I constantly talk about how to be a better writer based on my observations and anecdotal evidence. Now, a recent study from the International Journal of Business Administration is backing me up.
What you read influences how you write. If all we read are tweets, Facebook posts, or short news blurts, we will tend to mimic those constructions (syntaxes) when we write. I had a student in a composition course who constantly, despite my repeated warnings, failed to capitalize the personal pronoun I and continued to use text abbreviations like b/c, thru, and w/o in his essays. He was mimicking what he read.
Quality of reading material matters more than the quantity of time spent reading. If we spend hours and hours reading posts about the Kardashians or pulp novels, we may feel as if we are making great efforts to improve our minds. However, we still aren’t improving our ability to write well. We need to stretch our reading muscles even if the quality text we read is only in short spurts.
The medium doesn’t make a difference. Many people feel electronic text is more difficult to read than a printed page, but the study suggests this is less of a problem than the quality of what is written. Sometimes electronic offerings tend to focus on “make it quick and make it easy.” However, there is little difference in whether a book is electronic or in physical print when it comes how it influences writing.
Good writing skills are highly valued in the business world. The study states:
Changes in workplace technologies have placed an even heavier emphasis on reading and writing skills than they had in the twentieth century workplace. Employees now send and receive more messages than ever before, while applications like email have eliminated editors and support staff who would formerly have edited writing for managers.
Since modern technology has taken away the former layers of review, the onus falls squarely on the writer.
It isn’t a matter of intelligence; it’s a matter of ignorance. It’s not that people don’t have the intelligence needed to write well. It is our ignorance of other ways of writing that holds us back. If we are never exposed to a variety of rhythms and syntaxes, how can we know that they exist and that we can use them, too?
Students often ask me how they can become better writers. I tell them they need to read better writing. Now I have at least one study to support me!
P.S.: With a title like “Syntactic Complexity of Reading Content Directly Impacts Complexity of Mature Students’ Writing,” the study itself was a real syntactic workout!