• Nathan

Audiobooks aren’t books: At least not the kind that will help your writing

I won’t lie: I’m a huge fan of podcasts. Conan O’Brian Needs a Friend, the Joe Rogan Experience, the MFCEO Project... All of them. Not a fan of those? No worries, there’s millions out there (or at least over 700,000). Pick your poison. So when I started hearing more about audiobooks, I thought I’d be hooked as well. After all, I love reading, but I’m always feeling pressed for time so the idea of listening to my favorite books while stuck in morning traffic felt like a win-win if I’ve ever heard one.

And I’m not alone. People in big cities like L.A., New York, and San Francisco spend entire days out of their year stuck in traffic (102 hours, 91 hours, and 79 hours, respectively) while others struggle for space on public transport. It’s simply no wonder audiobooks got so popular: they’re convenient, up-to-date, and make you feel productive during otherwise wasted time. But let’s be very clear. They’re no substitute for reading, especially for writers.

Here’s why: 1) Audiobooks are difficult to challenge

For a long time, writing a book carried a certain amount of cachet; in many ways, it still does. But that doesn’t mean that everything you read in every book is factually accurate or even thoroughly researched. Quite the opposite in fact. Nicholas Kristof, a writer for the New York Times, once said, “We journalists often rely to a considerable extent on people to tell the truth, especially when they have written unchallenged autobiographies.” Piggybacking from this comment, Kate Newman of The Atlantic noted, “There’s a basic problem with this line of logic, though: Most books are never fact-checked” (that’s a killer article if you have the time, by the way).

And she’s right. Anyone who enjoys reading nonfiction knows that you can’t just take a sentence at it’s face value simply because its in a book. If something seems inaccurate, an active reader will make a note, double-check the quote, and continue reading accordingly.

Hell, I had always assumed that’s what margins were for. With audiobooks, that becomes more challenging due to the environment you’re in when you listen to them. If you hear something and your inner analytical voice whispers, “Really? That doesn’t sound right…” it’s much harder to take the time to investigate. And this is where the real problem comes in for writers: you start training yourself to do sloppy research and take information at its face value. As George Orwell knew, sloppy writing leads to sloppy thinking. I think the same could be said in reverse.

Maybe you remember the “gist” of the audiobook you just listened to and use it for a later article; maybe you accidentally isolate a quote that doesn’t fully represent the context of the passage (which you would have spotted inadvertently via text); or maybe you’re like most people and simply don’t have the type of razor-sharp memory for information you think you do. The point is that being an active reader teaches you to be an active thinker and, consequently, a thorough writer.

2) Audiobooks won’t influence your writing as well as books

I distinctly remember writing my Master’s thesis. At the time, I had just gotten into 19th-century literature. And yes, I am fully aware of how pretentiously douchey the last two sentences make me sound.

But it’s true. One thing you’ll find with works written in the 1800s is longer sentence structures with loads of relative clauses. Many times, entire paragraphs would be one sentence with a healthy sprinkling of commas, relative clauses, semi-colons, and regular colons (also known simply as “colons”). The sentences twist and turn but always get you where the author wants you. Anyhow, as I was writing my thesis it started to become obvious that this reading was beginning to affect my work. At one point, I turned in a first draft to my advisor who returned it with large red lettering at the top: “I’ve counted 26 semi-colons on this page alone. You’re not allowed to use them anymore. You’ve used them all up.” I probably should have been embarrassed by this, but truth be told I didn’t mind so much. I went back to my copy of Oliver Twist and counted many more in Dickens’ work. I simply made the two mistakes of thinking that I was A) as good as Dickens and B) writing a fiction novel where the rules are looser. But what did that lesson serve at a practical level?

Each category of writing has different rules for engaging the reader and if you want to be a really great writer, you play around with all of them.

A good writer can take on complex sentence structures like Jane Austen just as easily as they can jab you with a punchy style like Hemingway. They can take their readers on twists and turns or show their audience a little shortcut. The best writers know how to do all those things but, even more importantly, they know when to do these things.

I may not be one of the best writers yet, but this is an important lesson that a combination of reading and writing has taught me. Reading is the most efficient way to improve your writing because you can go back, analyze sentence structure, see what the authors were trying to do and, eventually, replicate that style as needed. In other words, books aren’t just for entertainment; they’re also the magician revealing their secrets. You’re getting a direct look at the man (or woman) behind the curtain.

Audiobooks won’t do this for you. With an audiobook, you’re getting the message the author is trying to convey, but you don’t get to see how the author constructed the message to be effective. For a writer, this part is the entire battle. Audiobooks give you no punctuation, no cadence, no inner intonation that shows you how to use words to evoke an emotional response; all that stuff is there in the speaker’s voice, not in the words they’re reading.

3) Audiobooks give you the feeling of “having read” without any of the work

Reading is integral to writing. They’re inseparable. A lot of people, however, don’t read as often as they like, not because they don’t have the time, but because they don’t have the energy. Reading is hard work. You’ve probably read passively at some point and found that you skimmed the last three pages without having any idea what in the hell was going on. It’s like your mind blacked out.

It happens.

But if you think reading takes it out of you, try writing. It’s immensely more difficult to create things other people want to read than it is to read things other people have created. You get your first draft done, have an initial swell of pride, and reread it the next day wondering why you even bother to get up in the morning.

The second, third, and fourth drafts slowly polish your work like a sculptor chipping away at a stone piece by piece. And what happens when you’re finally done with your masterpiece? Turns out no one enjoys reading it nearly as much as you.

Again, it happens. Audiobooks allow you to skip the discipline it takes to sit down and concentrate. With Netflix, AmazonPrime, Hulu, and all the other social platforms that allow your mind to slow down (which is also necessary, by the way) there’s no reason to add another to the list, especially one so directly correlated with writing. The bottom line is if you don’t have the time to read, you definitely shouldn’t have the time to write. It’d be like a professional athlete only having time for the game but not for the practice. Eventually their performance on the field will suffer.

Don’t get me wrong…

I’m not saying stop listening to audiobooks, and I’m definitely not here saying their "bad." But I am suggesting that if you want to improve your writing, there’s simply no substitute for reading. At the end of the day, no one has expressed the process of writing more succinctly than Daniel Pinkwater: "Read a lot. Write a lot. Have fun." Truer words never written. Better advice never read.


©2019 by Nathan Thompson.