Read Your Fruits and Vegetables to Help Improve Your Writing

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In my last writing tip post, my final point suggested increasing your reading level to improve your writing, even if your writing level never went above the recommended 8th grade level. This week, I’m going to look at ways you can actually do just that. And the easiest way of doing that is by varying your reading diet. 

We all know you need several helpings of vegetables per day to day healthy. Humans cannot live on pizza and avocado toast alone. Well, you could, but you wouldn’t be very healthy after a while. So, why would you keep your brain on a steady diet of online articles and read nothing else? 

blog post on Content Writing Jobs goes into more detail about why we should read every single day and says that reading is the best investment you can make in your life. I couldn’t agree more. But then, I’m a bookworm, so it’s advice I’m more than happy to take.

There are good ways of going about making that investment, however, that the blog post does not mention. Given that this is a blog mostly concerned with classical literature, yes I will tout the benefits of classic literature once again. 

But, I have a few more thoughts too. Ones which I’m sure will appeal to even the most die-hard non-reader out there.

Read more than one genre.

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If you’re like most of us, you read mostly based upon your Google Search, your social media alerts, or your favorite news outlet. When was the last time you actually stepped outside of that narrow field, however? 

There are tons of genres out there for you to explore. A look into Amazon’s Kindle store will have dozens, if not hundreds, of subgenres in both fiction and nonfiction, which didn’t exist 10 years ago. So, why are you stuck reading only one or two? 

I get it, you like a specific type of book, a specific online publication, or you only want to read things you think apply to the events of today. Or, you’re too tired to think about reading anything but that one source that’s like chicken noodle soup when you have a terrible cold.

But you must read more than the news of the day to get a full picture of the world and of your place in it. So, pick up a history book—my recommendation would be one of Dan Jones’ books on Medieval England—and learn something you think is irrelevant. Because chances are, it’s more relevant than you think it. 

Reading blogs, news articles, and special interest pieces on the internet is a fantastic way of staying up to date with what’s happening in the world and in your field of interest. But it’s very limiting. It’s more limiting than, say, reading The Count of Monte Cristo and researching the Carolingian and Merovingian kings because they’re referenced in the text.

By the way, that actually happened to an acquaintance of mine. And I promptly recommended they read Song of Roland and Poem of the Cid as their next great literary adventure. 

Read works from different time periods.

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It’s tempting to go with the most prevalent which, if you look at any Goodreads list, spans from the Victorian Era to the present time and very little else. Except, of course, for Jane Austen and William Shakespeare. 

But if you only go with what’s being published now, or even in the past 100 years, you are ignoring thousands of years of history not only in the Western civilization but in the rest of the world too. Thanks to databases like Project Gutenberg and big-name publishing houses like Penguin, you can pick up anything from The Tales of Genji to The Upanishads.

There is more out there than the latest bestseller. Or the tired out realism of Hemmingway and Steinbeck.  

Reading older works of literature is an education just in how many ways you can write a sentence or narrative. It challenges you to use your problem-solving ability and your comprehension and that is only good for you in the long run. This, of course, helps keep your brain young and can help prevent cognitive decline

Just remember to take yourself out of the 21st century for a moment and meet these works on their own terms. Dante’s Divine Comedy after all is both allegory and reality, but you have to see both to come to an understanding of it. If you go in and expecting women’s rights or picture-perfect morality, prepare to be sorely disappointed. 

You’re not reading to be in an echo chamber, you’re reading to be challenged and to grow. That usually involves facing some very offensive stuff. And human history is full of offensive things regardless of your heritage. 

Don’t fall into the self-help trap in the name of productivity.

Decorative graphic. A picture of people who are very obviously exhausted and bored. NO doubt because they haven't had a good dose of poetry in a while.
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If you’re not a literary person, or even a very creative one, then reading a bunch of outdated or fictional novels may seem like a waste of time. Wouldn’t your time be better spent reading another self-help book? 

No. And here’s why. 

It makes you a bore. Yes, I said it. Self-help doesn’t help you use your imagination. Nor, apparently, does it do as good of a job as classic literature at improving your health according to a study by the University of Liverpool.

Don’t misunderstand me, there is a time and a place for self-help. There are a few which I absolutely love, like Writing with Power and Doing the Work. But if you read nothing else, you will suffer the consequences.

I’ve known several people who would only read one kind of book—always nonfiction—and they almost always lacked imagination on some level. Didn’t mean they were uncreative. Some had true creative gifts, but their creativity revolved around set rules which never bent and they had trouble associating different concepts with one another. 

On the worse end of the scale, creativity was completely lacking to where they completely wasted all of their other gifts. One person I knew was so obsessed with “being productive” they wouldn’t read anything but nonfiction. It severely limited them professionally, intellectually, and in their personal relationships.

Not to mention it seriously affected their ability to empathize with other people. 

The problems with reading only self-help or only nonfiction is that you will inevitably reach informational overload. And, the advice will conflict, leaving you with the dilemma of whom to follow and which set of advice is best for you. Given human nature, you probably won’t even follow the advice you really need to either. Unless, of course, you have already done enough inner work to give yourself some tough love. 

Don’t think any of the other genres out there get off scot-free, however.

Read too much of anything—fiction, nonfiction, drama, law, politics—and you will end up in the same boat. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing, so be sure to switch up what you read. Make sure you read not just blog posts, not just romance novels, and not just the latest self-help. 

Read a little of everything.

Follow the white rabbit like Alice.

Vintage woodcuts from Alice in Wonderland. From left to right: Alice follows the rabbit down the hole, the rabbit checks his watch, Alice finds the door to Wonderland.
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This is where reading can be immensely fun. All great works connect to either each other, or to something even greater. Follow the rabbit. The girl Alice allowed her curiosity to get the better of her and she found an entirely new world, all because she followed the rabbit. 

Following the rabbit means you will automatically start reading different genres of writing. Because you will have biographies, autobiographies, histories, news articles, and journals to read through. Follow the rabbit down the hole as far as you can stand. 

Do you know how I really got into Dante? Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Yep! You read that correctly. Buffy led me back to Gothic fiction and The Mysteries of Udolpho. Gothic fiction led me back to the old struggles between the Catholic and Protestant worlds of Shakespeare’s age. The social upheaval of the Reformation led me back even farther to the entire question of purgatory. And purgatory naturally led me to Dante. Who then got me to read Thomas Aquinas because much of his thinking was based on Thomist theology.

Quite a chain of thought, isn’t it? But it was one which came from following a line of inquiry as far back as I could take it. 

Let’s see, that went from pop culture, to academic writing, to Romanticism, to history, to epic poetry, and then theology. I’d say that was a fairly rounded meal of reading material, wouldn’t you? 

So, what white rabbit are you going to follow next? Let me know in the comments! 

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