Welcome to Term 2! In our first post for the term, Insight writer and English teacher Leon Furze explains why reading carefully and widely is crucial to developing good writing skills.
If you haven’t spent time reading a text, you’ll have a hard time writing about it. Even though this simple statement sounds obvious, countless students launch into writing without first doing the important groundwork: carefully reading and re-reading. The English curriculum can be partly responsible for this, too; think about how much time you’ve spent in class learning to write essays, structure paragraphs and use vocabulary versus how much time you’ve spent really learning how to read closely.
In this post we’ll talk about four key reasons why you need to read before you write.
1: It enables you to develop your own interpretations.
Whether you’re writing an analytical response, a creative adaptation or a review of a text, you must carefully read the text before writing about it. Often, students rely on their teacher to explain parts of a text. While studying themes, values, ideas and characters in the classroom is important, if you wish to write the best possible response you must base it on your own reading and interpretation.
Reading is subjective, meaning everyone reads differently. A number of factors affect how you interpret a text, such as your background, your upbringing and other books you’ve read. This personal context means no two people will find exactly the same meaning in a text and no single reading is definitely ‘correct’. And that includes your teacher’s! A teacher’s job is to guide you through the text, perhaps pointing out details you may have missed. But that doesn’t mean the teacher’s interpretation is more valid than your own – it’s just different.
Whatever type of response you’re writing, your own interpretation is key. For example, in an analytical response like an essay, it will be the little details you pick up for yourself that will make your writing shine. If every student just used the notes from class, every essay would be identical. Aside from boring the teacher, this approach to writing makes for very shallow and predictable responses.
2: It helps you to develop your own voice.
Developing your own unique voice is an important part of learning to write well. In creative writing, voice is a combination of style, technique and the unique quirks that make a writer distinct. For example, a writer may use dialect in a particular way or make unique language choices and take a particular approach to punctuation to make their writing stand out. Although there is less scope to experiment with language and punctuation in an essay than in a creative piece, it’s still possible for a writer to develop a unique voice in their analytical writing. If this wasn’t true, then editorials, literary essays and academic articles would all sound exactly the same.
While you read, listen to your inner voice. Are you asking questions? Agreeing or disagreeing with the author’s views and values? Some of this inner voice should make its way into your final writing, and it will come through because you’ve taken the time and effort to really think about the material. The more your writing incorporates your inner voice, the more passionate and engaging it will be.
3: It provides context.
Have you ever read something and not had a clue what the author was talking about? Perhaps you’ve read a classic and some of the references sailed right over your head. This generally happens when you’re not familiar with the context. Just like you have your own context, the text you are reading has been informed by the author’s context and the context of the story.
The good news is that it’s possible to decode all this context and gain a greater understanding of the text. While you’re reading, keep an eye out for references to the world outside the text that you don’t understand. Perhaps the author has mentioned a specific historical event or made reference to another text, place or person. Make a note of the reference and spend some time researching online before sitting down to plan your response.
Recognising that authors don’t write their texts in a bubble – that they’re influenced by the world around them, just like anyone else – will add an extra dimension to your writing.
4: It improves your vocabulary.
Language is an author’s most important tool. Most authors are adults, many of whom have dedicated their lives to writing. This means they’ve had a lot of experience in choosing just the right words to use in any situation. As a young writer yourself (even if you’re only writing because you have to), you can learn a lot from the experts.
If a text you are studying focuses on the theme of gender, for example, or explores values surrounding race or class, pay attention to the vocabulary that the author uses. Which specific words reveal their own values and opinions on the theme? Make a list of the particular language choices the author makes when they’re writing about one of those key themes, and then work some of that language into your own writing. The teacher or examiner will see that you’ve looked beyond the obvious ideas and immersed yourself in the world of the text, and your writing will be all the better for it.
Reading can be challenging, rewarding and even fun! Through close reading you’ll develop your own interpretations, enrich your understanding and ultimately write much better responses.
Looking for a resource to help you through English in the middle years? Try Insight’s Practise & Prepare for Senior English. The book aims to help students develop a strong foundation for senior English studies through engaging and accessible activities, step-by-step guidelines for writing in a variety of forms, and annotated examples.