How To Be a Better Writer? Read

February 25th, 2019

This post is the fourth (and final) installment of our series on helping students incorporate more structure into their writing. If you'd like to read more, check out our earlier posts: Writing as a Complement to Reading: Why Write?The Importance of Freeform WritingWriting Beyond the Essay, and Writing a Retrospective Outline.

The challenges of learning to write

Writing well is a difficult undertaking, and for good reason.

In order to write well, an author needs to be watchful, perseverant, and a careful thinker. It’s also necessary to be a creative thinker, a grammarian (more or less), and a compelling storyteller. Moreover, a writer must be someone who is willing to spend countless hours revising his or her work.

So how can a student possibly become a good, much less great, writer by the time they enter college? The task seems to be almost impossible.

In my experience, many teachers, parents, administrators, etc. believe that their students are “failing” at writing. And to be perfectly honest, this view does not seem to me to be entirely just to the students (or to their former teachers). Learning to write well takes a tremendous amount of work, and it also requires considerable time, as well as maturity and a sincere commitment on the part of the student.

Learning to read vs. learning to write

Think for a moment about how children learn to read. Vast resources and effort are poured into teaching children to read independently. Parents and teachers alike read aloud to them and encourage them to read on their own. Yet we don’t expect children to grapple with truly difficult texts for at least a decade after they’ve first begun to read. Instead, children are gradually introduced to more challenging books as they mature.

With writing, on the other hand, not nearly so much effort is put into instruction, yet our expectations for the outcome are disproportionately high. We expect adolescents, with very little practice or support, to write as though they’ve been writing diligently for decades. It is simply not reasonable. (In saying this, it is not my intention to defend bad writing or to suggest that standards be lowered; rather I’m trying to point out that many students take a long time to become great writers and understandably so.)

To continue the comparison between reading and writing, writing is also an activity that, much like reading, an individual will naturally begin to excel at in his or her own time. Until that time comes, much of a teacher’s efforts to improve a student’s writing will often feel futile and frustrating to both parties.

So, all of this begs the question: what do you do while waiting for writing to “click” for a student? Our answer to this is for them to read. The absolute best thing a student, or anyone, can do for their writing is to read.

Why read to become a better writer

To me, reading well and widely is the single best thing that anyone who wants to be a writer can do. It is, after all, one of the most important activities that we as human beings do. In reading, we learn so much about language, about how to use words, about syntax, about structure, about movement, and much more. We engage with ideas, learn how to evaluate the arguments of others, as well learn how to shape arguments of our own.

It’s worth noting here, though, that maintaining a consistent reading practice is not a “quick fix” to poor or disorganized writing; rather it’s something with benefits that will accrue slowly over time. The benefits of reading will likely not be immediately apparent in a student’s writing, nor may they be evident for years. Even if their writing doesn’t seem to be progressing in as rapid a manner as their teacher may wish, if a student is reading widely and carefully, their writing will improve. Even if they are not writing much or at all at the present time, reading will still be of benefit to their writing in the future.

The following are a couple of notes and suggestions about reading to improve a writing practice, although they are by no means comprehensive. Hopefully you find some of this information helpful!

Let students claim their own literary heroes

Encourage students to identify for themselves the authors whose style of writing they are drawn to and admire. I think this is an important exercise for writers of all ages to do, and one that I would leave very open-ended by simply asking the question.

Students need to desire to become better writers for their own sake, not for ours, and permitting them to select their own literary models is an important step in this process. If we hold up Melville as an example of literary excellence and they’ve had to fight through every last paragraph of one of his stories, they may become disengaged from the project of writing because he is not a literary hero to them (or at least not at this time).

Besides, the writers whose work we think we should admire are often not the writers whose work is most instructive to us. Give students the opportunity to decide which authors they want to be their teachers, and they'll be a lot more motivated to learn from them.

Study poetry

And here I do mean study poetry, not just read it passively. A poem is such a concentrated form of language that a close examination of it can be tremendously fruitful to us both as readers and as writers. Unfortunately, scansion isn’t something that many people get excited about, but it does yield a wealth of information about poems written in meter. Scanning poems also teaches us that there is typically much more sophistication in their construction than at first meets the eye.

Attempting to write poems ourselves can also a beneficial practice because of the form’s many constraints. It is very challenging to actually say what you mean to say in so few words, in meter, and also in a pleasing manner. Even more difficult is the task of capturing an expansive thought in this more restricted form. However, the care with which we learn to write and to read poetry does translate to heightened care in reading and writing prose, as well.

Especially study Shakespeare

Probably someone far more insightful and articulate than I am has already said everything I could ever say about this topic, so I'll be brief here. I would just encourage you to have your children and students read Shakespeare aloud over and over throughout their lives and to never “retire” a play. You may have seen more productions of Twelfth Night or Much Ado About Nothing than you can count, but continue coming back to these plays over the years, and your life -- and writing practice -- will be all the richer for it.

Read in foreign languages

Learning foreign languages can benefit our writing in numerous ways. Among these benefits are a deepened and more nuanced understanding of grammar, and a more creative relationship to words and to syntax.

For whatever reason, many students find that learning the grammar of another language doesn’t feel quite so agonizing as studying English grammar. It’s also virtually impossible to learn grammar in a foreign language without contrasting it directly to the grammar of your native tongue. As a result, learning a new language can provide good grammatical reinforcement to students who may be less than optimally motivated to study English grammar.

