I’m not easily suckered into clickbait. A couple days ago, however, a friend on Facebook shared an infographic called “Surprising Book Facts.” This caught my attention.
Among the Surprising Book Facts included in this infographic was that “42% of college grads never read another book after college,” and “33% of High School Graduates [capitalized for some reason] never read another book the rest of their lives.”
As a former newspaperman naturally inclined toward disbelief, I did some quick Googling to verify these so-called facts. The source, it turns out, is unclear and, in any case, completely out of date. The designer of the infographic himself went on record “recanting any and all connection” to the Surprising Book Facts.
So it seems the facts aren’t quite as dire as they appear when it comes to America’s reading habits. But I think it says something that the Surprising Book Facts were believable enough for the infographic to go viral. It was posted as recently as July 19 on the Facebook page of reputable publisher Vintage Books & Anchor Books, where it amassed hundreds of comments (“Hell, I never go in the toilet without a book”).
Do You Read?
We all know people who don’t read books. You might be one of them. I do appreciate that your disinterest in books doesn’t carry over into online content, or else you probably wouldn’t have made it this far in this article. Before you get all smug about it, though, consider for a second why you’re reading this article.
Most likely, it’s for work. You’re reading this article because you’re a marketer or an online content writer and you’re looking for information that will help you improve your business or your job performance.
You’re not reading this article for the simple pleasure of reading.
Don’t worry; I’m not going to get all preachy on you. My goal here isn’t to convince you that the world would be a better place if everyone read more (it would be) and that reading widely and often will make you a more compassionate and thoughtful person, better equipped to deal with the infinite ambiguities of the human condition (it will).
My message is this: If you want to be a better writer—of blog content, novels, multi-volume philosophical treatises, whatever—the best thing you can for yourself is crack open a book from time to time. Or a magazine article. Or a Kindle book. My point is, you need to gain a feel for the language.
We content marketers talk a lot of about optimizing articles: subdividing them into sections, breaking them up into bullet points, linking, and so forth. Those are good things to do, and they are fairly easy to learn, but they are really just structural strategies meant to make your articles more palatable to online readers.
Optimization doesn’t really address the actual quality of your writing.
How do you get better at choosing the right words? How do you learn to control the flow of a text from one sentence to the next? How do you know when to be funny, to be somber, to be casual or academic, to mix it up?
I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to read. There’s no way around it.
Training Your Ear
With the practice of content marketing on the rise, new writers are being born every day at businesses, non-profits, and schools around the world. Many of them haven’t written anything substantial since their school days and they’re wondering how they can improve. Getting in the habit of reading every day is the only sure thing I can think of.
Great musicians don’t just train their fingers and their breath. They train their ears—learning by listening what good music is supposed to sound like and replicating and improving upon it. The same is true for writing. You can’t write well until you know what good writing looks and feels like, and the only way to do that is by reading.
And by reading, I don’t mean skimming and skipping ahead to the comments section. I mean allowing yourself the luxury of digesting each word and sentence.
Find the time. Pick up a book. Get a library card. Reading is your job now.
“On Content” is an ongoing blog series by IMR content manager Matthew Cook that confronts the difficulties and celebrates the pleasures of writing online content.