Read a lot and write a lot. That is the hot tip established writers will tell aspiring writers. Except, how do you balance the two? Should you split your reading and writing time 50/50?
So here’s the dilemma, you have this idea for a novel… but you also have that book over there that you want to read. What would be more valuable for your time? Reading? Or Writing?
This is a problem I have because my TBR list keeps growing and so does my list of story ideas… I’m known for biting off more than I can chew. Nevertheless, here is how I approach balancing reading and writing.
I like to think of it in the same way as exercising and dieting.
Ask yourself, what is your goal? Is your goal to finish writing a novel or submit to a writing contest? If so, then prioritize writing. Or is your goal to more intuitive? For example, if you want to write a blog that requires you to make commentary, then perhaps you need to read more to be perceptive.
Just like your physical health where you have to decide whether you are losing weight or gaining muscle, you need to start aligning your reading/writing habits to meet those goals. If you want to lose weight, you wouldn’t just be working out and if you want to gain muscle you wouldn’t just be eating salads.
First, figure out your goals and then slowly design a routine that enables you to write and read in order to meet it.
Reading is the healthy food you eat. TV or surfing the Internet or playing video games are less-than-healthy food when you are trying to be a writer. You can have your cheat days, but on most writing days, you need to refuel with a book.
So the two activities have to work together. It doesn’t have to be a perfect 50/50 balance. You can write more and read less one day and then read more and write less another. The key is to cut out all the other activities that don’t nourish you or doesn’t motivate you to write.
When you wake up: write, when you are on lunch break: read, when you get home from work: write, before you go to bed: read. Find little pockets of time here and there to commit to becoming a better writer.
Drain the well and then refill it. Exercise and then eat a hearty meal. Don’t think of your reading time as time you should be writing, but rather a necessary part of the writing process. You only have 24 hours in the day, so it’s not about picking one or the other, it’s about eliminating the other activities so you have more time to read AND write.
I like to read a few different books at the same time. I find it helps me motivated to read more and it generally inspires me to write a lot.
Don’t get too distracted, but here is my YouTube channel filled with writing inspirations and ideas to help with your creative process. Check it out!
For more writing and editing resources, please consider signing up for my mailing list. You won’t receive emails from me often, but when you do, it’ll include only work that I’m most proud of.
You are in a group — it can be your friends or it can be your family — and suddenly someone points to you and tells everyone that you are a writer. You’ll see a few eyebrows raise up, but mostly you’ll see a room full of unenthused stares. One member of the collective will turn to you and ask, “Oh yeah? What do you write?”
I rarely feel embarrassed, but it is in this very moment, the moment before I tell people about my work, where I feel the most ashamed in my choices. What do I write? A little of everything… I write stories and I write researched articles. I write press releases and I write scripts. I write emails and I write text messages. Where do I even begin?
What I tend to say is just that, “I write everything,” which is the most nothing answer one can give.
Imagine it this way. Someone asks you, “What kind of music do you like?” To which, you respond, “Oh, a little of everything.”
While that might be true, it doesn’t entice the other person to learn more about you. Instead, you are making them do all the work. Interest can fade very quickly, but here is how you can spark it rather than defuse it.
But first, let’s understand why we gave that answer in the first place.
A Writer’s Self-defense
Giving a really broad explanation like “I write everything” is a defensive response. You are afraid that the more information you give, the more it will reveal about you — opening you up — making you more vulnerable.
Let’s stick with music for a moment longer. For example, someone asked you what kind of music you liked, and you responded with, “Folk.” A potential return for that is that the other person hates folk, and they will be ready to lay down all the reasons why they hate it.
All through my life, I have encountered people that hate the stuff I like. I’m sure you have too unless you live in a really tight bubble. And I believe that if you like something, you will stand up and defend it. However, at a random social event where I’m suddenly put on the spot, I don’t feel much like standing up for my little creative projects.
“Oh, I don’t like those,” people will say, “I don’t read. It’s boring… I’ll just rather go travel. I don’t care what other people think…”
Well… then… I guess I’m just an idiot. Sorry for not being able to amaze you.
Even before they have read any of your work — or even given it a chance — people can shut you down. That feeling is crushing. Suddenly you are in the middle of a group, with a stupid smile on your face, wondering where to move forward from that awkward exchange.
This, of course, happens with a lot of other creatives. When you find out that someone is an actor, you’ll ask, “Have I seen you anything you’ve done?” A wonderful guessing game that actors love. And since they aren’t Leonardo DiCaprio, they will feel awkward listing off their credits like this is some sort of audition for your approval.
Is there a way to remedy this awkward feeling, when you get put on the spot as a writer? Or after announcing your work in progress?
Yes, of course, there is.
Don’t Talk About Your Projects, Talk About Your Mission
What is the one job that gets criticized the most? The showrunner for a hit television show perhaps. Maybe… But in my mind, one of the toughest job in the world is being a politician. You are selfishly climbing ladders, but also selflessly defending causes. As a writer, you have to see yourself in much the same light. As much as you want to write the best work for yourself, it is really the influence, change, and reflection you want to cast upon the world.
