What I learned from reading and writing in 2016

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” — Stephen King in On Writing

I read and wrote more this year than any year before. Here are some things I learned and how I’ll change my approach in 2017.

(Check out my full reading list of 52-ish books, my ten favorite books, and a recap of my writing for 2016.)

Lessons from reading

It’s okay (and probably a good idea) to quit on a book
I set a goal to average reading a book a week. Some were great, many were good, but some weren’t any fun and I wasn’t learning. I’d like to avoid those as much as possible.

Next year:

  • I’ll use the 25% point in a book as a checkpoint to consider whether I should continue or not. That’s enough to get a good sense of what the rest of the book will be like. It’s not so far that I’ll think “well I’ve gotten this far I may as well finish”.
  • I’m reducing my goal to reading 30 books instead of 52. I don’t want to feel pressured to finish for the sake of finishing.

It’s worth taking more time selecting books
Books take several hours to read, but I would take maybe a minute picking the next book. That ratio was way off.

Next year:

  • I’ll use a spreadsheet to plan my reading. Each book will have a sentence explaining why I want to read it. Reviewing the list before moving to a new book will keep me from reading too many of the same kind of book.
  • I won’t move to the next book until I’ve written about the recently completed one. Instead, I’ll re-read books about writing that I enjoy: On Writing by Stephen King, The Elements of Style by Strunk & White, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, War of Art by Steven Pressfield, and On Writing Well by William Zinsser.

I’m hoping this will motivate me to write about the books, which is important because…

…it’s worth thinking about what I just read
Writing about each book forces me to really think about it. After looking at my full reading list from this year, one thing stuck out: I wrote notes for the books I enjoyed most.

It makes sense that I’d write about books I enjoyed. In part, the books are more valuable because I captured my thoughts about them.

One of the worst uses of time is reading a nonfiction book1 without applying the principles. It’s easy to tell myself “At least I’m learning something.” I’ll agree with the conclusion then take exactly zero action based on the principles in the book.

Next year:

  • Before starting, I’ll think about what I’m hoping to learn through reading.
  • When finished, I’ll write about how I’ll apply the principles.

Fiction is fun and that’s valuable
Some people don’t read fiction and go as far as saying it’s a waste of time. I’ve always thought it was a good use of time but my actions didn’t reflect that. I read maybe one fiction book per year from 2011-2015.

I’m glad I made an effort to read more fiction this year. I’d rather laugh out loud reading one of Simon Rich’s short stories than read another conclusion based on the marshmallow experiment.

Next year:

  • I’ll read more fiction without worrying about applying anything at all.

Lessons from writing

Finish the first draft quickly
It has different monikers—down draft, vomit draft, two crappy pages. All serve as good reminders to keep your editor hat off. You have to generate a lot of ideas to get to any good ideas.

Next year:

  • I’ll do my best to avoid editing while writing. I started setting up a folder structure (in Ulysses) with subfolders named vomit draft, revision, and finish and publish.

Revising is where learning happens
At the start of the year, I sent out a newsletter explaining why I wanted to write more. It holds up better than most of the writing I did the rest of the year. Why? Well, you can’t edit newsletters after the fact, so I spent a lot of time revising it.

I could write mindlessly for 10 minutes then post the raw output every day2. My writing wouldn’t improve much by doing that. Malcolm Gladwell describes it like this:

Writing is not the time consuming part. It’s knowing what to write. It’s the thinking and the arranging and the interviewing and the researching and the organizing. That’s what takes time. Writing is blissful, I wish I could do it more.

Blank pages are bliss and pressing ‘Publish’ is satisfying. Combined, it’s very easy to skip re-writing and editing.

Next year:

  • I’ll let my drafts sit for at least a day and revise everything that I post.

Consistency is key, but it doesn’t have to be daily
Posting daily was hard. I tried for 100 days and won’t do it again. I learned to enjoy the process but the output didn’t provide value to anyone. Hitting ‘Publish’ on a rough draft didn’t magically make it less rough.

When I reviewed the whole project, it struck me that 75 posts in 100 days would’ve been fine too. Even 50, because nobody’s going to read all of it. It’s hard enough to get someone to read any of it.

Next year:

  • I’ll try posting twice each week. That feels sustainable. If I have more time in a week, I’ll add to a backlog for the weeks where I have less time.

Good writing takes thought. It’s hard to think when in a full sprint. You can do a lot of thinking when taking a stroll.

In 2017, I’ll continue following King’s advice to read a lot and write a lot. By the end of the year, I might even be a writer.

  1. By nonfiction, I mean business/self-development books that are specifically suggesting you take action in some way. ↩︎
  2. When publishing daily, I did this on way too many mornings. ↩︎