Learning to write – almost anything


in TOEFL, Tools & Techniques

Xurxo knows the secret of learning to write. When I read one of his essays and asked him where he learned to write so well, he said, “Reading New York Times essays.” The secret to learning to write is fairly simple – if you want to write essays, read essays. In other words, read the kind of thing you want to write.

When you read, you walk into a writing classroom. You see how to spell words. How to punctuate sentences. How to organize paragraphs. The more you read, the more you’ll learn about writing. You can learn to write – like Xurxo did – by reading.  And you can do that because reading allows you to learn vicariously.

Vicarious learning

You learn vicariously when you see or hear someone do something that interests you. If you’re eating with a group of people and someone says, “Pass the sugar, please,” you suddenly know how to ask for the sugar and, possibly, what sugar is. And if you continue to watch and listen, you learn what to do with the sugar when it is passed to you, to put it in your tea and not on your potatoes. The learning happened automatically and, in this example, instantly.

Vicarious learning explains why young children often speak and act like their parents – and sometimes embarrass them when they do! It also explains why, when they’re older, they speak and act like their friends or their favorite sports or entertainment heroes.

Vicarious learning also explains why I do certain things when I teach. I watched and listened to the teachers I admired and automatically learned something from them about how to teach.

Vicarious learning is automatic and when it happens, you usually don’t notice it. It requires little or no effort. One person does something and, as a result, someone who is watching or listening learns.

Learning to write vicariously

If you want to take advantage of this powerful way to learn to write, there are two things to keep in mind.

First, if you want to learn to write by reading, you have to identify yourself, or be able to imagine yourself, as a writer. You need to see yourself as someone who could do the same thing as the writer you are reading. That’s why I learned from my favorite teachers – I watched and listened to them as a (future) teacher.

Second, you won’t learn to write by reading if you try to study and memorize what the writer is doing. The key is to be aware of what the writer is doing – to read with a kind of relaxed concentration – but not to analyze what he or she is doing.

As you read, different aspects of the writing may come to your mind – the spelling of a word you’ve never seen but use when you speak, the way the writer expresses a certain idea, etc. Enjoy what you’re reading, think along with the writer, and let your brain do the work automatically.

Getting started

To get started, try this. Choose an essay by William Zinsser; he’s interesting, easy to understand, and a very good writer. Or from the New York Times, like Xurxo did. Read it once  – like a reader – to understand what the writer is saying. Then read it again – like a writer – and think with the writer as you read.

If you continue to read this way, you will pick up most of what you need to write well. Like Xurxo, you will learn to write by reading. Writers and writing teachers I know agree – it’s not possible to learn everything you have to know to write well by studying and practice. But it is possible to learn to write by reading. In fact, it’s the only way.

Warren Ediger

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Reference: F. Smith. Reading like a writer. Joining the Literacy Club; also Reading without Nonsense.

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Jody August 31, 2010

P.S. (Don’t copy my writing style unless you want to be “brief”.)

Sumbal Riaz September 6, 2010

I really appreciate this webiste and have found all the suggestions very useful.But would you mind explaining me little more how can i imagine myself as a writer while reading an article.Please explain it more if possible.
I look forward to hearing from you.

Best Regards

Warren Ediger September 6, 2010

Sumbal – Michael Jordan was a famous American basketball player. While he was playing, many kids wanted to “be like Mike,” to play the way he did. When they watched him play, they imagined they were “in the game” with him. Because they wanted to play like him and because they imagined that they were in the game with him, they automatically picked up, or vicariously learned, many of the things he did. Later, when they played with their friends, they did many of the same things he did.

When we “read like a writer,” we imagine we’re “in the game” with the writer. We imagine that we’re writing with the writer. We think along with the writer. We are more open, or sensitive, to “writing things,” but without trying to analyze and copy them. When we read with this kind of attitude, our brains pick up ideas about writing style and other things that will help our writing. Sometimes we will notice them immediately. Other times it will take a while, and we’ll have to see many examples, before they begin to affect our writing.

There is a certain writing style – used on some web sites – that I would like to use. About two weeks ago I began to look for web sites that use this style. When I find one, I “read” the web site, almost every page. I am sensitive to the words they use. The way they write sentences and organize paragraphs. I’m beginning to see a little difference in the writing I’m doing for some new pages on Successful English. It’s not yet the style I’m hoping for, but it’s slowly changing. And I’m sure it will continue to change as I find and read web sites that write the way I want to write.

Sumbal Riaz September 6, 2010

Sir,Thank a lot for your earlier response.
Best Reagrds.

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