Yellowlees Douglas, University of Florida – What You Read Influences How You Write

douglas_hi_res_headshotYou write what you read.

Yellowlees Douglas, associate professor at the center for management communication at the University of Florida, examines if reading more polished writing can make you a better writer.

Dr. Yellowlees Douglas is an associate professor of management communication in the Hough Graduate School of Business at the University of Florida. In addition to her publications on reading, writing, and persuasion, she is also the author of The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer.

What You Read Influences How You Write


Does what you read influence how you write? More than you may realize. Graduate student Samantha Miller and I recently studied the reading habits and writing styles of students in an MBA program. We asked students to record the sources they read most frequently in the past year, then we captured a sample of students’ writing from a required writing assignment. We then used software that analyzes sentence structure, together with software that scores writing based on the length of sentences and the sophistication of word choice.

We discovered that students who read The New York Times, The Economist, Forbes, or The Wall Street Journal wrote with significantly greater sophistication than students who dedicated their time to reading reddit, Tumblr, the Huffington Post, or BuzzFeed. Similarly, students who read non-fiction or academic articles wrote with greater sophistication than students who read mysteries or science fiction. However, the length of time our students spent reading had no impact on the sophistication of their writing. This outcome might reflect restrictions on students free time for reading while in an advanced degree program. On the other hand, the length of time reading might also be less significant for your writing than the quality of what you read.

Our study might have uncovered the strength of syntactic priming, which is the way our writing’s sentence structure mimics the structure of sentences we read or hear. Or we might have discovered that the synchrony other researchers have discovered in conversation also applies to reading and writing. That discovery is that we unconsciously imitate the language we encounter most frequently. 

No matter what the cause, the take-aways are clear. Be careful what you read: what you read daily impacts how you write.