You need to read.
That’s it. That’s the post.
Actually, there’s much more to it (for instance, you also need to write), but if you remember one thing today, that’s it.
If you want to write, first you need to read.
What are you reading, and what do you want to write?
A few years ago, I was talking with someone I consider a fantastic writer. This person has written some of the most-loved and most-shared blog posts on Medium: the articles are structurally sound, flow effortlessly from one idea to the next, and use regular, human language with moments of wit and deep insight.
We were having a casual conversation, and I asked them one of my usual favorite questions: “Reading anything good these days?”
They sighed and shook their head. “I don’t… I don’t really read.”
I burst out laughing. It was obviously a lie—were they being sarcastic?
“It’s true,” they said. “I just don’t have the time.”
I decided to let it go and not push the answer. They were clearly pulling my leg. It had to be some kind of stunt.
Turns out they read all the time
We talked throughout the meal, and over the course of a couple hours, they mentioned:
- a new habit they picked up after being inspired by a topic in a newsletter they subscribe to
- some fact they saw in “this article on the front page of Medium”
- the books they’d bought their toddlers (of non-reading age) for their birthdays
- emails, tweets, and Slack messages
- news headlines and billboard ads
- the onboarding screens for a new video game they were playing
“You know,” I said at one point later in the evening, “It sounds to me like you actually read a whole lot.”
“Oh!” They were taken aback. “Well, I don’t think I do. I just never have time to make it through a book these days.”
I pointed out a few things they had casually slipped into the conversation earlier.
“Yeah, I read all of that,” they said. “It’s true. But I just don’t read books. It’s so hard with two toddlers.”
I pointed out that they read books to their toddlers.
They smiled, and nodded a little bit, seeming to appreciate the fact.
Then they suddenly got really excited as they jumped in to tell me all about the latest children’s book they’d been reading to the kids during bathtime.
It was an amusing and beautiful moment.
What “counts” as reading?
This incredible writer told me later, after we’d gotten to know each other better, that they’d always felt pressure to read books. That if it wasn’t a book, it didn’t count as reading.
And in their mind, fiction always trumped nonfiction, so even if they took time to read a self-help book or a biography, it still wouldn’t “count” in their mind as much as, say, reading Ulysses or The Golden Notebook.
But this person wasn’t even interested in writing books.
They were interested in writing blog posts!
They were—are you ready?—interested in writing newsletters, onboarding flows for video games, and even writing children’s books.
They were interested in writing the things they read.
So they had somehow internalized the idea that books were better than any other types of writing, that fiction was better than nonfiction, and therefore, if they weren’t reading novels, they weren’t reading at all.
Even though they read a ton, every day.
They read the things that interested them, and they read the style of writing they themselves wanted to write—and did write, brilliantly.
There’s an old saying:
Wanting to be a writer without reading is like wanting to be a swimmer without getting into the water.
You can do yoga or Pilates, if you’d prefer to stay dry. Those movements are similar to swimming without water. But they won’t make you a swimmer.
If you’re a guitar player, watching tuba players on YouTube won’t necessarily help you play guitar better. You might learn some new melodies or rhythms, but if you want to improve your guitar, you’d be better off watching guitarists, instead.
If you want to write, read what you want to write. Read what interests you.
If you want to write blog posts, read blog posts. If you want to write onboarding flows, read onboarding flows. If you want to write novels, read novels.
If you want to write literary epics like Dostoevsky but have never read Dostoevsky, read some first (I’d start with Crime and Punishment).
If it turns out you actually prefer reading sci-fi romance novels about alien werewolves, you might find the next novel you write has some literary leanings a la Dostoevsky, but inside yourself, you have found peace knowing you have the freedom to continue reading the types of novels you actually prefer to read.
Just read. Don’t let anyone judge your reading material. Read what interests you. Life is too short to read for someone else’s approval.