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.
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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.