When it comes to reading, there are two ditches modern-day web writers may fall into. Both are notorious, unrefined, and dangerous - especially if you want to be more than an ordinary writer.
On one side, you have the ditch of never-ending digital content where you spend all your time reading online.
Your day looks like this:
- You begin with the latest Copyblogger article and a heavy dose of articles from news sites by the time you down your third cup of morning coffee.
- During lunch, it's a dash through some popular and arcane sports, fashion, cooking, or interior design blogs (but not any by that potty-mouthed she-devil who can't stop talking about her cowhide throw blankets).
- In the afternoon, you gobble up several articles on LinkedIn, 99u, Fast Company, and the fun ones you find on Facebook.
- Late at night, you start reading your third brand-new James Patterson novel of the year (and it's only May!) on your Kindle (not quite online, but still digital).
On the other side, you have the ditch of “made-for-loneliness” wonkism where all you do all day is read about one topic - and one topic only.
Your day looks like this:
- During your breakfast of Fig Newtons and yesterday's coffee, you read Copyblogger's ebook on SEO copywriting and then watch as many Whiteboard Fridays as you can during your hour-long carpool ride into work.
- At lunch, you finish memorizing Search Engine Land's periodic table of SEO success factors - and then recite it for your three sleeping lunchmates.
- Before you leave work, you print out three ebooks on local SEO and read those during the carpool ride home.
- And in the dead of the night, you thumb through a musty copy of SEO 2015 and Beyond while you drink your fourth “I heart SEO” coffee mug full of Belgian-style quadrupel.
There is nothing wrong with these two approaches to reading if you have no ambition to be a great writer. However, if you aspire to be an exceptional writer, follow these sophisticated reading habits.
Read more old books
Many books published each year will end up in the remainder pile - forgotten, useless, and cheap. Really cheap.
And while reading new books is a great way to stay on top of the latest ideas (or be reminded of the old ones), I think it's much better to make a habit of reading older books.
Old books have ideas and stories that have endured for 50, 100 - even thousands of years. Darwin. Schopenhauer. Hobbes. Nicholas of Cusa. Sappho.
When you read a book, letter, article, or essay that has endured through the ages, you can be confident that it's quality writing. Not as much with new books.
Another advantage of reading classics is that there are fewer to choose from. You could read Random House's list of the 100 best novels in a few years. You couldn't do that with all the new fiction published in just one year.
Or maybe reading 100 books is just too daunting. Instead, wrestle through James Joyce's Ulysses or Isaac Newton's Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica for half an hour every day. It might take you a year to get through one of those books.
If you need encouragement from others, start a book club where you tackle ancient classics by Xenophon, Thucydides, or Herodotus.
If you are really brave, write out your favorite short story or article by hand. This practice will help you notice and absorb the qualities that make these works so great.
In the end, there are lots of ways to skin this cat, so just remember the goal is to read more old books.
Read wide (outside of your discipline)
But they don't.
I recommended a book on web usability, a book on design principles (by a cognitive scientist), a book on storytelling, and a book on mobile marketing. This is called “reading wide.”
However, another trap we can fall into is not going wide enough.
While all those books are different from one another, they aren't that different. When you take a step back, you see that they are all business books.
I'm urging you to study completely different categories. Like astronomy, Latin American politics, or medieval architecture. It doesn't matter if these books are old or new. Just read something outside of your discipline.
You'll be surprised by the associations that emerge in your mind after you read a book like The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic. Or the metaphors that emerge after reading The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco or Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz.
Illustrating that point was my intent when I wrote 10 Surprising Books that Will Transform Your Writing.
Read long-form journalism
Not long ago, I received a question from a reader whose first language was Chinese. She asked what she could do to improve her writing in English, specifically conversational English.
I understood her situation because English isn't my first language either. I'm a native speaker of Mumblish, with a heavy obscurantist accent.
Speaking clearly, concisely, and compellingly was foreign to me when I got started.
A college-level essay writing class helped. As did learning about direct-response copywriting. But it wasn't until I took a serious interest in long-form journalism that my conversational writing skills took a healthy turn for the better.
Here are some of the things I did:
- Pillaged The Pulitzer Prize winner archives
- Read every article on sites like Gangrey and Longform
- Bought long-form articles from Matter when it first launched
- Devoured books of essays by journalists like Joan Didion, George Plimpton, and Hunter S. Thompson
I've learned so much about conversational writing from reading smart long-form journalism.
I've learned how to take facts and build them into a story, how to use dialogue, and how to make people the central part of every piece I write.
Speaking of people …
Read books about becoming a better person
Ultimately, if you want to become a better writer, you have to become a better person. Let me explain how I came to this conclusion.
Denver, Colorado. April 14, 2016. Sonia Simone, Pamela Wilson, and I were spread out around a large table talking about our favorite books that we had read in the last year.
Here's a sample:
- The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It
- Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
- The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic
At some point during our conversation, a light bulb went off in my mind.
Nobody mentioned a book on copywriting, content marketing, or even business. The closest was perhaps Sonia's pick (The Upside of Stress).
Instead, these were all difficult books - difficult in the sense that they are not light affairs you can dabble in on a lazy Sunday afternoon. They were also very personal.
A commitment is required. A commitment to become a better person.
When you do that, a nifty thing happens: You begin to care more about people. You begin to care about their sorrows, pains, joys, and dreams.
You begin to listen more, soften toward their plights, and lighten up about their moments of good fortune (instead of getting jealous).
Great writers strive to become altruistic and empathetic.
And they put in the hard work by reading books on difficult topics that challenge, stretch, and expand them.
So, how's your reading going? Are you satisfied with a steady diet of digital content? Are you obsessed with one subject - and only one subject? Or, are you reading more old books, long-form journalism, and content far outside of your comfort zone?
More importantly, are you reading books that help you become a better person?
I have a hunch you are. Especially if you stayed with me all the way down to this final sentence. It shows me you have grit. A necessary trait of great writers.
In the comments section below, share your favorite books you read in the last year. I look forward to hearing from you.