You're 13 years old. It's a Saturday and you're stuck at home, sprawled across the living room couch, while all your friends are busy. "Mom," you say, dragging out the word to three syllables. "I'm bored. I have nothing to do."
"Go read a book," she says tartly. And you roll your eyes. Mothers just don't get it.
Turns out, however, that Mom was right. And it's not just any type of book you should be reading. It's fiction. According to a study that appeared in the June 2008 issue of New Scientist magazine, readers of narrative fiction scored higher on tests of empathy and social acumen than those who read non-fiction.
But here's the part of the study I found most intriguing: People assigned to read a New Yorker short story did better on social reasoning tests than those who read an essay from the same publication.
How interesting is that?
"Fiction doesn't get a lot of respect," said Raymond Mar, assistant professor in psychology at Toronto's York University. "It has always been viewed as false and a frivolous thing that had no bearing on real life. But the fact of the matter is, there are effects that continue on after we close the book."
"Fair enough," you say. "But I'm never bored on Saturdays and my social life is fine, thank you very much. So, why should I care?" So here's the deal. You should care because writing requires understanding why people act the way they do. For fiction, this means nailing characters. For non-fiction, it means understanding what motivates your audience. In other words, to write successfully it helps if you have a high EQ — emotional intelligence.
I know it's profoundly tempting to see writing as a solitary task, stuck as we are in our own little rooms or offices, faced with only the blank screen. But writing, at heart, is a deeply social activity. Unless you're writing a journal—which is laudable, by the way—your job is to connect with others. And fiction, it seems, can help you with that.
The success of your press releases, websites, and other articles or reports you write depends upon your ability to reach readers. And to do that, you need to understand their motivations. Fiction, it seems, can help you with that.
The good news is that the homework is pretty fun. Just read. A lot. If you’re a non-fiction junkie, oblivious to all the fabulous novels out there waiting to be devoured, then speak to friends or your local librarian for some suggestions.
Reading fiction is a wonderful, life-enhancing activity. But it's also a practical way to improve your writing—and not just because you absorb the craftsmanship of the writer. It's because the story itself helps you understand the behavior of other human beings.
A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8 1⁄2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. It's brief. It's smart. And it's free.
The Measurement Standard is a publication of Salience Insight. Salience Insight is the media measurement division of News Group International – a global provider of business intelligence and media resource services. Salience is a fresh, new global brand which incorporates the former UK-based Report International and US-based KDPaine & Partners, acquired in 2012.