In terms of language use, when we learn the roots of English words, we begin thinking more of the literal meanings as opposed to their colloquial uses. Knowing etymological roots allows us to use words much more precisely and, I believe, creatively. (As a bonus, you’ll need to look up far fewer words in the dictionary!) Examining the sentence construction and syntax in foreign languages can also be instructive and give us insight into how we might craft sentences in our own language differently.

Read exophonic writers

Another practice that has been immeasurably rewarding for me has been reading writers who are not native English speakers but who still author their books in English. Such authors are considered “exophonic” writers, meaning that they write in a language other than their native tongue.

I’ve found that these writers tend to use words in striking ways and often teach me a great deal about the expansive nature of the English language. Some well known examples are Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Conrad, Jack Kerouac, Kahlil Gibran, and Milan Kundera. Yiyun Li is another, perhaps lesser known, contemporary exophonic author whose prose is also exquisite. You can find a more comprehensive list of exophonic writers here.

A related practice is reading the work of native English speakers who have grown up all around the world. Just as British authors of a certain era have a particularly “sensibility”, so do the authors of other places and times. Modern Nigerian literature is my personal favorite instance of this phenomenon. I love reading 21st century Nigerian authors for the vibrancy of their language and imagery. I always come away feeling that I have learned to see the world more brightly through their eyes.

Have faith in the process

Lastly, recognizing that reading is the most important thing you can do to prepare students to become better writers requires a great deal of faith. By encouraging students to read, you aren't imparting an easily quantifiable skill, nor do you know how long it may take a student to begin writing seriously. However, rest assured that offering students literature of the highest quality will change their lives for the better in countless ways, including giving them an elevated standard to aspire to in their own writing. (To read more on the topic of writing as a natural consequence of reading, see our earlier post Writing as a Complement to Reading: Why Write?)

Share your experience

Have you ever read books, plays, or poems that directly or indirectly improved the quality of your writing? If so, what book was it and how did it help your writing? Please leave us a comment below, letting us know — we’d love to hear from you!

Lincoln’s Lyceum Address

February 21st, 2019

To commemorate President’s Day, as well as the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, we are featuring two speeches delivered by these two former presidents on the blog this week. The first speech is Washington’s “Farewell Address,” which was originally published on September 19th, 1796, and the second is “On the Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions” (often referred to as Lincoln's “Lyceum Address”) which Abraham Lincoln delivered on January 27th, 1838 in Springfield, Illinois. You can read the first post in the series here.

In researching great American speeches, it is no surprise that – of former U.S. presidents – Abraham Lincoln has perhaps the longest list of notable speeches under his name. His situation in history partially explains this fact. Lincoln championed the abolition of slavery and we remember him for his fierce efforts to save the union. Accordingly, he enjoyed countless opportunities to make inspiring and memorable speeches. 

Yet Lincoln is one of the greatest orators this country has ever known not simply because of the circumstances he faced. Instead, we remember him as a great orator because of the moral conviction he carried throughout his life and for his gift of giving words to that conviction. Lincoln’s perseverance also serves as an example to anyone who faces challenge. He refused to abandon what he knew to be right, even when half of the country opposed him, and even when the fate of a nation hung in the balance.

Why study Lincoln's Lyceum Address?

Lincoln’s speech The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions: Address Before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois (i.e. the Lyceum Address) is certainly not one of his most well-known or frequently studied speeches. However we are highlighting it because it is one of his earliest speeches and because it is an important one. Lincoln delivered this speech just before his 29th birthday to a lyceum, or school for boys, in Springfield, Illinois. He had recently passed the Illinois bar and was in private practice as a lawyer. (And, as an interesting side note here: Lincoln was an entirely self-educated legal scholar. He is also one of approximately 25% of U.S. presidents who have no formal educational degree. Lincoln learned, he has said, through reading.)

The Lyceum Address illustrates Lincoln’s lifelong dedication to the preservation of the union and his early opposition to slavery. This speech also addresses a number of the same issues as Washington’s Farewell Address. Both Washington and Lincoln worried over the irreparable effects of division within the nation. And, in the Civil War, the dangers of the geographical factions that Washington warned the people against became manifest. Washington and Lincoln also shared the belief that, although diverse in their ways and beliefs, the America people needed a unified democracy in order to function properly and to prosper.

Discussion questions and essay prompts

As we did for the Farewell Address, we’ve included a list of prompts to use as writing or discussion prompts. If you think of other important questions that we didn't list here, please feel free to leave them in a comment below. Ours are as follows:

  • Why does Lincoln believe that American citizens pose a greater threat to themselves than that presented by any foreign nation?
  • What are Lincoln’s reasons for believing that we should concern ourselves with the indirect consequences stemming from disregard for the law? What are these consequences, and why are they of greater significance than the more direct effects?
  • Who and/or what does mob rule most endanger?
  • Does Lincoln believe that there is ever a time in which it is appropriate and acceptable to disobey the laws? Do you believe that he is correct?
  • Assuming that it is impossible to eliminate, how should we direct ambition in a society? How do we employ those who would “pull down” our government, when there is “nothing left to [do] in the way of building [it] up?”
  • What roles, respectively, do passion and reason play in government? Is Lincoln correct when he says that in the future, passion will necessarily be the enemy of the American people?
  • What does Lincoln mean when he calls for us to transform “reverence for the laws” into a “political religion?” What other examples of “political religions” can you think of?
  • Are Lincoln’s claims that the love of the law should be as a political religion and that passion is to be treated as an enemy reconcilable?
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