The Importance of Reading For Pleasure

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A few years ago we decided to try something new in our first-year writing class: rather than assigning our students a textbook for the course, we asked them instead to read something they found interesting for at least thirty minutes a day, three or four times a week.

If you find time to read for pleasure, you will, over time, see real improvement in your writing mechanics and word choice, but just as importantly, your writing will begin to progress in a more logical and convincing fashion.

To keep track of their work, we also asked that they keep a reading journal where they could scribble down random thoughts about what they had read, or maybe just quote a favourite line or two.

During the first few weeks of the course, a number of students approached me to make sure what they were reading was “okay.” Most shared some version of the same concern, which is that choosing a Danielle Steele novel was somehow going to earn them a low mark, or that the latest issue of Sports Illustrated wasn’t up to snuff.

While we are sure there are profs out there who would gladly throw something at me for accepting either of these, we decided at the outset of the experiment that we wasn’t going to dissuade students from following their interests wherever they may lead them, provided they were reading, and reacting to that reading, in a thoughtful way.

We weren’t entirely sure how well the experiment was going until, sometime in the middle of the semester, we overheard a student tell one of her friends that she had forgotten how much she enjoyed reading.

While it’s not really something you can stuff into a list of learning objectives, taking pleasure in the written word is a surefire way to improve as a writer.

There’s a caveat to all of this, of course, which is that these improvements are inevitably tied to the quality of the writing to which we’re exposed.

When we read great writing, we begin to absorb all the strategies that writers use not only to convey information, but also to do so in a resonant way.

That’s not to say, however, that we should rush out to the library and read War and Peace. At least not right away. One novel has a way of leading to the next, so while you may start with popular fiction, there’s nothing to say you won’t also eventually read Kazoo Ishiguro or Flannery O’Connor.

If you find time to read for pleasure, you will, over time, see real improvement in your writing mechanics and word choice, but just as importantly, your writing will begin to progress in a more logical and convincing fashion.

Here a few tips to help get you started.

READ NON-FICTION
Magazines such as Harper’s, The Atlantic, The Believer, The Economist, and National Geographic feature some of the world’s best non-fiction writers.

Read just one article from any one of them each day, and you’ll see a real improvement in your writing over time.

HAVE A NOVEL ON THE GO
The great thing about reading for pleasure is that it doesn’t matter how long it takes you to finish a book. All that matters is that you find it absorbing.

So, by all means, start a novel, let it live on your bedside table for as long as you like, and dip into it as briefly or as often as you can.

MEMORIZE A FEW LINES OF POETRY
Having a few favourite lines of poetry bouncing around in your head is its own reward, but it’s also true that poetry presents us with heightened language that’s designed to resonant through the ages.

While not all good essayists write poetry, many do read it as a form of cross training.

Having the ability to create an image that stays with your reader is a powerful skill, one that’s valuable to all writers.

Read just a poem or two each week, and you’ll find your writing to be all the more evocative.

FINAL THOUGHTS
Reading for pleasure will inevitably make you a stronger writer.

While we all live busy lives, finding just fifteen minutes a day to read will make all the difference.