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What we read matters.

The idea is that we absorb the habits of the people we are exposed to on a regular basis. This is a concept that most people (well, I say most people, but I’m not actually sure if it’s true) are aware of. Yes, it matters, but why does it matter? How does this happen? But these questions are just as important as the phrase itself.


So, then, why does this matter? How does it happen?

This is a concept that has an effect far beyond our writing. It affects our personalities, what movies you watch, what books we read, even it if we don’t want it to. There is a lot of cognitive psychology involved in this that I’m not really going to delve into.


The simplest manifestation of this is if you think about comparisons between parents and their childen. Children are often described as representations of their parents. People can see elements of their father and mother in that child’s development and personality. Humans are designed to absorb tendencies from everyone around them. Even people who have a great, strong sense of who they are will do this because it is not a conscious function of our minds. It is rather an unconscious function.


There is also a concept in psychology (and this also pertains to trying to teach children how to study) that considers a concept known as encoding. Basically we record information in different manners and by record I mean absorb. There are three main levels to that.

  • The first is very basic, being just a general glossing over the concept we’re attempting to remember. There isn’t any conscious effort to retain the knowledge. Think of being a passenger in a car. You never really know the route, even if you’ve traveled it a hundred times, until you sit behind the wheel and have to remember. It’s very much a “oh, okay, I can recognize this pattern, but I can’t necessarily repeat or reproduce it.” In terms of reading and writing, we know because we recognize the words or sounds.
  • The second level is a middling range of encoding where you get more out of it because you have highlighted a passage (and I’m not talking about those morons that highlight entire passages in books. Hint: THAT DOESN’T WORK!!!). This is a more active manner of studying and attempting to absorb information as opposed to the first one, which is simply passive. Still, it’s not very effective, because while we’ve moved on from entirely passive, there still isn’t actually much thought involved in this. Back to writing, now the reader is actively reading, attempting at least understand what they’re reading.
  • The final level is no longer passive at all. It involves a combination of methods from rewriting in your own words what you’ve read, highlighting, reading out loud and being able to repeat the concept that you’re coming to learn. Research suggests not just causation but correlation between the study habits and how effectively a student remembers the information they’ve been exposed to. So, now you’ve driven the car and you know the route because you had to actively engage to learn it.


Maybe it wasn’t so simple.


In the end, how does this relate to writing and reading? Well, if, as humans, we have a tendency to absorb the habits and patterns we are exposed to, then that will have a greater impact on what we write. Even if, on some basic level, it’s not active and we aren’t trying to. However, after repeated exposure, we start to mimic even things we don’t intend to.


If encoding and mimicking are methods of remembering and imprinting then it makes sense that what we read is more heavily translated into what we write. Extending that metaphor, if we absorb from passive listening the tendencies of our peers then when we read, as readers, we attempt to imagine the world in which we have immersed ourselves. We’ve stepped up the encoding level to the middle range, because we’re engaged (hopefully) and not just glossing over entire phrases, pages, or chapters.


Again, this is all just to say that if we read crappy stories and just accept those as well told stories, then we will write the same way. As writers, we are encoding things on a different level because we are attempting to understand what we read and what we’ve written. The tendency to absorb information and reproduce it means, inevitably, if unintentionally, we arrive with habits that we might otherwise, in no way, shape or form, find acceptable. And, because it was absorbed passively, we don’t always realize we’ve done so.


If you read books that require a greater level of engagement to understand what you’re being told, you will attempt to reproduce that work when you write. In other words, don’t stick with the comfort popcorn food/reading that you find enjoyable. Push your boundaries. If you don’t, the result will be a lower level of writing, something that you can’t be proud of. Or won’t be proud of.


At the very least, you need to be cognizant of what you’re reading. As writers, we can’t just expect to become better if we insist on reading the dregs. That is to say you can’t just read it and enjoy it. But at least attempt to recognize why what you’re reading is poorly constructed.


So what do you guys think? Do you read books that are often beyond what you’re writing? What you learn from that? How do you think about what you read?


Note: There won’t be a regular post this Thursday, due to it being Christmas and all. Then year end statistics, with my favorite stories from 2014, along with some busts. Typical year end stuff.