"If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that," writes Stephen King in his memoir, "On Writing." He goes on to explain writers must read widely and frequently to develop their own voice and to learn how to pen sentences and structure stories in ways that compel readers to pick up their work and read it.
This idea that we must be readers first in order to be writers is echoed throughout writing-craft books and is often the first piece of advice published authors dole out to aspiring novelists. Entire books have been dedicated to how reading is necessary to mastering the written word. "The more we read, the faster we can perform that magic trick of seeing how the letters have been combined into words that have meaning," writes best-selling author Francine Prose in "Reading Like a Writer."
But does what we read and how we read it truly impact our ability to skillfully craft readable prose?
A healthy reading diet
A new study concluded that college students who read academic journals and literary fiction scored higher in measures of writing complexity than those who read primarily popular fiction or web content. (Photo: Yuriy Rudyy/Shutterstock)
According to a recent University of Florida study of 48 MBA students, what students read in college directly affects the level of writing they achieve. In the study, researchers surveyed students about their reading materials and habits, and they also took a writing sample from their cover letters. Researchers then ran those samples — as well as samples from news stories the participants had read — through programs to assess the writings' complexity.
Upon analyzing their findings, researchers concluded that students who read academic journals and literary fiction scored higher in measures of writing complexity than those who read primarily popular fiction or web content published on sites like BuzzFeed, Reddit and The Huffington Post. Although the study didn't investigate why a link between reading material and writing ability may exist, the study authors suggest our writing may simply mimic what we read.
It's like eating a healthy diet, according to study co-author Yellowlees Douglas. "If you have really crappy nutrition, it's going to show up on your body in one way or another," she told The Boston Globe.
However, Andrew Jarosz, a psychology professor at Mississippi State University, points out that this study had a relatively small sample size and says it's too soon to draw the conclusion that the complexity of the material we read affects the complexity of what we write.
"It could indeed be that reading complex materials leads to more complex writing," he said. "Alternatively, what if those who are better writers prefer to read complex materials that mirror their own writing abilities? That is, it is entirely possible that the relationship goes in the other direction."
Jarosz says other variables also may be responsible for why some people write at a higher level than others, including intelligence and working memory capacity, the ability to simultaneously store and process information. "Working memory in particular is related to the ability to read and understand text, and I would not be surprised if it related to writing ability," he said.
Are you reading the right way?
Experts say it's possible that how we read also may play a role in our ability to communicate. Susan Reynolds, author of "Fire Up Your Writing Brain," believes that deep reading — thoughtful, slow and immersive reading that's rich in complexity and sensory detail — is essential to becoming a better writer. She encourages writers to forego television and commercial fiction and instead read poetry and literary fiction, which prompts a more profound type of reading.
"Deep reading activates our brain's centers for speech, vision and hearing, all of which work together to help us speak, read and write," she writes on Psychology Today. "Your reading brain senses a cadence that accompanies more complex writing, which your brain then seeks to emulate when writing."
Research has found that deep reading is distinctive from other types of reading when we merely peruse text superficially or skim for information. The language found in literary fiction, for example, is complex and rich in detail, metaphor and allusion, and the brain handles this language by creating a mental representation that draws on the same brain regions that would be active if you were experiencing the event in real life. For example, a 2012 Emory University study found that when subjects read a metaphor involving texture, such as "the singer had a velvet voice," the reader's sensory cortex — the region that perceives texture through touch — became active.
In other words, actively reading such prose is an immersive experience, one that can be difficult to replicate when reading material online where, for example, you're bombarded with hyperlinks that force you to choose whether to remain on a page or click away. Maryanne Wolf, a psychologist at Tufts University, says the reading we do online can transform us into "mere decoders of information," weakening our ability to become engaged in deep reading. And writer Nicholas Carr argues that the time we spend on the web is even restructuring our brains, shortening our attention spans and making deep reading difficult.
Research has found engaging in deep reading has numerous benefits, including increasing empathy, and Reynolds says deep reading also "offers a writer a way to appreciate all the qualities that make novels fascinating and meaningful — and to tap into his ability to write on a deeper level."
Regardless of what science may say about how reading affects writing though, writers themselves tend to agree that you can't be a successful writer unless you're first a voracious reader. By reading, writers not only accrue knowledge, but they also gain a better understanding of language, learn their genre, grow their vocabulary and most importantly, find inspiration.
Perhaps that's why when the late writer and Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago was asked about his daily writing routine he said, "I write two pages. And then I read and read and read."