Lessons in Language: Writers who don’t read

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It seems obvious to me that writers should also be readers, but according to a September 2011 column in Salon, some new writers are apparently finding reading a bore.  The columnist is trying to find an equivalent attitude in another field. The only analogy that springs to my mind is “Wanting to write without wanting to read is like wanting to sing without wanting to listen to music.”

It’s an issue much larger than ‘how do you keep up with what’s current in literature?’. Reading widely is a vital training ground for all writers, not because of trends in writing, but because of the exposure it gives you to the basic building blocks of writing.

I do not have a degree (in writing or in anything else). I do have a very large vocabulary, though. I have a good, broad general knowledge on a variety of subjects and I’m always picking up bits and pieces of information and concepts, both esoteric and mundane.  I read voraciously before becoming qualified to teach English as a second language, and so absorbed vocabulary and grammar by osmosis before I learned how to label the parts of speech.

You may ask what evidence there is that writers are not reading, but sadly, such evidence abounds: mostly in newspapers. News articles are full of the kind of errors that can surely only occur when the writer has only ever heard a phrase and never seen it written down. How else can you explain the following slips?

Why is it important? (I assume it is the non-reading writers asking this question.)

It’s important, dear writer, because words are your business. They are the bricks and mortar, the wood and nails, the paint and canvas of your job, which is to communicate. If you do not know how to construct a sentence that people can understand, you fail to communicate. If you don’t know how to punctuate a sentence correctly, you fail to communicate. If you can’t think of the exact word to describe your meaning, or you use the completely wrong word because you don’t know it *is* the wrong word, you fail to communicate. Or you communicate the wrong thing.

In the instance of ‘death ears’ mentioned above, it can take power away from your story and, worse, be disrespectful to people in pain. When I first saw the headline ‘Woman’s cries fall on death ears’, I assumed it was a slightly jokey story about some poor woman who had been locked overnight in a morgue or a crypt. But no. It turns out a young girl being raped had cried out for help, but people had walked past without assisting.  The writer didn’t mean to trivialise her ordeal, but their carelessness and lack of knowledge about a common phrase was awkward, at best.

I don’t have a problem with the average person not knowing the right words for the right situation, but writers? Writers who do not understand vocabulary, punctuation and grammar are, to me, like builders who don’t understand building and attempt to just slap bricks together without first constructing the foundations and frame.

If you don’t know your tools, how can you create the effect you want? How can you communicate your idea clearly if you don’t know the right words or how to use them? How can you depart from the rules of grammar and spelling with creative meaning if you don’t understand the rules to begin with?

You don’t need a writing degree. You don’t need to be able to label a past participle or define a secondary object. But you do need to have a feel for a correct sentence and to have an excellent vocabulary. They are both the tools and the building blocks of your craft.

So please, writers, please. Read.


  • Yep Michael, there are.

    I met one a few years ago at work. She was trying to write a children’s book, with the enthusiastic help of others at work.

    When I asked her what she liked to read, she replied in full seriousness “I haven’t read any children’s books. I don’t like reading.” I was flabbergasted.

  • This is amazing, mind-boggling. Are there people out there who believe you can become a writer with no concept of the context. Are they so lazy they don’t want to put in the hard kilometres?

    • Incomprehensible, isn’t it? And yet, they exist. I suspect there’s another blog post in this. It will either be a reasoned discussion on the psychology involved, or it will be a massive rant..

  • Possibly. But then, I never know who might stumble across this blog. Perhaps some non-reading writer will one day find this entry and realise the error of their ways.

    Another variation on your favourite is ‘to all intensive purposes’.

    A range of misheard expressions are listed on The Eggcorn Database, by the way. I read these and never know whether to laugh or cry. http://eggcorns.lascribe.net/

  • Robert

    Isn’t this, by definition, peaching to the converted?

    My favourite is “to all in tents and purposes”

    oh and people describing themselves as “Principles”. Hello, I’m an Ethic and this is my wife, Moral!

    and yes, I should avoid cliches like the plague, particuarly if I mispell them.

  • OracularSpectacular

    Great post.

    As an aspiring writer, I read as much as I can. Whether it’s newspapers, blogs and social media, postmodern fiction or biographies, there is always something to be learned [learnt?]

    • Both learned and learnt are technically correct, so you can take your pick on that one. 🙂

      Reading everything you can lay your hands on is a great idea. Different kinds of writing will use different styles (from very informal to very formal and technical) as well as different vocabulary. I’m fond of pop science and history books, too, as they can provide interesting ideas and details for stories I’m working on.

  • naturallydotty

    I was going to say Death Ears would be a good name for a band until you mentioned the context. That is absolutely awful. Not awe-full.

    Not to make light of this problem, my mind is busily making products of all these errors.
    Full Proof would be a very, very strong gin.
    Changing Tact? A school for miscreants.
    Death Ears is a heavy metal band.