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Anita Jenkins

Why Reading Is a Great Hobby for an Editor/Writer

books

booksThe 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.

Examples:

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.”


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11 Comments on “Why Reading Is a Great Hobby for an Editor/Writer”

  • Claudine Laforce

    says:

    I agree! I read a wide range of materials and have done so since I was a child. Though I have no formal training as an editor (yet), I believe I’ve been able to attain my current editorial position through the knowledge I’ve gained by reading everything I can get my hands on.

  • Virginia Durksen

    says:

    I share the this reading habit. It’s wonderful to be in a career for which any and all reading we do is part of our professional development.

  • Frances Peck

    says:

    Thanks for speaking to the bookworm in so many of us, Anita. I really enjoyed your post. Here’s another quotation to complement the one that ends your article:

    “I must say I find television very educational. The minute somebody turns it on, I go into the library and read a good book.” —Groucho Marx

    • Rosemary Shipton

      says:

      Terrific quote. Frances.

  • Anita Jenkins

    says:

    Thanks, Claudine, Virginia and Frances. As I said in my mini bio, “preaching to the converted.”

  • Rachel

    says:

    Great post, Anita. Agreed!

  • Rosemary Shipton

    says:

    Oh yes, Anita, I agree. We editors can’t know everything, but the more we do know, the better we will be in our profession. We’ll be better not only in understanding the context, correcting a few slips, and improving our own writing skills but also by becoming well-rounded interesting people our authors can respect as true partners in creating their books.

  • This applies to me perfectly, as well. I was always a bookworm when I was a kid. I think most of my ability to write and edit came from reading a wide range of books from an early age, combined with my mother’s promotion of good literature. Long before I had a grasp of the technicalities of grammar, I could read a passage and say, “That just doesn’t sound right. It should be *this* way, instead!”

  • Kathe Lieber

    says:

    Reading is more than a hobby, much more. It’s a way of life. It stuns me to hear people say they have “no time for reading.” Yet somehow they have time to watch TV and play mindless games on the computer (I don’t mean Scrabble and its variants). Yesterday, waiting for a medical appointment, I was again stunned to see that hardly anyone else had brought along reading material. I read several chapters of my current novel on my Kobo and was actually mildly annoyed when I didn’t have to wait long…

    • Anita Jenkins

      says:

      I was raised in a family where reading was considered frivolous – there was a lot of serious work to be done on the farm, even if you were a kid. It took me years to learn that there is such a thing as a reading life – a path that you can choose to follow – a vocation, as you describe it, Kathe.

      • Anne Brennan

        says:

        Oh, Anita, what a tragic way to spend a childhood! I couldn’t have gotten through mine without books. And my dogs.

        I completely agree that reading is essential to becoming a good writer and editor. It helps you develop an ear for written language. Without that, I don’t believe anyone can be a good wordsmith.

        Anne

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