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Want to be a better reader? Start writing!

A stack of books

Picture courtesy of [Pixabay](

Speech is what we learn first, but we are taught reading, writing and arithmetic soon after. Between reading and writing, school curricula tend to dwell more on reading than on writing. After all, as students we are learning and a learner is a recipient of teaching, one who is expected to listen and read more than speak and write. But somehow this tends to continue into our adulthood too. We read the news, subject matter relevant to our jobs, instruction manuals, messages from the CEO, political leaders’ speeches, our daily dose of stories from magazines we follow and then some. But unless we are required to write as part of our jobs, we tend to write little or not at all. A relatively small proportion of people produce the bulk of the writings. Why is it then that we write less?

Before tackling that question, it is worth examining the act of reading itself. By reading we implicitly bestow a measure of trust in the writer. What we read has a way of entering and taking root in our thoughts and ideas, to the point that we may not realise whether a position we have taken is ours or originally that of a writer which we happened to adopt. So perhaps, readers need to be aware of what they read. But the act of reading requires us to lower our guard and be sympathetic so that we best understand what the writer is trying to say. This conflict — the need to be sympathetic and a skeptic at the same time — is one that is hard to master for the best of readers. So we seek trusted sources and generally trust what we read. In a way, this suggests an answer to the earlier question.

A small proportion of people produce the bulk of writings because this small group is institutionally accorded a trust-worthy status. We trust journalists, subject matter experts, product designers, CEOs, political leaders, analysts and thinkers who contribute to magazines, and so on. It is their job to write, you see, so we trust them to their jobs the same way we expect people to trust us to do ours. Maybe we are aware of some biases and vested interests, and on the occasions that we read something that disturbs our beliefs and understanding, we pause and re-read. Then, we may choose to forget or rationalise or reform our beliefs. But we still largely trust. Except that today, we read a lot on the Internet. And the Internet is quite peculiar.

We have access to news, views, counter-views and information from an unprecedented number of sources. The sheer reach of the Internet has created a levelling effect — anyone who is inclined to write is almost on the same level as someone whose job it is to write. Slowly but surely we have started relying more and more on community writings and reviews for many decisions we make. From the best gadgets, cars, appliances, food items, movies and music to the best loans, insurance policies, investments and housing, or the worthiest of social or political causes to support, we often find that more than an institutional magazine review it is an authentic consumer or end-user review which offers real value and credibility. Equally as the volume of community writing balloons, we find the need for filtering the information just to cope with its influx. We rely on our friends and family who kind and dear as they may be, are not always neutral arbiters of truth. In the end, we can get exposed to a minority contrarian view which might have struggled to gain the institutional trust in an earlier day, and at the same time, we can also be cocooned in a bubble which seeks to uplift our emotional well-being, at the expense of withholding valuable but distasteful information. Maybe our trust-meter is obsolete.

Writing being mightier than a weapon is a notion that humankind has known right from when writing became a thing. And the Internet has amplified the might of writing. But if writing is so potent, then surely it is an act of folly to be a reader without knowing how writing works. Without knowing the craft of writing, we as readers are handicapped and not in complete control of our reactions to what we read. Writing something ourselves is really the only way we can learn the craft of writing. Besides, by not writing, aren’t we ceding our power to have our say? We have all had those experiences. We read the review of a gadget we own. The reviewer marks it down for a shortcoming while our personal experience suggests it is not a big deal. A chemical engineer reads about people lining up to fill nitrogen in the tires of their regular passenger cars, and she wonders whether there is really something in it. A history buff sees the media misquoting or at least massaging the events of a historical episode because it is more convenient to support their narrative, and he knows it. We should write down the stuff we know. Turn it around and imagine you read about something you are not an expert in. If all the credible voices don’t speak up, you are really at the mercy of one voice.

But writing is not straightforward. It takes a certain level of organised effort. You may think of a topic to write about or a message you feel you should share. But then you need to gather all your thoughts, gather information about related thoughts and ideas, and phrase it in a way that engages a reader and effectively conveys your thought. Anyone who has attempted to write a blog entry, a piece of fiction, an opinion essay, a research paper, an instruction manual, a news article or developer documentation, would know how hard it can be. Can anyone and everyone, really write then? This is a question which is often posed in people’s minds as a rhetorical one. I think it is important to take a step back and understand what writing really means. At one extreme, it may mean writing and publishing a book, while at another extreme, it is just about adding that extra level of research, thought and expression to the things we tell our friends and family. Writing is simply a process that takes our nebulous thoughts or stuff we tell our friends, and converts that into something that can hold up under scrutiny.

Writing is hard, but getting started is the best way to get going. Start with a brief — what are you trying to say, and equally importantly, who will benefit from what you say. Do your research. Is what you are trying to say covered by popular opinion? Is it in conflict with what several others have said? Or maybe, it is not in conflict, but it is an aspect often ignored or missed. Build the case for why you need to say what you are saying. But be respectful of things that have been said around your subject. Finally, start small and in an area where you feel comfortable. You owned and loved a car for 5 years? Maybe you need to write about that. There is music that just moves you every time you hear it? Maybe that’s what you need to write about first. You know the history of your town really well? Well there you go then. Start writing.

In an age where tweets are cited as reference and banter over social media is considered debate, it is quite difficult to tell the difference between a sensational sound bite and a pithy insight. The need to be thorough and the need to be brief is a difficult dilemma we face today. But we owe it to ourselves to not write without due diligence, to not share or retweet blindly, to be thorough in our reading and in our writing. Let us be sympathetic and trust what we read, but let us not let the writer get away. If you write yourself, you will know that it feels different when your writing is sound and when it’s not. Write and empower yourself with that feeling. Use that yardstick to assess what you read. The old trust-meter is broken. You need a new one, and it’s called writing.