Reading Impacts Writing

Be Careful What You Read: You're Affecting How You Write

Surprisingly, educators have studied the processes of reading and writing, and the development of skills in each area—but never how one influences the other. In a ground-breaking study, published in the May issue of the International Journal of Business Administration, Associate Professor Yellowlees Douglas discovered strong correlations between the complexity of graduate students' reading and their writing.

“You'd think someone would have studied these effects in adults long ago,” Douglas explains, “but we were astonished to discover no one had.” The study used tools that measured syntactic complexity and the Lexile® framework to assess lexical sophistication, based on how commonly specific words crop up in over 1 billion publications. Douglas and Hough graduate student Samantha Miller (Master of International Business) surveyed UF's MBA cohort on their regular reading materials, the number of hours they spent reading per week, and the frequency with which they read fiction. Douglas and Miller then captured a paragraph from participants' cover letters, an assignment every MBA student completes for one of the Management Communication Center's courses.

“We chose the same paragraph from the same assignment—the second paragraph from a job application letter,” Miller says, “to ensure students were writing for similar audiences and with the same goals for the assignment”—one that helps many Hough graduate students secure their first post-graduate jobs. “Then we ran samples from a single news story across all the sources our students read through the same two programs that we used on our students' writing.”

The results are striking. Students who read exclusively online content like BuzzFeed, Tumblr, or the Huffington Post had the lowest scores in robust measures of writing complexity, including lengths of sentences and sophistication of their word choice. In contrast, students who read academic journal articles or critically acclaimed fiction had the highest scores on their writing.

“We didn't expect the length of time our students spent reading to be significant,” Miller reports, “and it wasn't.” But Douglas and Miller believe this outcome stems from graduate students struggling to complete the requirements for an MBA, not regular reading habits. “Their reading habits probably matter over longer durations of time, since our most sophisticated writers reported reading only a few hours a week outside of their reading assignments.”

Douglas and Miller guess that these effects may resemble what researchers have discovered in oral communication, that we mimic what we hear around us. Or that their study might reflect a kind of synchrony in communication, also well established in studies of speakers. Or their data might have captured a phenomenon called linguistic availability, where writers rely on their reading to supply fodder for their writing.

The takeaway here? “Try to read something well-written to get your news. I'd recommend The Economist or the Wall Street Journal or The New Yorker.” Douglas says.

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