Online Reading is Changing Your Writing and Your Brain--You Decide How.

We need to talk. 

All that reading we do online, it's changing us.  It's a silent process, more than a decade in the making. 

As reading changes, so does writing, thought, mind...

So let's put our phones down for a minute.  While we're at it, we'll tell Facebook to take a hike...Medium too.  Because this change--nearly imperceptible, scratching at us--it's worth our (undivided) attention.  Even if that attention has become...fleeting.

We can see it in our writing, but it goes deeper: the nature of our thought, our ideas is changing. Writing, in the end, is just thought and language on paper--or on a screen.  

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? You? Me?

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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?

Our reading, our writing, our thoughts.

I bet we can all think of a quote like this one (which I love by the way):

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.  

In fact, what we read may be more important than how much we write--in terms of our success as writers (and dare I say, thinkers). 

In an article called "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 explains her (rather intuitive) approach to divining what her MBA students are reading just based on their writing samples--and how she later followed up that hunch with research.

So what are you reading? HuffPo? Buzzfeed? Tolstoy?  

Personally, I'm feeling a bit self-conscious.  I wonder if my reading leaves its footprints all over my writing. Not to mention my mind.

What did I read in the past 24 hours?  A novel that I finished (on purpose) that is on my list of books to read. 

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: 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 exactly what to do.

The Bi-literate mind




Stop deep reading--slow reading, reading that happens when your mind meets a book--and 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. 

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. 

We've done it with language.  We can do it with reading, and writing.

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. Now we just need a little push in the other direction. 

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

  • Set aside time each day for deep reading (from a worthy book, journal or article).
  • Forget reading goals: focus on how you read--the process, the habit of reading--not how much you read. 
  • Make mindful choices about your reading materials, have a 'to read' list to turn to, and preferably a stack of books on hand.
  • Write.  Write by hand and on paper. Write outside of the online world. 
  • Write something you'd never put (or find) in a blog post, on social media.  Maybe a little creative writing? A story? A journal article. 

All of the above will make you a more compelling, creative and mindful writer--whether you write online or off. 

I'm passionate about being a better writer--always, but that's not really the essence of why we should be doing this.  In the end, our reading, our writing and our languages are an expression of something much more fundamental--ourselves.  

So what do you think?

Does your reading show up in what you write (or how 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?


This week's post was part of a short series on using your reading to become a better writer...  Next time, we'll talk about how to do something else great writers do--capture experience.  We'll talk about how your favorite writers go out in the world, snatch up the stuff of life and scratch it down with paper and pen--and how you can do it too.  See you next time.



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