A good reader does not a good writer make

I’ve often heard it said that a person┬áneeds to be a good reader before they can be a good writer – an idea that I’ve given a lot of thought to over the years.

I used to be firmly convinced that it was vital to have read an awful lot of good books (and not a lot of awful books) in order to write well – an idea that I can trace back to Stephen Fry, who asserts the same in one of his early memoirs. It suited my burgeoning intellectual snobbery to believe this. After all, people kept telling me I was a good writer, and I’d read an enormous number of books, including the whole of Anna Karenina – there had to be a connection, right?

But then I started meeting people who wrote beautifully but had read hardly any books. One of the best writers I know is profoundly dyslexic and finds reading painfully difficult. The only work of literature he has read is the first chapter of A Confederacy of Dunces, which is a fine work indeed, but surely not fine enough to turn one into a master of the pen overnight.

My brother, also, has never been a reader. He resisted reading books all the way through school. At one point my mum resorted to buying him the Reader’s Digest as a way of giving him some light reading material (naturally it just put him off even more). Yet when I read his letters and emails I find him astonishingly erudite. His paragraph structuring is superb, his grammar flawless, his vocabulary wide-ranging. He gets firsts in his postgraduate essays, but the only books he’s ever read are textbooks, and those only under duress. It was my brother’s experience that really forced me to reconsider my assumptions about how one gets to be a good writer.

These are just two examples, but I know of plenty more. What these people have in common is intelligence, self-awareness and a love of conversation. My belief is that one learns how to write well through a combination of different mechanisms, not all of which are essential. These include:

  1. By writing. (I’ve been writing recreationally since I was eight, professionally since I was twenty. My early work was pretty poor, and I still have duff days, but I keep on going.)
  2. By being self-critical. I proofread everything I write obsessively, even text messages.
  3. By paying attention to criticism. I work in publishing, so everything I write gets savaged by multiple editors. (This has been very useful, but I remain my own worst critic.)
  4. By listening and speaking. We acquire far more language through these mechanisms than we do from reading.
  5. By reading. Obviously many, probably most, of us can and do learn how to improve our writing through reading the works of others. This certainly applies to me.

So, yes, for some of us voracious reading has helped us to become good writers, but we shouldn’t assume that there is only one way to achieve this outcome, nor should we be pushing kids to read books when they don’t enjoy doing so. As long as we’re engaging them in language through other means (primarily through conversation but any good quality media will also be beneficial), they have every chance of becoming a good writer one day.

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