It’s no secret that reading and writing go hand in hand. Most successful writers are avid readers. We learn our craft by reading and dissecting the works of others. We take inspiration from them and we learn from their failures. But our reading skills may not be what they once were. New research shows that the Internet, with all of its links, short paragraphs, and volumes of information may be changing the way we read and the way our brains process information. And not for the better.
Many people now report problems reading more challenging works, or concentrating on a book for a sustained period of time. Even easier works are getting skimmed and major plot points and facts are being missed. We’re becoming so used to skimming for key words and hopping from a link to a video to an image that we’re losing our ability to process information in a deep and meaningful way.
This presents a problem for writers. Since our ability to write is so closely tied to our reading skills, deteriorating reading skills equal deteriorating writing skills. Think about it: If you can’t read a challenging work, or concentrate long enough to read anything longer than a grocery list, what makes you think you can write anything that’s lengthy or challenging? What makes you think you can edit your book if you can’t concentrate or stop skimming long enough to make sense of what you’ve written and detect the flaws in it?
Deteriorating reading skills might not be a problem if you’re writing for the web and you can get away with always writing small bits of information and editing tiny chunks, but it’s a problem if you’re writing novels, non-fiction books or long manuals. To write well, we writers need to actively preserve and improve our reading skills. If you find yourself struggling, here are some ideas to sharpen and protect your ability to read deeply.
Read without distractions
Don’t read with the TV on or your cell phone beeping next to you. Turn it all off and just read. If you’re looking up and down at the TV every five minutes or checking your messages, you’re simply further fragmenting your attention span. Find a quiet place, turn off the distractions and just read.
Read more challenging works
It’s easy to get complacent about your reading skills. If you’re only reading easy, fluffy works, it’s easy to think that everything is fine. And then you pull out that scientific book or literary novel. Then you see that your reading isn’t what it once was. Take the time to read something more challenging for you. It may be something outside of your field, or something that’s above the level at which you usually read. These books will force you to bring your best reading skills and practice those that are weakening.
Take it offline once in a while
The Internet makes it easy to research a topic very quickly. But to preserve your ability to make sense of information you need to take it offline once in a while. Check out some actual books about your topic and study them. Not only will you be improving your reading skills, you might find that you end up with higher quality research and a better understanding of the topic when you engage deeply with the material instead of just hitting the high points. This understanding will translate on the page in the form of higher quality work.
If you find yourself skimming a work, stop, go back to where your concentration faltered, and begin again. Become aware of when your reading turns to skimming, or when you find yourself thinking about what to make for dinner while you’re simply scanning a work. Turn your full attention back to the work.
Reading deeply is like exercise. It’s easy once you’ve gotten in shape but it’s hard and sometimes painful if that muscle isn’t up to it yet. Pace yourself and take breaks if you need to. Fifteen minutes of total concentration is better than an hour of frustration, frequent skimming, and telling yourself that it’s almost over. If you need a break, take one. You’ll be able to engage for longer periods after you practice for a while.
After you’ve read something, particularly something that really challenges you, go back and read it again. You’ll probably be surprised to find that there are still areas that you skimmed, or pieces that you missed entirely. The more you read, the less often this will happen and the less rereading you’ll have to do, but in the beginning of training or retraining your brain, rereading can be a valuable way to improve comprehension.
Take your time
We’re so busy today that it’s hard to simply sit down and read but that’s exactly what you’ll have to do. Reading fast is not the way you improve your understanding and concentration. You have to slow down.
You probably haven’t done this since college, unless you were researching an in-depth project. Note-taking can increase your comprehension by forcing you to slow down and identify key pieces of information.
Read several books about the same topic. Read several of one author’s books. The more you read on one subject or study one author, the better you become at seeing connections amongst the concepts, or noticing what makes this novelist successful (or not). Flitting from author to author or subject to subject can be fun, but it can also contribute to some of the same problems that the Internet presents.
When you finish reading a work, take the time to write out a summary or a review of the work. Again, this is probably something you haven’t done since your school days, but writing out what you remember from the work shows you how well you’re comprehending it. If all you can say about “Watership Down” is, “It was good. There were bunnies,” clearly you’ve got a problem. If you can describe the characters and the themes of the book and summarize the whole plot, you’re on your way.
More than ever our reading skills are not something we can take for granted. It used to be that when you finished school you were pretty well set for a meaningful reading life. You didn’t have to do much to keep your skills sharp. Simply reading for pleasure and reading the newspaper was often enough Now, though, deep reading skills are harder to maintain. The Internet is a great thing but if we’re not careful, it can actually rewire our brains in ways that are not favorable to writers who depend on reading comprehension and concentration to work. Practice your reading the same way you practice your writing. It’s the only way to ensure that your reading activities can help, not hinder, your writing efforts.