books · writing

How Different Types of Reading Change Your Writing

 

You are what you read. That is a simple enough concept, but it turns out that it means more than just that people who read mysteries may become better at writing mysteries. What a person reads fundamentally changes the structure of his or her writing.

In June of 2016, the International Journal of Business Administration published “Syntactic and Lexical Complexity of Reading Correlates with Complexity of Writing in Adults”.  (You can read the full text of the article online.) This article describes a study in which a group of adult readers identified their most frequently read materials such as online magazines (and memes), newspapers, genre and literary fiction, and other written sources. Researchers then looked at the level of writing that each participant exhibited and found a correlation between what types of material people read and the complexity of their writing. People who spend most of their time reading Buzzfeed articles, for example, write much simpler sentences than people who read pulp fiction, and people who read pulp fiction write less complex sentences than individuals who spend their time reading The Goldfinch.

The study isn’t perfect – the number of participants was lower than I prefer, and because the sample was composed entirely of MBA graduate students, it lacked educational diversity – but it still gives readers a general idea about trends in the relationship between reading and writing.

But just because certain types of reading result in complex types of writing doesn’t mean that authors should always aim for involved sentences structures. Sometimes overly embellished phrases hide the meaning of a work. I’m sure we all know of a young writer (or maybe we were that young writer) who uses a thesaurus a little too gleefully and muddles all of his words. The same principle works here. People like straightforward texts. Beautiful writing can still be simple writing.

If all of this sounds interesting to you, I recommend you read the original study. It isn’t a terribly long read, and it provides some fascinating information. And let me know what you think of the findings! The make sense to me, but I may be suffering from a bit of confirmation bias.

—     —    —

All data garnered from Yellowlees Douglas and Samantha Miller, “Syntactic and Lexical Complexity of Reading Correlates with Complexity of Writing in Adults,” International Journal of Business Administration, 2016: 7:4.

 

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38 thoughts on “How Different Types of Reading Change Your Writing

  1. Reblogged this on Pearls Before Swine and commented:
    Interesting post on how reading impacts writing. I’ve been saying this for years. Post Quote:

    “This article describes a study in which a group of adult readers identified their most frequently read materials such as online magazines (and memes), newspapers, genre and literary fiction, and other written sources. Researchers then looked at the level of writing that each participant exhibited and found a correlation between what types of material people read and the complexity of their writing.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I could definitely see this as being true. I think what you read influences how you speak and how you write. I notice that words and phrases commonly used in whatever book I have been reading creep into my writing although I do tend to feel this is a temporary thing and when I switch to a different style of book my language changes again. Maybe that’s just me though.

    I am now wondering however if it creeps into my reviews. That might make for an interesting study, how much the writing in the review of a book correlates with the writing in a book.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Fascinating material, Kristen! It makes sense that this would be true, especially given the saying “we are what we eat.” So, why wouldn’t we write what we read? It’s what we tell writers all the time: To be a better write, you have to read! ^.^ Great study, but you’re right: the sample doesn’t appropriately resemble the population. Shame. Maybe they’ll do a repeat at some point?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great article here very concise and insightful analysis.

    You said… just because certain types of reading result in complex types of writing doesn’t mean that authors should always aim for involved sentences structures. Sometimes overly embellished phrases hide the meaning of a work…

    Absolutely!

    There is nothing more telling than an author trying to look intellectual by using long obscure words when normal ones will do. For a novice, I think it’s a form of protection; trying to look more professional than you actually are at the time. And to be blunt we have all been guilty of that. Come on hands up… Oh, I see so just me then!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. What a fascinating study – and it came as something of a surprise that it hasn’t been investigated earlier. It’s true that when children are learning to read and write, without a doubt those who quickly become independent learners also become more proficient as writers, often adopting the styles of their favourite authors as part of their learning process. But whether this applies to adults is far harder to gauge. Thank you for sharing this, Kristen:).

    Liked by 2 people

  6. This is definitely very intriguing. In fact, I’m sure, even if the study has its faults, that there’s some great truth behind the idea. I mean, a little like after binging a TV show where character’s are mostly gangsters with a certain slang in their communication, some of us will end up adopting some of that slang for a certain amount of time. I feel like the same thing can be seen through literature, where reading a certain style of writing for a while will get you to adopt it for a while (and maybe make it permanent). Thanks for sharing the article though, very fascinating! 🙂

    – Lashaan

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Kristen, this is really interesting. Yes, my writing is influenced by what I read. I am more direct, no fluff, and love YA books. I think decades of children’s books has fine tuned my words and phrases to paint a mental picture. Very interesting. Thank you!

    Like

  8. I do believe that my writing reflects my reading, but I agree with the commenter above who believes it’s temporary. When I immerse myself in Jane Austen novels I feel smarter and write with greater complexity, but for a time. When I return to more basic, fundamental reads my brain recalibrates to the simpler form and I duplicate that style in my writing. Since I enjoy so many literary works, from the most basic to semi-complex, I guess I’ll never write in a particularly scholarly way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Luckily I don’t think any of us need to be particularly academic. (Not if we want other people to actually read our writing at any rate.) And I’m relieved to hear that the effects are temporary! I always worry about picking up too many writing habits from other people.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. This definitely makes sense to me as a reader. But I do agree to you about the study, considering they only looked at MBA students to get their results. But it’s still interesting to think about how what we read impacts our writing and what we write about.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. When I was a little child my father always gave me two comics every weeks. With this precious present I learn to survive and love the persons and the live. I was very poor but gave me a fortune, learn and write and made me a professional women in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

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