Want to write better? Read better writing.
Reading is a critical skill taught in elementary and secondary school. As children, we start with the ABCs and work up to classics such as Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”
After graduation, however, many individuals stop thinking about the importance of what they read. Yet the quality of what one reads directly affects the complexity of his or her writing, according to a new study in the International Journal of Business Administration.
“If you spend all your time reading reddit, your writing is going to go to hell in a handcart,” says study author Yellowlees Douglas, an associate professor at the University of Florida who studies cognition and writing. “You should be very choosy — and highly conscious of the impact — of what you read.”
Past studies found that making students read more in classrooms had more impact on their writing than making students write more, but few studies have assessed how reading affects writing in adults, says Douglas.
She and graduate student Samantha Miller invited University of Florida MBA students to take an online survey about their reading habits, including how many hours per week and what type of content they regularly read. Reading materials varied widely, from business-focused magazines like The Economist, to general-interest newspapers, to online sources such as Tumblr, reddit, and the Huffington Post.
Forty-five students took the survey. Each also submitted a writing sample — the second paragraph of a cover letter for a job application. Douglas and Miller analyzed the samples using more than 14 measures of complexity, including average sentence length and average clause length. They also graded the complexity of reading materials by analyzing text samples from each website, newspaper, and magazine.
The researchers found a correlation between students’ typical reading content and their writing skills. Students who read primarily online content, at sites like BuzzFeed and reddit, had the lowest writing complexity scores, while those who read academic journal articles or critically acclaimed fiction had the highest scores.
The study did not investigate why such a link might exist, but Douglas speculates that it relates to our tendency to mimic things we read or hear, and to repeat sentences or patterns similar in structure to those we recently experienced, a concept that linguists call “structural priming.” The number of hours the students read weekly had no significant effect on their writing, nor did reading a lot of fiction.
Individuals should be aware that what they read can directly affect their writing skills, says Douglas. It’s like eating well: “If you have really crappy nutrition, it’s going to show up on your body in one way or another.”