When you should stop reading, start writing

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

There comes a time when you should stop reading, start writing. To figure out if this advice applies to you, calculate how many writing books you have on your shelves…

How many books on writing do you own?

How much time do you spend thinking about writing?

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

I ask this series of questions because there’s often a disconnect between how much people say they care about writing, and how much writing they do.

Often, people who say they care about writing read many writing books, and then spend little or no time putting words on the page.

But writing books are a dime a dozen. You could easily read a writing book each week for a year, and yet never write a word. If this description applies to you, consider the downsides of reading too many books about writing:

Reading alone does nothing for you. To improve your writing, you need to write. There is nothing special about writing in this regard. If you read about running, that doesn’t make you a better runner. If you read about cabinetmaking, that doesn’t make you a better cabinetmaker. If you read about baking cupcakes, that doesn’t make you a better cupcake baker. Your reading about these tasks might give you ideas for how to do them better, but you won’t see any improvement until you engage in the actual doing.

Improvement depends more on new habits than new ideas. Sure, books can give you ideas. But those ideas aren’t the least bit useful to you until you transform them into habits. Here are a couple of habits I try to help my clients achieve:

  • Writing a little bit every day rather than a whole lot irregularly. By adopting the slow-and-steady approach, they are far more likely to achieve measurable results.
  • Aiming for a sentence-length average that’s relatively short: somewhere between 14 and 18 words. This average length is more pleasing to readers and will usually increase the number of readers for any piece of writing.

Writing takes time. Books often make us feel as though we can change ourselves quickly and painlessly without a lot of effort. But the job of improving your writing is not something you can do in a single day. If you want to become a better writer, you need to be in it for the long haul. Just as you don’t become an architect overnight or an Olympic athlete in a day, you also don’t become a good writer immediately.

Reading often gives us a false sense of accomplishment. If we read a book, we feel great about finishing it. That was work, right? We did it!  But if the point of reading a book was to improve our writing, we haven’t accomplished anything meaningful until we’ve done some writing.

I love reading — mainly literary novels and interesting non-fiction, especially memoir — and I firmly believe my reading habit helps my writing. But there’s little value to reading books about writing unless we’re actually writing every day. Instead of mindlessly reading books about writing, here’s what I suggest you do:

Identify the amount of time you can devote to writing each day (and by that I mean five days a week — we all deserve weekends off).Then pick the time and place where you’re going to write. In advance, figure out the obstacles that might spring in your path. Do you have children who need a lot of attention? Do you have a job that tires and exhausts? Do you operate on the principle that writing is not worthwhile unless you can devote at least 60 minutes to it?

There are ways to deal with each of these issues. For children, write before they get up or write after they’ve gone to bed. And 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.

Most of all, lose the damaging notion that you must clear 60 minutes (or more!) in your schedule before writing. You can write in dribs and drabs — 10 minutes here, 15 minutes there.

The complicated, time-consuming part of the writing life is editing — not writing — but by the time you have a first draft of your text, you’re far more likely to feel enthusiastic and committed. By that point, it will be easier for you to clear your schedule for the time you need.

Don’t just read about writing. Actually do it.

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My video podcast last week gave advice about writing sample chapters for a book.  Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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How many books about writing have you read? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by August 31/18 will be put in a draw for a copy of the non-fiction book Selling to Big Companies by Jill Konrath. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.