It’s time to start thinking of your stories as more than just mere tales for entertainment. A good story is transcendent. It is designed to make the reader or listener think. It is designed to inspire. It is designed to make people feel empathy or find relatable. A story is here to change a life.
Think about the mission you want to accomplish by writing. Surely it is more than just selfishly being published, right?
Think of any good story and the theme, history, or moral behind it. There are only so many stories in the world after all, and most people have seen and heard them before. However, what matters and what last are those themes that remind people that beyond their own perspective there are many more — yours.
So when someone asks you what you write. Don’t be embarrassed that you are using a platform to express your thoughts. Don’t even talk about the writing itself or the story. Talk about the mission you want to accomplish with your writing. What in the world do you want to change with your words? Who are you wanting to inspire and influence?
Take a look at some of the most recent Academy Award winners for screenplay and see how most of them, when receiving their prize, don’t even talk about the craft, but rather, what they were trying to communicate.
You are not simply a writer, you are a voice for your readers, those who have chosen you and believe in your world view. The only thing is… they might not have chosen you yet. But there is still time. You are early. And that’s okay because what a pleasure it is for the people gathered around you that day at the random party to see you at such a humble state with such a bold mission.
Rehearse What to Say, The Next Time Someone Asks You What You Write
Let’s role play. Pretend that you are attending one of those many annual parties. Your friends happily introduce you to a guest you have not met before. You friend says, ”This is _____, she’s a writer.”
The guest asks, “Oh… what do you write?”
To which you respond not with details of your current work, but the objective you want your writing to have on the world. If you can’t think of what that may be… take a moment to really consider it. What do you really want your work to do?
There are many people writing about dragons, romance, and swords. There are many people writing about their last moments with their grandma or the dog from their childhood. There are many people writing about spies and seductive lovers. So don’t talk about that stuff… talk about something beyond that. What does your writing do besides attempt to entertain? Once you can find the answer to that, say it… and I’ll assure you, that you will feel less embarrassed as the guest will start to engage you in a deep conversation.
What other areas of being a writer makes you embarrassed? I’d love to hear it… if you don’t mind sharing.
If you like this article, you might consider buying me a beer, it helps to keep me writing.
For as long as I can remember I’ve had this romantic image of my work and myself outside, on a beach or in a park perhaps. I would lean up against a tree and gaze at the beautiful horizon and feel overwhelmingly inspired. Then I would turn to my work and hammer away, doing the best job possible. Many times I have tried to execute this ideal way of being productive, but my expectations never meet my reality.
I’m a writer, so my job consists of me sitting in front of my computer for long periods of time. But I have mobility. I can pick up my laptop and go to a coffee shop, the Other Press office, or I can even go to the park and do all my assignments there.
Prior to becoming a writer, I worked as a canvasser for World Vision, patrol for the PNE, and a sandwich board advertiser for a bed and breakfast off of Oak Street. Those jobs got me outside, rain or shine.
Now, I merely work from home, which is great, but I often feel like I’m missing so much. I remember seeing different neighbourhoods as a canvasser; I remember meeting different people as a patrol; and I remember being shouted at by drivers as a sandwich board guy. None of that happens anymore. Moreover, on a nice summers day, there is nothing better than being outside—but that little perk did not keep me on those career paths for long.
Often I’ll be convinced that perhaps my tedious written/research work can be done in the picturesque exterior. I’d schlep my computer, my books, my pens, my notebooks, and my coffee out with me on an adventure in productivity. What ends up happening is that I waste a couple of hours preparing and commuting to an obscure location. I’ll survey the area for a suitable place to work, perhaps a park bench, see all the bird poop on it, and quickly move on to another.
Finally, I’ll settle at a spot and hunker down. I unravel everything the way I like it and have a gust of wind blow it all away. Disheveled, but undaunted I’ll persist—that is, until a wasp, a mosquito, or a dog off leash decides to attack me. Repeatedly my focus will be broken, and ultimately, my work remains incomplete.
Feeling a sudden cold chill of Vancouver, I’ll return home to pick up the pieces of my day’s work and to see how little progress I have made in my four-to-five-hour excursion.
I try not to think of my day as wasted when I do make those attempts to work outside in our beautiful city. After all, I did get a chance to enjoy a splendid day outdoors. Not many people get a chance to do that. Some are stuck in a kitchen, some in a factory, while others are attending to clients in an office cubicle. I’m lucky enough to have a five-hour break with no major consequences except for the fact that I will have to work extra in the afternoon/evening.
Working outside is a luxury, especially in a job that is not considered blue collar. I try to take advantage of it whenever I’m motivated to, but after so many failed attempts, I know that I’m better off working a little harder and faster indoors and taking a legitimate break outside later, when I’ve accomplished my tasks and am free from my worries.