Stop reading so much about writing—and start writing

Sure, a book can spark ideas and inspiration, but your writing won’t actually improve until you start putting words on the page.

Why you should limit your reading about writing

How many books on writing do you own?

How much time do you spend reading about writing?

Now, here’s the most important question: How much time do you spend writing every day?

Often, people who say they care about writing read many writing books—and then spend little or no time putting words on the page. If this applies to you, consider the downsides of reading too many books about writing:

Reading (without writing) won’t help you improve. To improve your writing, you must write. There is nothing special about writing in this regard. Reading about running doesn’t make you a better runner. Scanning a tome about making cabinets won’t turn you into a better cabinet maker.

Reading books about your craft will provide ideas and inspiration, but you won’t improve until you put pen to paper (or fingers to keys).

Improvement hinges more on new habits than new ideas. Sure, books can give you ideas. However, ideas aren’t useful until you transform them into habits. Here are two healthy habits to cultivate:

  • Write a little bit every day, rather than a whole lot irregularly. The slow-and-steady approach makes you far more likely to achieve measurable results.
  • Aim for short sentences—somewhere between 14 and 18 words. This tidy length is more pleasing to readers and will facilitate comprehension.

Writing takes time. Books often make us feel as though we can change ourselves quickly and painlessly, without much effort. Unfortunately, improving your writing is not something you can do in a day.

If you want to become a better writer, you must be in it for the long haul. Just as you can’t become an architect overnight—or an Olympic athlete in a day—learning how to write well requires years of toil, struggle, revisions and repetition.

Reading often provides a false sense of accomplishment. Finishing a book is a great feeling. That was work, right?

Just keep in mind that you haven’t accomplished anything meaningful until you’ve done some writing.

How to strike a healthy balance

Instead of mindlessly reading books about writing, here are a few suggestions:

Identify the amount of time you can devote to writing each workday, then pick the time and place where you’re going to write. In advance, figure out the obstacles that might inhibit your progress.

Do you have children who need a lot of attention? Do you have a draining, exhausting job? Do you operate on the principle that writing is not worthwhile unless you can devote at least 60 minutes to it?

Find what works for you, and be strategic about mitigating distractions.

If you have young kids, write before they get up or after they’ve gone to bed. If that doesn’t work, consider hiring a babysitter. If it’s your job that gets in the way, write before you leave for work, when you’re fresh and energetic.

Don’t feel compelled to block off large chunks of time. You can write in dribs and drabs—10 minutes here, 15 minutes there.

Finally, don’t just read about writing—actually do it.

A version of this post first appeared on Publication Coach. Buy Daphne Gray-Grant’s book on writing faster here (and then start writing!).

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