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Reading is Writing

Think about your favorite book, newspaper article, or any writing that really stands out to you.  What is it that you remember?  It’s probably not a bunch of symbols on page or the smell and texture of the paper and ink.  What you likely remember are images that are precious to you, the feeling and mood that is in your mind alone.  How did that get there?

The internet has produced, if nothing else, a lot of writing.  Every blog, tweet, or webpage is nothing more than an attempt to communicate using written language.  The best writing, however, has a deeper understanding of its reader – an appreciation of the process of reading and how symbols on a page are turned into language and then into images.

It’s basically the same as writing, which is to say that reading is writing and writing is reading.

If I want to tell you about a dry subject, like the developing Depression, I won’t start with a lot of facts and figures.  I’ll tell you about people who are struggling with the problem and what it must be like to be caught up in the problem.  If I was a journalist, I’d use an interview, but I can ask you to imagine losing your job and face the problem head on.  What matters is that when the reader translates the bits on a page, they are writing their own image around the details I’ve given and the details I’ve left out.  Unemployment is a statistic, but the unemployed are people; if I have you focused on that, you’ll remember it.

That’s not to say writing should be devoid of facts to be effective.  However, there has to be a context where they make sense if it’s going to stick.  The readers have to have enough information that they can create the image as surely as if they were writing their own article on the subject.

If the medium is audio, the problems are similar but the application is very different.  Radio and podcasts are very immediate, getting deep into people’s minds with very little effort.  You have to compel the listener to put the additional effort into the story that it takes to form an image that they will never forget.  That’s why “This American Life”, the very best at doing this, uses so much eerie and repetitive music; they effectively engage the subconscious directly.   That’s the power of radio.

Video presents its own problems, and I’m far from an expert on the topic.  It’s difficult to get the imagination of your viewer engaged when you are throwing images at them.  The best movies invite you to piece together what’s going on yourself, putting yourself into the action.  Shorter videos on the internet seem to be a more difficult problem, but I’m sure it’s still possible.

Good writing is like any other medium where you are trying to get your point across, even if the demands being placed on the reader are a bit more than other forms.  You need to use the process to your advantage, helping your reader create their own images more than dictating exactly what you want in their head.  Even technical writing can be helped by this understanding, building the facts gradually and carefully in a way that walks the reader along the path rather than driving them straight to the end.

Because reading is writing, writing ultimately is reading.  You and the reader are bridging the spaces inbetween you.  If you are sitting at your keyboard at 3 AM with an empty bottle of scotch and a full ashtray, you may want to be careful what you are saying.  Your reader might write that into the image of you  and your topic, and they may not like it all that much.

13 thoughts on “Reading is Writing

  1. So very true–you can’t write if you’re not a reader, because if you don’t read, how will you know how to put words together in a compelling, informative way? We don’t all have time to reinvent the wheel!

  2. One of my writing teachers used to say that the reader always “writes themselves” into the text and if you’re an effective writer you make that easier for them.

    Though I’m not a writer, I have a deep appreciation for good writing, which doesn’t have to be “classic” or “literary” but needs to keep me engaged and interested. When I turn off the teevee or put down my knitting in order to read a book, you know I’m hooked!

  3. If you don’t read then you don’t have the love of words necessary to learn your craft.

    It’s like the painter that refuses to learn to draw – which is the structure.

  4. I have to confess that I go through spells where I can’t read a thing. I become frustrated by the inadequacy of writing to actually be the moment it is reporting. This always starts with my own clumsy use of the craft, but eventually I have trouble with other people’s work.

    When this happens, I read Don Quixote again. I know other people who use the same trick. I may not be up to the task, but it is possible to form characters into a mass that transforms itself in the mind of the reader. That magic is what writing is all about. It’s intoxicating. It’s why I named this blog “Barataria” (as explained in the “About”).

    Look, Sancho, another dragon!

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  13. You touched on moving image as a way of engaging the reader, and yes, it’s difficult to engage the reader’s imagination if you do it all for them. The best films, in my opinion, are those where the Director leaves plenty of space for the reader to reflect. A good example of this might be ‘American Beauty’. A good example of the opposite might be ‘Moulin Rouge’.

    How much space a Director gives his or her reader, and how well the film is received, is often a good indicator of the intelligence of the reader too. The less intelligent the audience, the more they want everything handed to them on a plate.

    Which is why I support the idea that kids shouldn’t be exposed to too much TV or video games, especially at an early age. I believe it really can stunt the development of the imagination.

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