Writing With Substance: You Can Haz it! SRSLY!


When "first-year writers" read, they are often doing so in order to give them subject matter to write about. In a book I used to teach with, my students learned that what they wanted to say needed to be in response somehow to something somebody else said. On one hand, yes. It's important to be engaged in conversation with others. Dialogue is useful for all the reasons that Socrates noted in his famous philosophical works. He may indeed have supplied us with the single best method for thinking critically, but such dialogue is most useful (and most substantive) when the parties are sufficiently informed or have something to bring beyond an initial opinion--which is to say, when both parties can contribute to the knowledge they produce through dialogue with knowledge of their own. 

Here I want to distinguish between experience and knowledge. We all have experiences that inform our thoughts and responses to what we see, hear, and read. But experience alone does not constitute knowledge. And you're in college to gain some. Much of it will come from reading and the experiences you gain concurrently. Neither one nor the other is complete on its own, but reading widely about something can help you gain knowledge about something you haven't experienced. Reading widely can also help you convert something you experienced yourself into knowledge, if only because what you read can broaden your own subjective sense of what you experienced with other perspectives. 

Reading is necessary because we can't know everything just by what we've lived through. We can't even know that much in the grand scheme of all there could be worth knowing.

Reading is also necessary because it allows you to see how other people articulate knowledge

I owe the strength of my own writing to reading for this very reason. Putting ideas into words sometimes comes easily for me, but often I don't think I know what my ideas are until I've tried to write them. I find that it's sometimes easier to put words down on paper than to tell somebody what I think, and when I've looked at what I wrote, I see that I've imposed a structure on what I was thinking only in very loose ways--simply by virtue of getting the ideas from my brain into my screen. Where did that structure come from? Well, I might say it came from my own brain. Perhaps it did. But more often, I think the way we structure an idea comes from having seen something written down by somebody else. To say so is not to say we all plagiarize from one another, but rather, to admit that we learn what constitutes good prose by reading it and imitating the style, structure, and diction we've seen elsewhere.

I'm certainly not telling to you to copy the sentences of published writers and submit them as your own work. I am telling you, though, that the more writing you read, the more ideas about how to write you will have.

Next up: An assignment to help you think about the relationship between reading and writing.

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