You Are What You Read

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Readers often ask how to improve their English writing skills when English is not their native language and they don’t live in an English-speaking country. My advice? Do it the way I did. Imitate me.

“But Michael,” you may object, “English is your native language and you’ve lived your whole life in an English-speaking country.”

So okay, don’t imitate me. Imitate somebody else. But it’s vital that you imitate somebody. You can’t gain skill in a language, whether or not it’s your native language, without imitating those who are more skilled than you. In the case of language learning, listen to BBC Radio in English. Read English language websites.

Don’t worry that you can’t (yet) speak or write as well as other people. In fact, at first, you shouldn’t even try. You have to take in before you put out. How much did you speak during your first year? How well did you speak during your second year? A friend of mine, an expert in language learning, advises people to follow the example of little children. Listen for a year or two before you try to speak.

Some writers would do well to take that advice, to read much more than they write, if they really want to learn how to write. Read the works of the best writers in English that you can find. If that doesn’t leave you enough time to read low-quality popular magazines, that’s even better. Read the writers who write the way you want to write someday.

Read books written in a voice similar to yours. That means, of course, that you have to know yourself and your communications style well enough to recognize a similar voice when you hear it. Hopefully, it will be writing that you enjoy reading. But be true to yourself. Don’t pretend to be what you’re not. Many people want to dress like movie stars because they want to look like movie stars. Except that they don’t. They would do better to dress like themselves. It would be more attractive.

My formal education gave me only a small portion of my writing style, my grammar, my vocabulary, even my spelling. I learned most of it from reading. There’s another reason to read only the best literature: if you see a word misspelled or misused too many times, you will start to assume that it’s correct. What determines the meaning or spelling of a word is how it has been used or spelled over many years. Even the Oxford English Dictionary justifies its entries with quotations from literature.

Two of the greatest influences on my writing style are G.K. Chesterton and Rudolf Flesch. Chesterton taught me that varying your word choice for its own sake (what my English teacher called “elegant alternation” when I was 14) isn’t necessary, that repeating the same word may be more powerful or humorous. Flesch taught me that short sentences are easier to understand, even if some writers think that long sentences make them seem more intelligent.

Other writers might consider Chesterton and Flesch too blunt or direct for them to imitate. Their own personality is more gentle and their writing must reflect that. Find your own writing models. But choose them carefully. Your writing becomes like your reading. You are what you read.

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12 thoughts on “You Are What You Read”

  1. “Flesch taught me that short sentences are easier to understand, even if some writers think that long sentences make them seem more intelligent.”

    I am big fan of brevity, short sentences and short paragraph. In general, modular structure attracts me.

    I am from Aizawl, Mizoram (a small not very known state in India) and studied in private English Medium school. In school/college, we were never taught how to communicate verbally or written. Instead, we were trained to write as much as possible. This is pretty the norm all over India, I guess.

    Most questions in exams were like:

    Answer the following questions in not less than x words
    Write an essay on x in not less than xxx words.

    So, the focus wasn’t on bringing out what exactly we have to say on the topic but more on meeting the word count.

    Besides reading, movies and television too helps a lot. I first heard the saying “When the going gets tough, the tough gets going” from Garfield 🙂 in 1994.

    Native speakers are great sentence formation. Movies dialogue is a great way to learn sentence formation. I’ve never used a sentence of this form “Am I glad to x…..yyy” until I heard it from Johny Quest a long time ago.

  2. Great article. You can learn a lot from children. I have a daughter that is 2 and a son that is 7 months. Believe it or not, they teach me almost as much as I teach them. It is fun to watch my little boy try and mouth words before he can actually say them. When I was teaching him to say “dada” you could see his lips forming the words, but nothing was coming out.

    Now, I can’t get him to say “mama” for the life of me…it keeps coming out “dada” Oh well, such is life. Anyway, I would highly recommend reading a lot and developing your voice on the inside before you try to speak to everyone else. Right on!

  3. I’m glad you advised to choose carefully, because the library I work at has a very large and very popular collection of “Urban Fiction” or “Street Lit.” This stuff is PAINFUL to read through. There’s terrible grammar, phantom punctuation, misspellings – the works. Oh, and it’s the same ol’ story about thugs, hoes, and drugs. These are supposed to be cautionary stories, but instead they glamorize these images and it’s frustrating when you see young women checking out crap like this by the dozen.

  4. Great post. I am portuguese and only read great authors. Do not loose your time with popular literature. read the Bible, Dostoievsky, Hemingway, Shakespeare. Not popular magazines.

  5. I will say that popular media does teach you a lot about idioms, slang, and conversational style. It teaches you how (some) people talk. The question is whether you want to talk or write like them.

  6. For the last couple of years, I’ve gone from reading maybe 2-3 books per year to (combined reading/audiobooks) about 4 per month, and have been writing every day/every other day. It’s really interesting to see how my writing has evolved– just from reading my free writes, I can tell if I was reading Chuck Palahniuk or Jodi Picoult or Jeffrey Eugenides. After a while, the books you’ve read, the writing styles or techniques melt together, and instead of parroting other authors, your own voice and style come out.

    Reading definitely is huge, and I agree that it has to be GOOD writing that you read. I read one Karen Kingsbury novel once, and during the week or so I was reading it, every time I wrote, I just wanted to slash my wrists off… haha. Books on the process of writing (by John Gardener, Janet Burroway, Stephen King) also help by pointing out the subtle things in writing that you might not pick up just from reading a novel, and they help you to identify why bad writing is bad and what it is that makes good writing, well, good.

    Anyway. Yeah. Good article.

  7. Learning is English is not that easy as you think and feel along the way. . .

    My tip is read, read, read English reading materials, then speak, speak, speak in English. Sure enough, your written and spoken English will be polished.

    Exert efforts so you will reap the fruits of your labor.


    Good luck!

  8. So i should imitate Anthony Hopkins then, hmmmm…. Really an interesting thought. But the worst part yet to come is people imitating Rap artists n jargon loving cussing pop and rock stars. So choose well, people.

  9. The writing process is the most diffucult part of learning language. For an ESL student, reading is a must. If you’re not a avid reader, then you are likely not a good writer either. But you must be a good writer in your native language. I am not born talented writer and practise speaking out loud until my brain and mouth can do it without any effort. Hence imitating is a key element to learn any language.

  10. Thank you for this tip. Readers comments must be taken in account. You are right.

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