How to Improve Your Writing by Listening to Books

As a writer, you probably want to read more books, but your schedule may not allow the needed time. Listening to books offers a solution.

I started listening to audiobooks when commuting to my Ph.D. in Education program at the University of California, Davis. To make the drive more pleasurable, I borrowed CDs from a library and finished an average of two books per month.

National Public Radio took over my listening time in the car after I finished my Ph.D. But a few years ago, I started to write a historical novel based on my grandmother’s experience in World War II China during the Japanese invasion.

I felt the need to immerse myself in fiction and returned to audiobooks. Several years of listening has enabled me to reap a multitude of benefits. I feel every writer should take advantage of this form of accessing books.

Benefit 1: Increased Reading Time

I listen to books while cooking, cleaning, and driving. It adds one to two hours a day to my reading, a block of time I would otherwise be unable to carve out from my busy schedule.

Most sports require frequent practice. Ten thousand touches, soccer coaches like to say. Reading stimulates your brain in the same way exercises strengthen your muscles.

Children who read more tend to perform better academically. In addition, studies have shown that the mental stimulation from reading and listening helps to delay Alzheimer’s and dementia — all the more reason to read and listen.

Benefit 2: Increased Language Exposure and Vocabulary

(Vocabulary. Image Credit: adventuresinliteracy.com)

Words are the brick and mortar of writing.

Research shows that books usually contain more vocabulary words than those in conversations because authors use words in writing that they would otherwise not utter in oral exchanges.

Audiobooks provide us with the best of both worlds. Words that might not show up in ordinary conversations will likely appear in audiobooks.

Writers often ask: Do I check out unknown words as I would when I read?

My recommendation is to treat unknown words in audiobooks the same way as in print.

Most of the time, you can guess the meaning from context clues without stopping to check. Frequent interruptions disrupt the flow and slow down your progress with the book.

If a word is critical and not knowing its meaning impedes the comprehension of the whole, then you can check the word out. The spelling can often be deduced from its pronunciation.

Regardless of whether you stop to check, once you hear a word, it goes into your brain, and the next time it shows up, you recognize it. In this way, your vocabulary expands.

Benefit 3: More Pleasure and Connection with Books

Audiobooks often offer more pleasure and connection than print books.

They are usually read by experienced actors who are trained in how to infuse appropriate emotions in the narration, vary tones and pitch for different characters, and speed up in quick actions and slowdown in reflection. Some audiobooks include sound effects or are read by authors themselves. All of these make the content more attractive.

I used to read Shakespeare as an intellectual exercise. For some reason, despite the fact that I marvel at his language and wit, his work did not evoke the same emotional involvement I have with other authors like Charles Dickens or George Eliot, not to mention my contemporary favorites, like Isabel Allende, Amy Tan, or Lisa See.

It might be because contemporary English is very different from the language of his time, and I was distracted by the way words were spelled and sentences were formed.

The result was that even though I liked Shakespeare, I could leave The Merchant of Venice in the middle but would have a hard time putting down Great Expectations.

Lately, however, I have been listening to Shakespeare audiobooks on LibroVox. For the first time, I am totally involved. The actors pour emotions into their lines, and their joy and sadness affect me as a listener.

With my latest book King Lear, many parts bring tears to my eyes. I can feel Kent’s anger at Lear’s disowning of Cordelia, the coldness of his elder daughters in driving him out on a stormy night, and Lear’s desperation and misery as the events unfold.

Shakespeare’s writing did not change, but the actors brought the printed words to life, enabling me to skip the differences in spelling and grammar and focus on the meaning.

In addition to enjoying his work more, I also learned more writing crafts from Shakespeare through listening, which I had not acquired in reading.

For a while, I have been working on different opening scenes for my aforementioned book based on my grandma’s life, which I titled Eight-sided Mountain. I tried out different beginnings but were not totally happy with them.

Listening to Shakespeare’s plays gives me ideas.

In King Lear, the story starts with Lear dividing up his kingdom. Cordelia, the youngest, refuses to flatter Lear as the elder daughters and invokes his anger. Sharp parries were exchanged and sword was drawn. Right away, it makes people worry about what might happen next.

In Hamlet, the play opens in the silent darkness of midnight, with the guards seeing a ghost, dressed “like the king that’s dead.” It grabs the audience right away: What happened to the king? Why does the ghost show himself to the guards?

If I were in an audience in a theater watching these two plays, I would be sitting on the edge of my seat from those two moments on.

Therefore, after listening to these plays over and over, and with suggestions from my writing group, I revised the opening to include more tension and foreshadowing and I hope will attract the readers from the start.

Benefit 4: Assisting Readers with Dyslexia and Visual Problems

Audiobooks can be beneficial for writers with dyslexia. Such books help them overcome decoding problems and focus on meaning.

When dyslexic writers listen to an audio along with a physical book, they will be more able to bridge the gap between words in print and their meaning. They will be able to better comprehend content above their reading level, write better, and increase confidence.

For readers and writers with visual issues, audiobooks allow them to enjoy books despite their eye trouble. Such books can help with school, work, and add alternatives in their lives.

For most writers, constant reading and writing on computers or other electronic devices cause eye strain. Audiobooks allow them to take an eye break while still being able to enjoy literacy activities.

Benefit 5: Help English as a Second Language (ESL) Writers

Audiobooks can be a wonderful tool for ESL writers. Listening to books develops all four important skills in learning a second language: listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

These books can serve as sources of “comprehensive input,” as linguist Stephen Krashen puts it. He maintains that the acquisition of a language requires plenty of meaningful interaction in the target language.

Listening to well-written authentic text material is a critical component of that input which allows ESL writers the needed immersion in the language.

Is Listening to Books the Same as Reading?

Critics say that listening to books is not the same as reading and that listening instead of reading is cheating.

I argue that these are two different paths leading to the same destination: accessing books.

These two modalities come with their own advantages.

When difficult materials, research shows people retain more information if they read them on print rather than listening to the material being read aloud.

But when it comes to simple narratives, the comprehension and retention rates of these two modalities are similar.

As mentioned above, audiobooks have their advantages in terms of pleasure, connection, and multitasking. They are also beneficial for ESL writers and writers with dyslexia and visual issues.

These two means of accessing a book do not need to be mutually exclusive.

I read when I have time to sit down with a book. I listen when I do chores and drive. They complement each other.

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