Reading Habits to Write Better

Reading opens us up to new ideas, research, ways of thinking and people we’ve never met. Whether you read articles about politics, insightful blogs, poetry or business books, it boosts your knowledge, analytical thinking, creativity and confidence. It helps hone personal, ideas, philosophies and inspires us to engage more fully in our work. Reading provides us with infinite benefits, including helping us write better.

By reading, we develop a “mental template” for any writing task that may come our way. Reading gives us examples of highly successful writing that achieves all its goals, whether its to motivate, inform or express an artistic vision. What we read sets our personal standard for good writing, so it’s vital to read as much as you can.

Reading more isn’t difficult — delving into a great book is fun and relaxing. Enjoy what you read and learn as much as possible by:

1. Reading more genres every day: If you only read newspapers, you may find your writing style becoming a bit impersonal. If you only read Shakespeare, your writing may become more dramatic. Every author you read will teach you something, so aim to be well-rounded. Try to read at least three different genres every day. For example, a newspaper article, a chapter from a novel and a manual, or a blog entry, a favorite short story and a chapter of a business book.

2. Always looking up new words and concepts: You may not need to do this very often, but when you come across a word or concept you aren’t familiar with, look it up quickly to learn as much as you can from your reading.

3. Reading the “masters:” If you are interested in a specific field, make sure to read what the experts have to say. This is the best way to challenge yourself to think sharper and write better. Reading the masters of any given field may take an entire lifetime, but you’ll improve yourself by getting to even just a few.

4. Keeping a log of what you read: Tracking your reading reminds you of all that you’ve read, authors you enjoyed and inspires you to read more. LinkedIn’s Amazon reading list application is a great tool for logging the books you’ve read and your thoughts about them.

5. Keeping reading fun: Reading should be an enjoyable part of your day — something that you look forward to. The best way to ensure this is to read something that really pique your interest. Rely on friends, colleagues or expert reviewers’ opinions for your next read. When you find that an article or book is becoming a chore, set it down for a while, read something else and, if you want, go back to it again. If you can’t find anything that you like, re-read a favorite novel or short story to re-ignite your love for reading.

How does your writing improve when you read more? What are your strategies for reading more?


What did you read over the Holidays?

The Holidays are a great time to catch up on the books you’ve been meaning to get around to for some time. I love the opportunity to read for hours during this time — and enjoyed reading a few amazing books!

1. Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka

The author of When the Emperor was Divine created another beautifully spare portrait of Japanese American women, and truly one of the best novels of the year. Otsuka describes young women who come over from Japan to San Francisco as ‘picture brides’ in the early twentieth century. Traveling across the Pacific, they exchange photos of their husbands waiting for them. Once they arrive, they are faced with arduous work as maids or farmers, and struggle to learn a new language and culture. They have children and raise them as World War II descends — and are quietly forced into internment camps.

Otsuka’s uniquely poetic and minimalistic writing makes Buddha in the Attic difficult to put down. The women’s voices are collected as one, yet somehow each individual shines through. For example, “Some of us on the boat were from Kyoto, and were delicate and fair, and had lived our entire lives in darkened rooms at the back of the house. Some of us were from Nara, and prayed to our ancestors three times a day, and swore we could still hear the temple bells ringing.” It’s a quiet and understated novel, but it’s force is stunning.

2. How Full is Your Bucket?,  by Tom Rath and Donald Clifton, Ph.D.

I’m very glad that I finally read this important book. The central concept is highly intuitive (or even obvious): positive interactions make you feel better, while negative ones are draining. The detailed research go beyond this to illustrate how and why negativity is so damaging to our productivity, health, relationships and energy. At work, we are often faced with hours and hours of criticism and a lack of recognition — and this unthoughtful environment destroys our desire to work our hardest, innovate new ideas and commit to success. Rath and Clifton estimate that employee disengagement costs the U.S. economy $250 – 300 billion every year.

True to their philosophy, Rath and Clifton don’t let this bring them down. Instead, they focus on the positive and detail many practical ways to build healthier relationships and more satisfying work. I was struck by how this slim and quick-to-read book’s simple message has such tremendous implications for building a more enjoyable work life, more energetic employees and stronger relationships.

3. Off Balance, by Matthew Kelly

Kelly takes on the “work-life balance” myth head on in Off Balance, arguing instead that what we really want is personal and professional satisfaction, not necessarily “balance.” Just like tackling a major project, we need to approach our lives carefully and apply some sort of strategy to achieve all that we want to.We need to put a few guidelines in place to be the “best version of ourselves.”

Off Balance includes many simple, practical ways to learn what you value most. We can’t “have it all,” but we can have the things we want most — and approach these aspects of our lives with energy, enthusiasm and our best efforts. Kelly also challenges us to take the “time management” philosophy to the next level: energy management. By managing our “battery,” we’ll have the energy to devote to the things we really love, and feel fully satisfied in our personal and professional lives. I highly recommend this book for it’s practical strategies to achieve a more satisfying life, but it’s not really intended for someone who’s struggling to decide which career path is best or wanting to make a large change in their personal life. It’s best for someone who’s on the right path, but wants to make small changes to make the most of it.

After reading Off Balance and How Full is Your Bucket?, I’m struck by how these “business” books apply so poignantly to personal relationships. They intentionally blur the boundaries of personal and professional, arguing that the you need the same skills and passion to succeed in either. It’s fascinating.

How about you? What did you read over the Holidays? Anything you’d recommend?

What are You Reading?

