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How Reading Canonical Literature Can Benefit Your Writing

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I have had a lifelong passion for reading and writing and graduated with a bachelor's in English literature.

Trying to improve your writing?

Trying to improve your writing?

Definition of Canon Literature

"Literary Canon" refers to a list or classification of literature. The canon consists of influential works that are essential to understanding the time period, country, or genre.

It might sound kind of snobby to be a fan of canon literature, much less study it, but the science behind it isn't rigid at all. Literature is an ever-growing and changing subject of study. My professors commonly called the study of literature a "great conversation between readers and writers. Even the definition of what is "literary canon" changes all the time." Because of this changeability, lists of canon literature are constantly modified as books are added or taken away based on the decisions of literary critics, scholars, teachers, and everyone else whose opinion is respected.

Most Taught Literature

The following is a list of some works of fiction from the literary canon that are commonly taught in high school:

  1. Romeo and Juliet
  2. Macbeth
  3. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  4. Julius Caesar
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird
  6. The Scarlet Letter
  7. Of Mice and Men
  8. Hamlet
  9. The Great Gatsby
  10. Lord of the Flies

What Did You Read in High School?

Why Is Literature Important?

Like other students with a degree in literature, I have been faced with many judgments during my time at the university and afterward. When I told people I was studying literature, the most common response was "Why?" People generally think that literature (like art) is a waste of time and that all those who study spend their time just reading a lot.

But that's only half the story. Many do not understand what it means to study literature. Yes, "literature nerds" read a lot. However, there is a distinct difference between reading literature and studying literature. Those who study it understand its importance as it goes beyond just perusing a bunch of letters on a page.

As a literature major, I learned how to expand my thinking beyond the novel and learn to consider other perspectives as well as history and other machinations behind the text. I learned to write about the novel clearly and concisely, recognizing that even choosing one wrong word could change my argument completely. I even learned how to talk about my thoughts, whether in a discussion or in a presentation.

Reading canon literature has its writing benefits, which may be surprising to those unfamiliar with the study of literature. Here are some additional benefits of studying literature, some of which are related to its writing benefits:

  1. It opens your mind to the ambiguities of meaning.
  2. You explore other cultures and beliefs.
  3. You expand our grasp of history: History provides facts and statistics while literature expands the humanity behind these facts.
  4. It helps you recognize individual bias.
  5. It enhances your mastery of language: Reading helps with vocabulary and even writing style, teaching you not only a variety of ways of saying what you want to say, but also organization, grammar, and punctuation.
  6. You recognize and appreciate the power of language devices.
  7. You explore ethical complexities.

How Reading Benefits Writing

There are a couple more specific ways that reading improves your writing skills. Since canon literature is so changeable, it is safe to say that you can get these benefits from whatever you read so don't get too focused on that capital-L-type literature as the only means for successful writing. However, I would add that you will always benefit from a wide variety of literature, rather than sticking to just one genre or author.

One major benefit that one gets from reading is improved analytical thinking skills. You spot patterns quicker while you improve your general knowledge. How can this benefit your writing? Recognizing patterns in grammar, punctuation, and organization can help you improve these aspects of your own writing as you may recognize flaws in what you read or in your own work.

Everyone knows that reading more means a better vocabulary. Don't be surprised if you find yourself having to pause in the conversation to define a word that made your friend suddenly go cross-eyed in confusion. Expanding your vocabulary helps you better convey your ideas on paper in more concise terms that are more specific to what you are really trying to say.

The basic skill you learn from reading is just better communication in general. Yes, reading helps you broaden your vocabulary, but also helps you learn to write better simply by observing what the pros do. Keep on reading and there's no end to the benefits you'll find.

© 2012 Lisa


Ed Palumbo from Tualatin, OR on January 23, 2014:

I enjoyed your Hub! You write well, and I wish you the best in the year ahead.

Seth Tomko from Macon, GA on September 26, 2012:

Solid hub that deals fairly with the topic. Keep up the good work.

Nancy Yager from Hamburg, New York on September 26, 2012:

Reading literature not only teaches us lessons but allows us to experience time periods in our own imagination. Everyone should reread the classics every 10 years, you will be surprised how the meanings change as you grow in your own life.

hawkeye49er on September 25, 2012:

Yes I do agree, reading Literature is very important. Write concise andgood content and straightforward answers that straight to the question, never give up on anything especially writing. Practice takes patients and understanding. Try to try again until you get it.

Andrew Spacey from Sheffield, UK on September 25, 2012:

A healthy hub and beautifully expressed. Reading the great literary works is vitally important in the pursuit of better writing. You put forward concise arguments in readily understandable fashion and that's a bonus for the reader. It invites further thought and helps generate ideas.

Thank you. I'll vote this up. Time is against me or this would have been longer!

Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on September 25, 2012:

Excellent article, Lisa. You have said it all here. First of all, literature defines a culture and we learn about that culture and its people by reading their literature. There are certain universal lessons about literature, people and life that all should learn through reading specific works of literature such as the ten you have listed in this article. We all read these pieces of work and sometimes wonder - what does it all mean? Why is this important? Sometimes it takes half a lifetime before we realize as we re-read the novel exactly what the author was trying to say. Good literature is like that - it is timeless - and can teach us great truths at different stages of our lives. As you emphasize, reading is so important to learn analytical thinking but it also improves our writing and forces us to enlarge our vocabulary. Vocabulary was always one of the most interesting lessons for me when I was in school and when I taught. You are so right - words can mean the difference between saying one thing or another and words are so important in a language. The nuances of vocabulary are so meaningful. This is one of the most important articles for high school and college students to read, but more important anyone of any age will get a lot out of this article. Kudos to you, Lisa for writing an essential article that all can learn from.Voted up!