The primary way to become a better writer is, of course, writing. Practicing any skill is how you march down the mastery path. I’m a better writer than I was ten years ago in large part because I’ve written hundreds of pages over the past decade.
But that’s not the only reason I’m a better writer than I used to be. Another cause of my improvement is what I read. I regularly read a type of book that’s been largely ignored by our educational systems: popular, persuasive nonfiction.
The Great Mismatch of Language Arts Curricula
You see, in language arts classes, students primarily read fiction – novels, plays, and short stories – but they primarily write nonfiction – essays and research papers. This mismatch is a problem because the students don’t have examples of good nonfiction writing to emulate.
They do have to read nonfiction, especially in history classes, but the nonfiction we offer them is dry and tedious rather than compelling and persuasive. Don’t get me wrong, I love textbooks, but they’re not examples of great writing.
What’s missing from the reading students do is popular nonfiction. I’m talking about the types of nonfiction books that are meant to be informative, persuasive, and entertaining enough to sell millions of copies. In these books, you will find examples of great writing.
Authors like Malcolm Gladwell, Yuval Noah Harari, and Ryan Holiday come to mind as examples from my own reading. I don’t deliberately try to copy their style, but I know my writing has been influenced – for the better – by their books.
Why Popular Nonfiction?
Many students’ writing is unclear and ambiguous, making it easy to misunderstand. Meanwhile, popular nonfiction authors express ideas with crystalline clarity. They break ideas down into component parts. They explain complicated subjects with enlightening metaphors. They connect concepts from seemingly disparate domains in surprising and insightful ways. They say exactly what they mean.
Most students’ writing is too wordy, full of redundancy and repetition. Popular nonfiction is edited down to be as concise as possible to prevent readers from getting bored.
Many students struggle to convincingly defend their thesis, connecting their evidence to their argument in only the most basic of ways. In popular nonfiction, on the other hand, the writing cuts apart opposing points of view with surgical precision, brings evidence down like a hammer, and drives home the argument like a grand slam slugger.
Don’t Believe Everything You Read
Now, the goal of reading popular nonfiction is not to walk away agreeing with everything these authors say. The goal is to see examples of well-developed thinking articulated in clear writing.
Ideally, your bookshelf should contain authors who contradict each other. This will help you read and think more critically.
Most student papers I see have logical shortcomings: body paragraphs that don’t really support their thesis, analysis that doesn’t quite follow from the evidence. By reading books that disagree with one another, you will learn to question what you read, and, as a result, you’ll become better at spotting the problems with your own arguments.
Emulation is Not Plagiarism
As you read best-selling nonfiction authors, you can take elements of their writing styles and incorporate them into your own papers. This isn’t plagiarism. All creative work draws inspiration from others. You’ve already been unconsciously influenced by everything you’ve ever read. You might as well start deliberately choosing what you read in order to become a better writer.
A major turning point in my own writing came during the summer of my junior year of college. I read a few popular nonfiction books: The Red Queen by Matt Ridley, and The Moral Animal and Nonzero by Robert Wright. I was intrigued by their ideas and found the books difficult to put down. But the most significant change brought by reading these books was their impact on my writing.
During my senior year of college, my essays improved dramatically. I branched out and experimented with different styles. I wrote more compelling introductions. I made bolder arguments. I said more with less. And I crafted conclusions that truly made you feel like the essay had come full circle.
Persuasive writing is an art, and to become a great artist, you have to consume the type of art you wish to create. Since school isn’t going to do that for you, you’ll have to take matters into your own hands and read the kinds of books that will make you a better writer.
Chris Loper has been working as a tutor and academic coach since 2014, racking up over 10,000 hours of experience supporting students.
Along with Greg Smith, Chris is the cocreator of Parenting for Academic Success (and Parental Sanity) – a five-part course offered every summer.
Chris’s most recent endeavor combines his academic and habit-formation expertise to help students thrive in college. Visit SmartCollegeHabits.com to learn more.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons, available on Amazon and through most local bookstores.
He lives in Issaquah, WA where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.