Are you reading any great business books right now? How about reading for pleasure?

My reading pile has grown quite a bit over the last month – and I’m enjoying everything:

1. Talk Normal by Tim Phillips

With a hearty dose of humor and a biting wit, Phillips takes on business’ tendency to evade with jargon and code words. Phillips showcases the rise of “business speak” and “management lingo” in offices throughout the UK, despite it’s foolishness and – worse – ineffectiveness.

Phillips argues that businesses should focus on writing and speaking to be understood rather than to be admired for their cleverness, intelligence and complexity. Jargon is a way to exclude and confuse, not include, collaborate or inform. Talk Normal insists that business writers focus on understanding and honing their message with real, useful information.

Talk Normal does not offer enough practical or concrete strategies for business writers to communicate this way, or what to do when faced with “business speak” as an easy out. Phillips does, however, offer lots of humorous and outrageous examples (that we’ve all experienced), making it a great read for anyone looking to commiserate and chuckle.

2. Gold Mine by Freddy Balle & Michael Balle

I’m currently working on a project dealing with lean manufacturing and the client recommended that I read this book. I’m very glad for the suggestion; Gold Mine is a great example of vibrant, effective storytelling for business. The authors paint a highly human and personal picture of implementing lean, while simultaneously detailing the technical and business principles.

Mike Wood’s childhood friend’s business is in trouble and confides in him. As a psychologist, Wood knows how to listen and motivate his friend to regain control over his life. He can’t, however, help him improve his plant’s production. Mike urges his retired father – a lean manufacturing expert who’s career was filled with personal battles – to help his friend. As they begin implementing specific lean practices and tools, people and opinions struggle to change and clash. Ultimately, the everyone embraces the challenges and benefits of lean manufacturing

Gold Mine is an engaging, quick read that all business writers would enjoy as an example of well-organized and powerful storytelling.

3. Ghosts by Daylight: Love, War, and Redemption by Janine di Giovanni

I had a hard time putting this book down. Janine di Giovanni recounts her experiences working as a war correspondent in Sarajevo, Afghanistan, Iraq and other war-torn areas. Her passion for witnessing human rights violations and being a voice for the voiceless drives her to return over and over to the brutality and sadness of war zones to write eloquently about all she sees.

Along the way, she meets Bruno, a French war photographer, and they fall in love in the midst of guns and adrenaline. When Janine becomes pregnant, they pursue their dream of a building a safe and warm family life in Paris. They buy a beautiful home and are surrounded by friends and family, but cannot escape the sadness that haunts them.

Janine di Giovanni confronts the difficulties of bringing a child into an uncertain world, Bruno’s PTSD and alcoholism with disarming honesty. She carefully weaves stories of her past and present, and openly shares how her pure love and devotion are challenged by the complicated world where we live.

Have you read any great books recently? If so, please pass them along.

Warm wishes for a happy Thanksgiving! 

What are you reading right now?

Cover of "Drive: The Surprising Truth Abo...

Cover via Amazon

Are you reading any great business books right now? How about a novel you can’t put down?

Luckily, I’m now reading a business book and a novel that are both fascinating:

1. Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink
With lots of scientific research, case studies and a powerful, upbeat voice, Pink argues that the traditional “carrot and stick” method of motivating employees no longer works. In fact, it never did. Instead, humans are intrinsically motivated to seek out autonomy, intellectual challenge and satisfaction, and the opportunity to contribute to some purpose. I especially enjoyed reading the examples of this motivational philosophy put into practice within successful corporations.

Many disagree with this philosophy and even more dispute how it can be effectively implemented. If you don’t have the time to read Drive, check out the 10-minute animated video.

2. Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland
This ambitious project portrays Renoir’s his masterpiece, telling the stories of the thirteen friends who pose for him. As the Impressionist group struggles to stay together, Renoir resolves to make something of himself and challenge his artistic skills.

In bringing this era to life, Vreeland’s characters sometimes lose their fullness. Despite this, any fan of Renoir or art history buff (like me) will enjoy getting lost in this detailed portrait.

What are you reading right now?

Cover of "The Wealthy Freelancer: 12 Secr...

Cover via Amazon

Is reading three books at the same time a bad habit? It might be, but it’s not a habit I’m going to break anytime soon.

Right now I’m reading:

1. The Animal Dialogues by Craig Childs.
Lyrical, eloquent essays about Childs’ encounters with wild animals throughout the world. The writing is stunning. I get an adrenaline rush – even panicky – when reading about swimming with sharks or unexpectedly running into a grizzly. Then, I realize I’m still sitting on my couch!

2. The Wealthy Freelancer by Steve Slaunwhite, Pete Savage and Ed Gandia.
After reading this the first time (I’ll read it many times again, for sure), I’d recommend this book to anyone who freelances full-time or on the side. It’s worth the price just for the many practical, nuts-and-bolts tips. But the real value lies in its discussion of why people decide to break out on their own, and how to reach your larger goal of designing a stable, satisfying and flexible career.

3. I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson.
I must warn you – this is not a beach read; it’s not a happy book. It’s a beautifully-written exploration of sadness, regret and being dropped in situations you didn’t choose. Set in the late 80s, Arvid cares for his dying mother while recovering from his divorce. His commitment to communism is shattered when the Wall is torn down, causing him to question his place in the world. It’s a lovely book and Petterson’s voice shines, but don’t read it while listening to sad music – that would be too much to handle.

How about you? Reading anything great? What’s your favorite sad book?