How To Become A Better Reader and Writer
While being a good reader and writer is a vital life skill-- enabling one to be aware of the world, think well, and communicate effectively-- it is not easy to become a good reader and writer. Identifying and practicing or applying the skills necessary to become a good reader and writer will aid one understand the world and communicate effectively. Reading and writing is a two-way street: an active reader will become a conscious writer, and a conscious writer will guide an active reader through their work.
When reading, remaining unbiased to the written work is important. Going into a piece of writing with preconceived notions or personal opinions detracts from one’s ability to understand the author’s purpose. An author creates a “new world” within his or her piece, so an active reader “approach[es] … it as something brand new, [with] … no obvious connection with the worlds … already known,” (Nabokov 1). By forming an opinion of a piece before reading, the reader closes themself off from opportunities. In The Lonely Good Company of Books, Richard Rodriguez mentions that he read very few children’s books as a child because he thought there was nothing to be obtained from reading such material. Rodriguez mentions Huckleberry Finn and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as two such books; books that have implications beyond their face value as amusing stories for children. Huckleberry Finn provides the reader with insight into race ruling interactions in the US during the pre-Civil War period, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a commentary of the illogical world of adults from the view of a young child. A reader cannot simply brush off a piece of writing because of its face value as they will lose valuable insights into the world around them.
Having an unbiased view of a piece also means that a reader is imaginative. An active reader can go along with the world an author creates in their piece, following the author’s lead instead of remaining stuck in disbelief. A reader “see[s] things … hear[s] things … [and] visualize[s] the rooms, the clothes, the manners of an author’s people,” (Nabokov 3). These visuals may be based on aspects of the “real” world, but by imagining them as unique to the author, a reader can immerse his or herself deeply into the writing. However, a reader must ensure that their imagination does not get too close to becoming personal as it brings bias into the reading. One of the worst acts a reader can do is “indentif[ying] himself with a character in the book” (Nabokov 3) because the reader stops following the author’s lead through the piece and, instead, leads themself through the piece. By bringing personal bias into a piece, the reader ceases to be open-minded and imaginative.
By reading actively and analytically, a reader can avoid this trap. Reading actively includes rereading and understanding the different points of a written work. Written pieces are works of art, but no one sense can take in written work. One must use their “mind … brain … [and] the top of the tingling spine” (Nabokov 3) to be able to enjoy the full picture of a piece. Simply reading a written work is not enough to be able to appreciate it as both time and depth are present in a written work, unlike a painting in which only depth is present. The mind alone cannot be used as the artistic element present in a piece of writing disappears when viewed purely analytically. Analyzing an author’s work-- aspects such as purpose, audience, and writing style-- allows a reader to broaden the horizons within their known world. Frederick Douglass mentions that his eyes were opened to the cruelties of slavery after reading about Catholic emancipation, enabling him to fight for abolition, in Learning to Read and Write. Without reading that particular piece, Douglass would have been unable to find reason nor courage to speak out against the system of slavery. He writes, “[reading] gave tongue to the thoughts of my own soul,” (Douglass 279). As a result of being aware of a much broader scope of the world, Douglass felt a need to create change and was able to do so.
Douglass’s story shows that a strong reader creates a strong writer. A writer must be a reader to improve their writing as “the absence of models … is an occupational hazard for the artists … because … [they] enrich and enlarge one’s view of existence,” (Walker 662-663). A writer needs to know what good writing is to be able to write well. To obtain the necessary tools for good writing, a conscious writer reads well. However, a conscious writer writes with an active reader in mind as well. A writer and reader meet between themselves to create a good piece of writing. As a writer, “use[s] his imagination in creating his … [work] … it is natural and fair that the consumer of a book should use his imagination too,” (Nabokov 3). A reader must be able to follow a writer’s lead through their work, while a writer must be effective in leading a reader through the piece. A good piece of writing is determined not only by how well a reader navigates the world, but also by how well a writer speaks to the reader. A piece of writing can be thought of as a conversation between the writer and reader.
As a result, writing with the audience and purpose in mind is vital. A writer is, “a storyteller … a teacher, and … an enchanter,” (Nabokov 4). The audience must be entertained and taught, but also simultaneously be captivated by the writing. A reader in turn takes note of the different aspects of an author’s purpose: there is an expectation to be entertained, taught, and enchanted. Writing to an audience involves allowing, “the idea of an audience … govern [oneself],” (Hall 7). The reader must be in the forefront of a writer’s mind when writing, just as one keeps the other person at the forefront of their mind when speaking. Continuing the comparison with a conversation, the lack of a clear reason for the importance of a work prevents the reader from being captivated, similar to a person losing interest in a pointless conversation. Consequently, a writer must “answer the “so what?” and “who cares?” questions up front,” (Graff 93). A reader does not know the thought process of a writer, so establishing these things holds the reader’s attention.
To effectively lead the reader through a work, the line of reasoning must be explicit. Clear connections must be made between large ideas as well as sentences. Starting small with sentences, establishing connections between sentences is akin to connecting links on a chain. Thinking of a sentence as a link on a chain with, “arms that reach backward and forward,” (Graff 107) is a simple way to visualize this. A sentence connects a previous sentence with a subsequent one while being connected to a subsequent sentence as well. The same concept applies to larger components of writing such as ideas: ideas connect previous and subsequent ideas while being connected to a subsequent idea. As writing is a conversation, a piece of writing is incomplete unless properly expressed just as “thought is incomplete until … a language and shape by which … [it] can … [be] transmit[ted] … to other people [is found],” (Hall 1). Incomplete thoughts frustrate both the hearer and speaker as communication is stunted. The hearer is left hanging and the speaker does not express themself fully.
