Tough reading may make our writing more complex

man reading on couch

The complexity of what we read can affect the complexity of what we write, according to new research.

“You’d think someone would have studied these effects in adults long ago, but we were astonished to discover no one had,” says study coauthor Yellowlees Douglas, associate professor at the University of Florida.

“I’d recommend The Economist or the Wall Street Journal or The New Yorker.”

Douglas and graduate student Samantha Miller surveyed University of Florida MBA students 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 a required course.

The study used tools that measure syntactic complexity and the Lexile framework to assess lexical sophistication, based on how commonly specific words crop up in over 100 million publications.

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“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.” Then the pair ran samples from a single news story across all the sources students read through the same two programs that they used to study participants’ writing.

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. Students who read academic journal articles or critically acclaimed fiction had the highest scores.

“We didn’t expect the length of time our students spent reading to be significant,” Miller says, “and it wasn’t.” But Douglas and Miller believe this outcome reflects graduate students busy with 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 recreationally only a few hours a week.”

The researchers report strong correlations between the complexity of graduate students’ reading and their writing in the International Journal of Business Administration.

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 in conversation. 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.

Source: University of Florida

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