Online Reading is Changing Your Writing and Your Brain--plus the good news and your next steps.

We need to talk. 

All that reading we do online?  It's changing us.  You, me, our intellectual communities.

It's a silent process that's been creeping up on us for a couple of decades now.  A transformation that seems to be picking up speed. And you know what unnerves me in all this?

As reading changes, so does our writing, our thoughts,  our minds...

Thought and language...language and writing... all of it jumbled into a black bag with a velvet interior.  Go on, reach in there.  Feel around, try to grasp what you can't see. 

The contents? That ever-changing matter that is as familiar as it is mysterious?

It's just... who we are, after all.  

I mean, who are we again? 

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Are we skimmers?  Searching for the latest news, scanning, impatient for information (that we will probably soon forget)? Do we still have the attention span to read a book? Or a really meaty article.  

When we write...when we think? Who are we?

Can we find some solace in the fact that humanity has gone through such great intellectual disruptions before?

In words unerringly prescient today, Socrates described what would be lost to human beings in the transition from oral to written culture. Socrates’ protests—and the silent rebellion of Plato as he recorded every word—are notably relevant today as we and our children negotiate our own transition from a written culture to one that is increasingly driven by visual images and massive streams of digital information.
— Maryanne Wolf: Proust and the Squid

What if we recognized the significance of this moment in our intellectual development?   

Because, the fact is, we get to live something unique.

 

Our reading, our writing, our thoughts.

I bet we can all think of a quote like this one:

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.
— Stephen King

We all know that our favorite writers are (or were) voracious readers.  Maybe they never had formal writing instruction.  But they are readers.

After all, 

Reader + Life experience put into words = writer.  

And, look, Stephen King wasn't suggesting you get your reading inspiration from Medium or your favorite blog.  Not anymore than Virginia Wolf would advise you to read 1000 blogs, so that your words will "flow like a river."  

See, it's not that we aren't reading--we're reading more than ever.  It's what we're reading. Or aren't reading.

 

What you read may be more important than how much you write.

In an article titled "What You Read May Shape What You Write" from Psychology Today, J. Yellowlees Douglas seeks to explain the decline in writing skill in the US (despite the efforts of our Universities!) 

"The problem might have less to do with writing and more to do with reading. Teaching MBAs at the University of Florida, I started performing an experiment. I would read a student’s writing––often as little as a sample page––and I would pinpoint precisely what they read regularly."
 Take back your reading, your writing and your brain with this  free self-paced creative writing course . For (busy!) innovative people. For you.

Take back your reading, your writing and your brain with this free self-paced creative writing course. For (busy!) innovative people. For you.

Douglas started with a hunch, then followed it up with research that let her pinpoint her student's reading habits through their writing samples.

So what are you reading?  

Personally,  I can't help but feel a bit paranoid about all of this. 

Is my reading leaving it's footprints all over my writing? Not to mention my thinking? 

What did I read in the past 24 hours? 

  • A book that I'm reading that is on my 'to read' list.
  • Plus 4 odd articles, on Medium (Alright, maybe it was more than that, but who's counting?)  Those I read because...well, the truth is, I'm not exactly sure how I got sucked into those.  

Where was I? Oh, right.  

Reading doesn't just affect your writing.  It affects your brain.  

Online reading and your brain

Here's an article I love from the Atlantic called Is Google Making Us Stupid? (warning: not a 2 minute read!). 

It traces the changes the author, Nicholas Carr, (and other regular online readers/writers) have noticed in their reading...and then their thinking.  All as the result of a couple of decades of intensive online reading.  Carr, on the topic: 

...media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

(The bold is mine; I just love that metaphor.)

So, how are you shaping your writing... and your thinking as you read? Are you doing better than I am? 

Well, here's the good news:

  1. We get to choose how we read, write and think.
  2. If you're multilingual, then you already know what to do--because you've already got your own version of this in place.

The Bi-literate mind

     

 

 

You know what happens if you stop deep reading? That slow reading, that happens when your mind meets a book?  You 'forget' how to do it, just the way we'd lose our ability to speak our languages--if we stopped using them. 

But we'd never do that!  We'd never just turn one of our languages off and say, "Well, that was fun, but times have changed..."

Don't give up on your deep reading any more than you'd sacrifice one of the languages you speak--one of your "second souls" as Charlemagne put it.  

Just like with language, reading styles can live simultaneously in your mind.  It's what some of the pioneers of reading research call a 'bi-literate brain.'

As a multilingual, I know this: the languages I live in aren't out to destroy each other. 

Of two minds: will you join the experiment?

Sure, they sometimes play havoc, ask my brain for a little extra effort, throw a linguistic 'hiccup' my way now and then. But feeding one, doesn't kill the other.  

It's not a zero sum game. In fact, a multilingual existence laughs in the face of simple addition and subtraction.

In my experience, being multilingual is more than just English + French + a smattering of Spanish.  Being multilingual brings another dimension to your life, your thoughts, your writing; it's something more than the sum of the parts. 

And what if we learn to let two reading, writing (and thinking) styles co-exist? What if we treated our reading the way we do our languages--knowing that, as long as you nurture both, one is not a threat to the other?

Do you think we could stop being afraid of partaking in that nonlinear, skimming free-for-all that is online reading? 

Maybe we should be acting on the hunch that cultivating both kinds of reading, writing and thinking could lead us someplace entirely new. 

I mean, we've seen that more than one language (and more than one way of looking at the world) can coexist peacefully...why shouldn't it be the same for our reading in this digital era?

Take your reading, your writing (and your brain) into your own hands. 

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So where does that leave us? With our languages, our books, our thoughts? 

We already have everything we need to be 'bi-literate.'  If you're like me, you probably have seen the scales tip pretty far towards the side of online reading and writing.

Maybe it's time for a push in the other direction?

Want to make sure you cultivate both parts of your mind? 

Try these 5 suggestions:

  1. Set aside time each day for deep reading--ideally from a print book, something challenging, something beautiful, something with complex sentences. something that leaves you changed. If you don't have long periods of time, try a short story or essay collection. Or even a book you've read before.
  2. Forget reading goals: focus on how you read--the process, the habit of reading--not how much you read. 
  3. Make mindful choices about your reading materials, have a 'to read' list to turn to, and preferably a stack of books on hand.
  4. Take back your writing too.  Write by hand and on paper. Write outside of the online world. Exercise your offline writing the way you exercise your offline reading. 
  5. Write something you'd never put (or find) in a blog post or on social media.  Maybe a little creative writing? A story? An essay? 

All of the above will make you a more compelling, creative and mindful writer--whether you write online or off. But that's not the real reason to do it.

The real reason is to preserve something beautiful: the way we read and think and relate to one another.

 

So tell me...

Do you find yourself reading differently lately?

Have you noticed your reading show up in what you write (or the way you think)?

How do you balance your online existence with your offline life? The paper with the digital? The pen with the keyboard?

And, for you writers out there, could some fiction reading and creative writing change the way you express yourself--in all your writing?

 

Need support for your reading and writing adventures? 

Have you considered joining an online book club? An international, multilingual group of readers who love to write and writers who love to read.  Stop by for some reading and writing inspiration, monthly book chats and plenty of creative conversations.  

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