulating the writing styles of others. The pressure to read is enhanced for academic writing. No one is born, even naturally gifted writers, with the ability to write great academic papers, theses, or dissertations. Yet, we expect ourselves to write these papers without reading and drawing upon prior examples. More often than not, we wait to read these things until it’s time to write the paper, thesis, or dissertation. Thus, we’ve added the extra strain of learning how to write as we’re writing. An almost impossible task!
Do you want to become a better academic writer? Do you want to remove the fear and anxiety you feel when faced with writing a final paper? If the answer is ‘yes’ then start reading!
Tips for reading to write:
Start by setting aside 30 minutes a day to read an academic book or journal article. I know that reading a book or article doesn’t rank very high on your to-do list. God knows that there are some days that I don’t feel like reading a theology or philosophy text. Nevertheless, you need to develop your academic skills and keep them sharp. Begin with a minimum of 30 minutes. As you continue, you’ll probably want to increase that to 45 minutes or an hour. The most important thing is to not rush it. You won’t become a better writer (and scholar) by cramming information. Writing is a lifelong process. It won’t take long to get better at it, but you’ll always have more to learn.
When reading, focus on unfamiliar vocabulary and academic words. Write down any words you don’t know or understand. Search for those words using Google. You’ll want to develop and fine-tune those comprehension skills. If you don’t understand a word or phrase, then look it up. A better understanding of your field or topic will equip you for communicating and explaining it to others.
Read a wide variety of quality sources. Try to mix it up and read a large sample of what your academic field offers. Strive to read both books and articles. Draw from a diverse range of authors. In addition, find a balance between past and contemporary sources. Some fields (particularly STEM) draw heavily from contemporary research. Others (such as the humanities) incorporate classic texts from different eras. Knowing the major works, figures, and researchers in your field will help develop your reading list.
Be critical. Not everything you read will be a good example of academic writing. This is where the value of variety pays off. Reading more will enable you to find the common issues and problems that plague even the most gifted intellectuals. As you read, you’ll become better at distinguishing good writing from bad. Compare the writing styles of different authors. Pay particular attention to those authors who write with clarity and conciseness. The overall trend in academics is direct language and active voice.
Don’t be afraid to read outside your field. Whenever possible, expand your horizon to related fields and topics. Compare your field’s style with others. Learn how to incorporate the best of others into yourself. Consequently, more knowledge will prove to be an asset later on.
You have to invest time to become a better academic writer. It’s easy to be absorbed by whatever is happening on Facebook, Reddit, or Twitter. Just remember, the time you spend on social media is time you could spend reading. Skillful writing begins with making time for reading.