The biographies of skilled communicators often reveal a lifelong, serious reading habit. I don’t think this is a coincidence. I have read constantly and voraciously since the age of five, and I give that habit (addiction?) a lot of the credit for the writing and editing skills I have developed.
Reading makes you smart
Those who read widely acquire a broad knowledge of history, sociology, the arts, sciences, pop culture, current trends — pretty well anything and everything. That really comes in handy when you’re editing. Obviously, you’ll have a better understanding of any text that comes across your desk, no matter how exotic. And you’ll probably notice if the author absent-mindedly uses the wrong name for a movie director or the wrong date for a historic event. Or makes a much bigger mistake. Fact checking is not usually the editor’s job, but you really impress the client when you can catch a major slip-up.
Another benefit of reading: your vocabulary is constantly expanded and refined. The makers of the provincial exams in Alberta wrote a brochure about the “enormity” of their task. This is technically correct, I believe, but “enormity” has had some pretty negative connotations in common usage over the years. I advised them to find a better word.
Reading provides models for excellent style and technique
If what you’re reading is interesting and engaging — “good” — you begin to notice what makes it so.
1. When writing or editing business and technical documents, I try to “begin at the end.” I learned this from reading good newspaper and magazine articles, which begin with a carefully thought-out lead sentence or paragraph. Too often the drafts I receive assiduously bury the most important bit of information. To heighten suspense, perhaps. But day-to-day reading doesn’t work that way. Your audience has a whole pile of stuff to read and will toss an item aside if the content is not clearly and immediately evident at the outset.
The clearly written lead for a long Edmonton Journal story, May 20, 2014: “Air pollution in the Edmonton area will likely exceed provincial standards if three new gas-fired electricity plants are built without shutting down some of the coal-fired plants around Wabamun Lake, environmentalists warn.”
2. Reading well-written texts reminds you to avoid shoptalk and jargon. Business documents tend towards a truly incredible overuse of words and phrases that never should have been born: “the end of the day,” “synergy,” “circle back,” “outside the box.”
3. Several decades ago I began to realize many publishers were eliminating every comma that could possibly be spared. I made an effort to follow their example. Those who read a document you’ve edited don’t notice the “missing” commas, but they do feel as if the material is in step with the times and something they can relate to.
William Faulkner said, “Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it.”
Do you agree?
Keep an eye out for our upcoming book review column, “Facts and Fiction.”