How to Read Well

Faith Today senior editor Bill Fledderus was a keynote speaker at the recent Write Canada conference held in Toronto. In this excerpt from his speech, he offers advice on reading well.

Faith Today senior editor Bill Fledderus reads to learn.
Faith Today senior editor Bill Fledderus reads to learn.

Samuel Johnson, the great English dictionary writer of the 1700s, once wrote: “The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading; in order to write, a man will turn over half a library to make one book.”

Productive reading is strategic. It involves making a plan of what to read and then learning from what you read.

I’ve heard it said that good quality writing deserves to be read three times: the first for enjoyment, the second for analysis and the third a more sophisticated level of enjoyment that admires both the writer’s successes and how they are achieved.

So maybe your challenge, as you seek to develop your writing gift, is to be more intentional about your reading, to be sure you mix in reading from other centuries, other genres, other countries, translated works from other languages, how-to books on particular kinds of writing, and to make sure you reflect on what you read and write down those reflections.

Often we have misguided prejudices against certain types of reading. “Poetry,” you might say, “I’ve tried it and it’s not for me.”

My comeback here is that there are so many kinds of poetry, if you look hard enough (and it’s not really hard anymore thanks to Google), you are bound to find a kind of poetry you can appreciate.

It can be an uncomfortable challenge to change our reading habits. But reading to become a better thinker and writer, to help develop our gifts, means reading in a wide variety of genres and forms, regularly reading stuff that challenges us instead of just reading what is comfortable and entertaining and confirms our own habits and values.

The positive side to reading outside our comfort zone is that it can improve our thinking and your writing. If the greatest crime in writing is boring your readers, then the best counter advice is to incorporate unexpected writing elements from other genres.

Through my work as a journalism editor and university lecturer, I’ve gained a deeper appreciation of  genres that weren’t my first choice.

My first love when it came to reading (as a teenager) was sci-fi and fantasy fiction. I’m not sure I would ever have woken up to the joy of poetry if I hadn’t been introduced to it in university and then later needed to work through a lot of it in order to teach it. If I hadn’t spent so many years working in journalism, I don’t think my skills for writing or editing in other genres would be as effective, either.

Working in these “second-choice” genres has made me realize the narrowness of my first love and made me a better writer and reader, and they’ll do the same for you.

Reading to be a better thinker and writer also means reading as a student, to figure out what a writer is doing and more importantly how she does it. It requires reading things more than once, something that our society suggests is a waste of time and to be avoided at all costs.

Reading from a Christian perspective will lead you to recognize  Kingdom values and, more frequently, their absence in the world around you. Maybe the result on your writing will be a nudge to incorporate issues of injustice, whether that be writing letters to the editor or straightforward journalism, or perhaps integrating justice concerns into your fiction and poetry, as Jesus did with his parables.

I am no stellar example of reading and writing widely and including Kingdom values, and so I bring this challenge to you humbly, as an invitation, not with a wagging finger.

When I was a teenager, I was a textbook example of undisciplined, narrow reading. The Bible was probably the only book published before my birth that I knew somewhat well. It wasn’t until university that I raised my aim higher than finishing all the sci-fi and fantasy books available in my local library. Growing up schooled in works of great literature, and in how to read intentionally with the objective of learning, was not my experience.

But I have found that it’s never too late to start!

The latest Faith Today features “Why Christian Classics Matter.” Read it here online. Every issue has a book reviews section that can give you some great leads on worthwhile reading.

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