There has been some scaremongering going on that involves suggesting that reading and writing are dying out, in their present form at least. I’m not so sure that I would go that far, but things are certainly changing. Let’s start with reading.
The traditional idea was that much learning was done by reading and subsequently applying the knowledge gained to situations you encounter. The more reading you did, the better equipped you were to deal, in an intelligent, informed way, with the challenges life threw up for you, whether at work or in your private life. However, a very clear pattern that I have noticed is that many people now are not reading to anywhere near the extent they used to. A common way of learning now goes something like this: I want to learn how to do x, so I put into Google: ‘How to do x’. What then comes up will be either a short set of written instructions or, increasingly a ‘how to’ video. While this can be a really useful and effective way of learning very practical things, it has a lot of limitations.
Learning by reading exposes us to a wide range of idea and perspectives and that then gives us a basis for comparing and contrasting, developing our own critical perspective, rather than just taking what one person sets before us at face value. Such reading will also stimulate new ideas, new avenues of exploration and study. It encourages us to develop our own perspective, to synthesise ideas from different sources and approaches.
There is much more to learning than just finding a guide on ‘how to do x’. Practical skills are important, but the ability to explore and critically examine ideas and form your own views is an essential basis for more sophisticated forms of learning – for example, the learning needed for the type of complex situations you will encounter if your work involves having to influence other people in some way (whether you are trying to help them, manage, them educate them or sell to them in some way).
And what about writing? One of the reasons I wrote my Effective Writing e-book is that I was very aware that a lot of people struggle with getting their message across in writing. This is partly because of changes in technology – text speak, for one thing, and trying to express everything in an abbreviated form in emails for another. But, I believe it also partly relates to the fact that fewer people seem to be reading these days. The less you read, the less exposed you are to different writing styles, different devices for getting your message across clearly and effectively. And the less confident you will be with spelling, punctuation and grammar.
Writing is important not only for communicating successfully, but also for (i) impressing people; and (ii) consolidating and extending your learning and understanding. Poor spelling, poor or non-existent punctuation and dodgy grammar may not be the end of the world in the overall scheme of things, but if you are trying to impress someone for whatever reason, not being able to write well will stand in your way to a great extent. I have some sympathy with the argument that things like spelling shouldn’t matter as long as you get your message across, but the fact remains that they do matter – they will give people a bad impression.
Writing also helps you think through your understanding. Trying to explain something to someone else (in a letter, report or essay, for example) can help to deepen and/or extend your own understanding. This is why schools, colleges and universities ask students to write essays – not just for assessment purposes, but also to consolidate learning.
So, reading and writing are tools that can be really useful for us in so many ways. We can use them, sharpen them and get the best results from them, or we can leave them gathering dust in our toolbox, just using them to the bare minimum when we have to.
Thompson, N. (2013) Effective Writing, an e-book published by Avenue Media Solutions and available on Kindle and other e-book platforms.
See also: Thompson, N. (2011) Effective Communication: A Guide for the People Professions, 2nd edn, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.