Why Reading Fiction Makes You a Better Essay Writer

by | Nov 5, 2020

Written By: Sam Gross, Programs Coordinator

Writing is one of my favorite things to do, but I know that’s not true for everyone. When I was in college, I worked with a lot of freshmen who bemoaned how much they hated writing and were so bad at it. They said they had never learned how to properly write essays from their high school English teachers. That surprised me, because the foundation for writing starts in elementary school and builds from there, and if these students weren’t learning how to do the basics until high school, then something was very wrong.

Now, I was coming from a background of an okay public-school system, so I wondered what I had learned (and how) that these students hadn’t. And I realized that most of the basic essentials of writing I learned from reading fiction. I was the kid in school who hid her book under her desk so she could read during math class (possibly the reason for my abysmal math skills) and spent all of silent reading time tearing through the few series the school library stocked in full. And not only did it increase my vocabulary, but it taught me all sorts of valuable writing skills.

That’s not to knock on non-fiction; it certainly has its own merits! But when I was a kid, I was much more interested in grabbing the latest Magic Treehouse or Harry Potter, and so that was how I learned. My parents probably thought they were being sneaky about it, introducing me to learning under the guise of fun stories, but I could recognize how sentences worked and the way paragraphs should be formatted. I was learning proper punctuation, sentence structure, and transitions, so that by the time I started writing essays in school, all I had to do was figure out how to make it academic.

There are obviously some major differences between fictional books and essays, and not just in content (dragons are not allowed in most academic papers, unless you’re writing specifically about them. Do not include information about dragons in your research paper on the crusades or your literary analysis of The Great Gatsby, your teacher will not like that). Fiction is allowed to break some of the rules that are necessary for academics, like starting a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but,’ or having a paragraph be only one line. But if you look past the creative structural distinctions, fiction and essays really aren’t so different.

Even simple things like paragraph indentation and the ever so intimidating ‘how to properly use punctuation within quotations’ can be taught through reading. In books you get to see grammar in action! Fiction also provides a bit of variety–there are structured sentences, of course, but it gives examples of different types of sentences, how to balance shorter and longer ones, and the way certain scenes and ideas can be better conveyed with different writing styles.

But fiction can provide more than just the mechanics of writing well. Reading books teaches you how to tell a story, and at its core, that’s what essays are too. Whether chronological research papers, literary analysis, or point-driven arguments, essays are all about conveying your story or purpose (thesis) and providing relevant details (arguments, research, and quotes) for your reader’s enjoyment. And trust me on this one, you want your teacher or professor to enjoy

reading your paper, even if it is just for a required English class you can’t wait to finish. Reading stories is a great way to learn pacing and master transitions–when you read a book or tell a story, you don’t just jump around to random points the whole time, you tell it a certain way. Even just telling your friends about your day at lunch makes you use these skills, which are absolutely applicable to academic writing!

And while it may not seem as essential if you plan on becoming a doctor or an engineer, writing is still a Very Important skill. Doctors and engineers have to write things too, even if they’re just memos or notes, and making those things understandable is necessary. Not to mention, those doctors and engineers needed to write pretty impressive essays to attend their universities and get those fancy STEM degrees.

Its college applications season right now, and no matter what you may want to go to school for, you’ll have to write an essay to do it. And that essay, which may be the most important essay you ever write, is essentially a narrative. You’re telling colleges your story, sentence structure and proper punctuation included.

So all you bookworms out there, be proud! And for the parents looking to maybe trick their kids into learning, try a couple more fiction books. There’s lots to be gained, I guarantee it!

(For book recommendations, check out our reading lists here: https://www.hamiltoneducation.com/resources/reading-lists/)