Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Reading Comprehension

If you want to succeed as a writer you have to read widely, read frequently, and read well. Not only do you have to read across many genres; you also have to understand what you’re reading.

Those first few points are often discussed: but I’ve rarely heard anyone mention that last one and just lately, it’s been bothering me. Because almost every day I see writers get horribly upset by things that other people have not actually said.

I’ve seen people take offence when no offence was intended; I’ve seen people misinterpret statements which are completely unambiguous. I’ve seen statistics, laws and quotes dismissed without care; and I’ve seen, as a direct result, perfectly reasonable people get terribly, terribly hurt.

Most of the meltdowns have been on internet message-boards and blogs while the rest have been via e-mail and, while I strongly believe that as writers we have a responsibility to choose our words with care, I also strongly believe that we should read with care to.

Leaving aside for a moment the hurt and anger that this all causes (which feels to me, as I write this, a dangerous thing to do: it’s corrosive and wounding and really should not be dismissed), I wonder what this implies about the writers concerned. Do they not realise just how badly they are getting things wrong? Do they make the same basic misunderstandings when they read books and newspapers? And if so, do they have any hope at all of ever writing a coherent text of their own?


Jan Jones said...

I think, quite often, it is the medium in which you are reading that is the problem. We have become used to email being a fast-turnaround means of communication, so perhaps sometimes fall into the trap of skim-reading rather than taking care absorbing every sentence.

Interesting post, Jane.

Jane Smith said...

I hesitated about posting this, Jan, because I wondered if people would think I was pointing fingers: I skip through so many message boards these days, and each has its own set of problems. But it's been bothering me for a while, this thing about writers not taking care with their words. And I've been writing a book which examines logic and fallacy (I just sent it in last Friday), which has perhaps made me more aware of how poorly-formed so many arguments and opinions are. It's easy to discredit so many of them: but if one does that, and then one's response is misinterpreted, there's little point.

Pah. I need a cup of tea!

Sally Zigmond said...

I see this happening all the time. I agree with Jan that it's partly because people are in too much of a rush these days to both read and write carefully. (I, like Jane, read an awful lot of writers' internet forums and find people who can hardly frame a coherent sentence--which is why I stick to those where the members do know how to write.) I often think they must be drunk. Either that or people have got more stupid!

Sandra Patterson said...

Interesting post, Jane. And you're right about message boards. I've seen some bitter and nasty encounters on them, but I'd never thought about the comprehension angle before. Some posters are simply not literate enough to ever write professionally. I see this often; some poor deluded soul talking about their big ambitions when they can barely string a coherent sentence together. And you're right, if they have no respect for the written word it doesn't bode well.

Kate said...

I think you're right, Jane. Some threads on some boards seem to turn into a bizarre game of Chinese Whispers because people don't bother to read back far enough to judge the right of wrong of someone else's argument (or if they do, they don't read well enough). That's how people end up getting hurt.

Lynn Price said...

which has perhaps made me more aware of how poorly-formed so many arguments and opinions are.

Jane, for the most part, writers are an emotional lot and oftentimes allow their heart to overrule good old-fashioned logic. At least that's what I've found from sitting on the other side of the desk.