Despite clear writing guiding a reader through a work effectively, it does not constitute good writing: a writer must be original to set themself apart from other writers to create good writing. Using cliches within writing is unimaginative and fills a piece with fluff. Writing that contains a lot of fluff is made “presentable by sheer humbug,” (Orwell 97) and uses “little cinder blocks of crushed and reprocessed experience,” (Hall 4). Fluff is a poor substitute for substance as its good looks are only surface deep; it lacks anything concrete. By stringing together cliches and overused metaphors and phrases, little meaning nor emotion is conveyed. Jargon is a particularly offensive aspect of fluff as it “says nothing … with maximum pomposity” (Hall 4). Jargon is often used to display the writer’s supposed intellect or credibility, but writing containing jargon requires very little thought: jargon-filled writing is of the least intellectual pieces of writing as pre-made ideas are sent out like TV dinners on fine china plates. Copying and stealing other writers’ works and ideas also display a lack of consciousness and originality. Not only is plagiarism theft of another writer's work, but it also cheats the offender out of an opportunity to be original.
Continuing the idea of originality in writing, personal style is a vital tool. The personal style of a writer can be thought of as a particular way a writer chooses to approach a reader, the way a writer “speaks” to a reader. This writing voice must, “sound natural to reach the ears of other people,” (Hall 6) just as one must speak naturally to have others listen to them. A reader looks for a particular style when reading just as people prefer listening to certain types of speakers. Sounding pretentious or dishonest pushes a reader away from a particular piece of writing as the prose sounds forced or unnatural, akin to affected speech. To find a personal style, one must experiment. Going off into the unknown involves failures as, “errors are a sign … [one] is diverging from the well-traveled path,” (Von Oech 5). To be original, one has to risk running into failure as originality involves venturing into an area not well-covered. In essence, to be innovative, one has to do what no one else has done successfully before.
Errors are a key point in the writing process as well. Although one may have applied all the aforementioned skills in their writing, the lack of revision prevents one’s writing from becoming exceptional. Catching these errors and learning from them allows one to become a stronger writer. Thus, revision and rereading are crucial to refining ideas before they are presented to the reader. The first draft is, “a marble block that the critical brain chisels into form,” (Hall 8). Rereading gives one a fresh perspective on the work by placing oneself in the role of the reader and revising turns the raw ideas into a form that brings to life the vision of one pictured in their mind. Taking note of any errors builds the skills of a conscious writer up as, “we learn by trial and error, not by trial and rightness,” (Von Oech 3). The lack of noticing errors prevents a writer from becoming better as they never know what to fix: the same problems crop up again and again when mistakes are not identified. Errors signal when to change and what to change.
Not only does good writing facilitate effective communication, but good writing also breeds intelligence in the writer. As a piece of writing is a direct reflection of the thought process of a writer, a writer that uses cliches frequently is not thinking for themself. A writer must, “let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around,” (Orwell 100). The use of ready-made phrases eliminates the writer’s thought process as the words and their connotations create the meaning. This can be seen in political writing as the connotations of words are used to create meaning rather than their definition: democracy or democratic is used to refer to anything as good, while fascism or fascist is used to convey something is bad. (Orwell 96). As humans learn from each other as much as from their own experiences, continuously seeing bad writing continues the cycle of bad thinking leading to bad writing. Consequently, readers must also search for good reading material to be able to understand written works better. Continuously seeing bad language causes bad thinking, preventing one from properly appreciating a piece.
Thus, it becomes all the more important to read and write well to navigate modern society. An active reader understands the material read and gets something out of it, whether that be learning or broadening their viewpoint of the world. This in turn enables one to become a conscious writer as one is aware of how to communicate effectively. These two skills work in tandem to facilitate good thinking and interactions, allowing one to navigate through the various pitfalls presented in modern society as a result of the prevalence of technology. Misinformation and disinformation can be judged properly and avoided by understanding an author’s purpose, point of view, and intended audience as well as a large scope of knowledge. Meaningful interactions with others can be made by having excellent communication skills and a knowledge of a vast array of topics.
Douglass, Frederick. “Learning to Read and Write.” The Mcgraw Hill Reader: Issues across the Disciplines, edited by Gilbert H. Muller, McGraw Hill Companies, 2010, pp. 277-281
Graff, Gerald and Cathy Birkenstein, “They Say/I Say” The Moves That Matter in
Academic Writing. 2nd ed, W. W. Norton and Company, 2010.
Hall, Donald and Sven Birkerts. Writing Well. 8th ed., Harper Collins, 1994.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Lectures on Literature. Edited by Fredson Bowers. Harcourt, Inc.
Rodriguez, Richard. “The Lonely, Good Company of Books.” The Mcgraw Hill Reader:
Issues Across the Disciplines, edited by Gilbert H. Muller, McGraw Hill
Companies, 2010, pp. 282-286.
Von Oech, Roger, “To Err is Wrong,” Viewpoints, Readings Worth Thinking and Writing
About. 8th ed, edited by W. Royce Adams, Wadsworth CENGAGE Learning,
2013, pp 87-91.
Walker, Alice. “Saving the Life That Is Your Own: The Importance of Models in the Artist’s Life.” The Mcgraw Hill Reader: Issues Across the Disciplines, edited by Gilbert H. Muller, Mcgraw Hill Companies, 2010, pp. 661-668