How and why reading makes you a stronger writer

It’s not about co-opting another author’s style or ideas. Consuming others’ words and phrases can spark innovative concepts unique to you. Here are tips for finding scintillating texts.

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”—Stephen King, “On Writing”

Many have said the same with different words: If you want to write, you have to read. This is true whether you want to write better at work or at school or at play.

Five years ago, choosing to receive and believe this wisdom, I decided to become a writer who reads. I started investing more time consuming the work of other writers.

Before, I read two or three nonfiction books per year, generally because they were required by a boss or training event. A single book—or even a chapter—took weeks to finish. I occasionally leafed through magazines, mostly to look at the pictures. I skimmed through a lot of social media posts. I barely read the directions on packaged foods.

Now I read 25 to 30 books per year, including novels, memoirs, business wisdom, poetry and other works recommended by my kids, friends, family, clients and colleagues. I consume online articles in reader view to limit visual distractions. I still lose time scrolling social media sites, though I seldom click through. I read whole recipes before cooking.

Making progress

Five years into my reading improvement effort, I look for time and ways to devour other people’s stories and ideas. I’ve upped my reading time to at least two hours every day, and some days much more. I remember and talk about what I’ve read. Best of all, I’m inspired to write—and write better.

If you want to be a writer who reads, here are four ways to make progress.

1. Measure your efforts.

Though I’m diligent about tracking billable time for my consulting business, I’ve never jumped on the bandwagon of productivity apps to track and manage the rest of my time. If that’s your thing, though, there are apps you can use to log reading time. You might try MyHours or iTrackMyTime.

I’m content to tick off a few reading tasks each day and monitor book reading throughout the year.

  • Daily: Every weekday I read The Skimm email, listen to The Daily podcast, and consume at least one well-written article or book chapter. Weekends are free-form. I might read some poetry, take in a few chapters of a novel, or listen to an audiobook while folding laundry.
  • Yearly: Last year I started participating in the Goodreads Reading Challenge. Simply set a goal to read X number of books in a year, then track progress alongside 3,000,000 other readers. Whenever I discover, buy, or finish a book, I update my Goodreads profile.

2. Read what feeds you.

Although I’ve made books a priority in my reading life, books represent a tiny fraction of my writing life. I need to learn from writers who produce what I do: articles, blog posts, presentations, personal stories, even email messages. If I’m going to consume writing in all those formats, I want to enjoy the reading. So, thanks to some useful subscriptions, I’ve become a curator of communications that interest me:

Each week, my inbox accumulates digest messages from several sources. Based on preferences I’ve set, Medium points me to articles about writing, entrepreneurship, and feminism; Pocket shows me pieces on parenting and storytelling; and Google Alerts link me to resources on creativity and news about companies and causes I support. When time allows, I click headlines of interest and read until my conscience forces me back to work. Not every click is a winner, but even when the writing is poor, I relearn the importance of proofreading and getting a second opinion before publishing.

My husband and I share a Texture subscription, which gives us access to more than 200 magazines on our iPads for $9.99 per month. You can choose favorites by category, such as business and finance, kids and parenting, and news and politics. I learn from writers in Yoga Journal, Fast Company and Wired. When I’m in the mood for topnotch writing, there’s nothing like The New Yorker. Texture lets me read not just the latest issue, but back issues, as well.

3. Keep reading at hand—and reach for it.

I have one book on my desk, a few on the ottoman by my comfy evening chair, and a hefty stack on my nightstand. When I go out, I toss a book in my bag, briefcase or car—or, if I’m traveling light, I make sure there’s at least one good book downloaded to the Kindle app on my iPad. Anytime, anywhere, I have something to read.

I still have to choose to read. Making time to read means bypassing dozens of temptations on my phone. When caught waiting, in lulls between appointments, or while avoiding some other thing to do, I must resist the likes of Facebook, Instagram and Words with Friends. The struggle is real, but I’m winning (most days).

4. Expand your definition of “reading.”

My objective is not to spend time gazing at words on the page; it is to be immersed in stories and ideas. I want to be captivated by other writers’ reasoning, insights and imagination. All this is possible not just through reading but by hearing audiobooks and podcasts as well.

I’ve found that listening frees me from the page. When I hear a story or commentary, I can be fully involved in the message. I might notice inventive word combinations and rhythms; I might wonder how the author chose this order of ideas over another. I am free of that distracting internal editor who just wants to gripe about grammar, fix typos and scrutinize page layout.

Sources for audio

If you’re ready to embrace listening as a form of reading, I recommend:

  • Audible for books. Works narrated by the author are my favorite, because I get to hear how the writer intended the words to sound. I recently learned a great deal from two memoirs: Nadia Bolz-Weber’s “Accidental Saints” and Antonia Murphy’s “Dirty Chick: Adventures of an Unlikely Farmer.” I finished both works feeling a deep connection with the writers—almost like we were friends.
  • Whatever podcasting app plays best with your device. I use the default Podcasts app on my iPhone. With a variety of podcasts in my queue, I’m always ready for short and long listening sessions, as time allows. I frequently have lunch with Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air, and Chris Hardwick joins me on long car rides with The Nerdist.

Before I became a writer who reads, I avoided reading with the excuse that I was saving time for my work, my family, my friends, my physical fitness, my precious sleep and, of course, my writing. Spending time reading would take me away from those things that matter so much.

Right? Wrong.

The more I read, the better I function at work, at home, in the community, in my own skin and—yes, it’s true—on the page. As a writer who reads, I know more, so I have more to offer.

Here’s what I’ve learned from five years of increased reading:

  • Receiving other writers’ ideas, I generate more ideas of my own.
  • Noticing other writers’ choices, I learn more ways to express myself.
  • Hearing other writers’ voices, my own voice becomes stronger and more distinctive.

A version of this post first appeared on the Spencer Grace blog.

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