Saturday, August 13, 2011

On Being a "Good Reader"

Books.  The nectar of life.
Photo by:  Surachai

When thinking about the skills needed to be a writer, what normally comes to mind?  Chances are it's a few of the following:

-- A strong vocabulary
-- An intimate knowledge of commas
-- Knowing where the darn apostrophes go
-- Understanding the difference between "they're/their/there"
-- A wild imagination

I would argue that one of the best skills a writer could have is being a good reader.

What does this mean?  What makes a good reader?  Does it mean you could pass the "reading for context" test you were given in the second grade?  Does it mean you were consistently placed in a higher reading level than your actual grade?  Does it mean you slogged successfully through War and Peace before graduating high school (and actually understood at least half of it)?

Maybe.  Although I admit that I still have not read War and Peace and, frankly, have no desire to whatsoever.

Here's what I think it means to be a good reader:

-- You love books and would rather be reading than doing anything else.
-- At any given time you have a book somewhere about your person, "just in case."
-- You get so involved in a story that you stay up until at least 2 am, just to see what happens.
-- You love books the same way you love people.
-- You spend hours wandering in a bookstore.
-- You get involved in conversations and arguments about characters in stories, and feel personally invested in the outcome.

So what does this have to do with writing?

Family legend has it that I was taught to read at three years old by my grandmother.  By the first grade I was reading chapter books by Beverly Cleary.  I read "Animal Farm" in the fourth grade (and understood it).  At fifth grade I was tested and found to have a "fourteenth grade" reading level (i.e. college level).  I read anything you put in front of me (almost), both fiction and nonfiction.

From the very beginning, I was surrounding myself with language.  I learned quickly all the ways it can be manipulated, understood instinctively the difference between an adverb and an adjective, got a feel for the rhythm of punctuation.

When I'm writing, I'm just interested in getting the information out and on the page.  But when I edit, I become the reader.  I read the work out loud, to get the feel of it.  And I can "hear" whether it's working or not.  Sentences "sound" awkward.  Commas "feel" misplaced.

You can't teach this in school.  Studying nouns, verbs, transitional phrases, modifiers, participles...  it doesn't help you "feel" the language.  Even if you are writing about something as "dry" as heart attack symptoms.  Do it right, and your reader cares.  And as writers, we are all about the readers.  Right?  Want to be a better writer?  READ.

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