Shortly after I have returned my student’s writing assignments to them, I start setting up appointments with those students who want to talk about their grades. In these consultations, as I go over the importance of returning to the reading assignments, preparing an early draft, meeting the writing tutor, revising often, having a friend read drafts, and so on, I sometimes also tell them a little story about how reading more can make you into a better writer.
A couple of years ago, my Brooklyn College colleague Robert Viscusi told me how he had transformed himself from an ‘average’ student into a ‘good’ one, one with some talent for writing. After his freshman year of college, he found himself in the privileged position of having a great deal of time on his hands that summer. I do not remember if summer employment was disdained, not felt necessary or merely part-time, but be that as it may, he had time to read.
And so he read that summer. Prodigiously. At the rate of a book a day. He read novels, short stories, history, the lot. He read and read, clocking in at, I think, a hundred books. Prior to that summer, he had been a B-student. After that summer, he never got less than an A. And he found too, a facility and a talent for writing that had not made itself manifest before.
I tell my students that I don’t expect them to read a book a day. Given the constraints on their time and energy, and their often radically different stations in life, this would be unrealistic. But I do ask them to pay attention to the transformation in a student’s scholarly abilities by this devotion to reading. And more to the point, to the change in writing abilities.
Those who read more write better. They encounter writing in its many different forms; they develop and acquire a taste; they are exposed to examples, good and bad, of the art and craft of writing; they internalize, subconsciously, implicitly and explicitly, crucial elements of style; they see writers explain, persuade, argue, tell stories, complain, mock, ridicule; they notice verbal trickery and subtlety; they witness the deployment of rhetoric; and most ambitiously, they might imagine they would like to get a piece of the action and do it better than those whom they read. Or at least emulate them.
I find grading papers extraordinarily hard and still struggle with providing adequate feedback to my students on their papers. (My comments on papers are brief and synoptic; I do not micro-markup.) It is easier for me to remind students of methodology–‘in most instances you can delete the first paragraph you wrote in your first draft; most likely, it’s just throat clearing’–than it is to tell them what is wrong with a particular piece of writing.
But I can always fall back on a reliable instruction: if you want to write better, start reading more. Way more than you do now. That’s good advice for me too.