Liang Hongfu

To write well, one first must read well

By Hong Liang (China Daily)
Updated: 2006-10-24 05:51
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To write well, one first must read wellMany young reporters have asked me how to improve their writing. That's most encouraging because they, at least, recognize their problems.

But when they pressed me to recommend a book on writing, I got the impression that they were looking for the "magic pill" that could do wonders to their skill in one shot.

There is no such book, though a few classics, notably The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr., are a must-have reference for students and conscientious writers.

Do-it-yourself books abound in the marketplace. Whatever emotional or physical shortcomings you may feel you have, you can almost always find a book that offers a "chicken soup"-style solution. But I have yet to find a "self-improvement" book that seeks to address the fear of writing badly.

The absence of such books doesn't mean there is no cure for writing disability. Rather, the cure is so simple that nobody would care to write a book about. You can actually sum it all up in one word: reading.

After failing an English composition test in junior high many years ago, I went to my English teacher and, like the young reporters, asked for remedies.

It was a frightening thing for a short and frail 12-year-old to seek extra attention from a big, tall, hairy-chested Briton who, as an ex-British army officer, had a very strict sense of discipline and propriety. Students at my school normally tried their best to hide themselves from him.

Upon acquainting himself with the intention of my visit, my teacher went straight to his bookshelves and picked out several books. Handing me the pile, he said in a soft voice that belied his stern demeanour that I should try to finish reading them in the next three months and come back for more.

Included in the collection I received were several of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, which I enjoyed immensely. I was also introduced to the romantic adventure that could only be so exquisitely related by Joseph Conrad in The Heart of Darkness. (By the way, Mr Conrad, a Pole, didn't know any English before he was 18 years of age.)

Then there was one book about the sufferings of the Jewish people that I found extremely difficult to go through. But I finished reading the book anyway although I couldn't really grasp its meaning, which seemed too profound for a young boy.

Having tea one afternoon with me and a few other students on the lawn behind the teachers' quarters, my English teacher explained the importance of developing a reading habit. It doesn't really matter what we read, as long as we keep reading whenever we have the time. That, my teacher said, was the only way to improve our minds, and, of course, our writing.

Decades later, I was invited to give a talk on writing to an English journalism class at the shiny new campus of Shanghai International Studies University. After the talk, I asked a small group of students what they normally read for pleasure. Other than a few English-language newspapers, which they must read to pass exams, they hardly ever read anything else.

It really didn't surprise me. Of the many reporters I know working at English-language media in Hong Kong and on the mainland, very few ever bother to find time to read a good book.

Some commentators blame the education system, which, according to them, does not allow students time for reading. I am not qualified to comment on that because I am not an educator and have been away from school for too long. But it's a real pity if our children can't find the time to enjoy reading.

My job requires me to read many pieces of copy that young reporters have written. The common problems are in the presentation of facts. The writers simply don't know how to tell a story fluidly and logically. They need to learn this from reading.


(China Daily 10/24/2006 page4)