Read Good? Write Gooder

There’s no understating the importance of a healthy, balanced diet of strong reading material.

Seriously. It’s one of the best things a writer can do to keep those fingers pumping out fresh material. Stephen King, one of the most prolific writers of our generation, says that good writers read four to six hours a day.

Sound overwhelming? Just a tad. That doesn’t mean you can’t set other goals that are perhaps a bit less lofty but still ambitious. These days, we’re trained to think “unwinding” requires you to crash in front of the television with a bag of pretzels.

The next time you plan to do that, imagine Papa Hemingway is standing at the entrance to the room, judging you. Were he alive today, he would be.

On second thought, he’d probably be out wrestling a bear. Or in his study, reading and writing.

Zoning out in front of the television–turning your brain “off”–is a total myth, and one that you don’t need to buy into. Sure, the occasional episode of Breaking Bad may help you hone your storytelling skills. But that’s intelligent TV (or a quick mental break). Zonking for four hours before bed is as unproductive as it is unhealthy.

Wherever you want to succeed in writing, you must read. Lively fiction, engrossing academic, practical how-to–whatever the discipline, it’ll have a positive impact on your writing.

Start small. Schedule an hour a day for reading. Then, scale it up.

To help supplement my reading, I like to try and catch myself whenever I wander to a mindless site. When I do, I shut the tab and read a couple of pages out of whatever book I’m working on.

What kind of books have an impact on your writing?

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Turn Off The Noise: How To Deal With Information Overload

Does your brain hurt at the end of the day? Mine sure does. Constantly consuming information takes a lot out of you. The human brain wasn’t meant to digest so much in such small windows of time.

Just how much are we consuming on a daily basis? According to Robby Walker of Cue, we consume some 63,000 words on an average day. That means you finished a short novel today. Go pat yourself on the back, have a beer and brag to your friends.

Where’s your god now?

Don’t have the sense of accomplishment you thought you would, eh? That’s because it’s very difficult to pull the thread of a narrative or progressive case-building out of that mess of words. Each block of content we consume is related to a different area of interest, stimulating a different portion of your brain, causing a new wave of dysphoria and, in some cases, shutting your thought process down completely.

Where does it all come from?

Imagine that your daily routine is an intricate spiderweb shimmering across two tree branches. Now try to follow the path of a single thread from the center to the edge.

This is especially difficult because the lines run so close together. The spider followed a linear path to create the web, just as your day followed a somewhat linear path of its own. But digging up the tiny details that contributed to each new thread of information is damn hard.

We simply aren’t always aware of where the internet will lead us. You start off reading a scholarly article about inner city sociology and end up perusing pictures of Channing Tatum’s new haircut. Unlike the detail-oriented spider, we weave tangled webs.

How did you get from point A to point B? Ask yourself these questions to become consciously aware of how you process information.

  • What are the sites I visit the moment I lose focus? For many of us, the primary answers may be Facebook, Deadspin, Pinterest or Twitter.
  • How much time do I spend on useless information? The best way to measure this is to focus on how much time you spend processing and creating useful information. The rest of the time is most likely spent screwing around.
  • How organized are my social media channels? If you have a Twitter account, for instance, do you split the accounts you follow into lists? This can be an effective approach to focus your browsing.

Focus on focusing.

I usually lose focus when I haven’t organized or structured my day. Here are a couple of strategies I use to stay focused.

  • Create a to-do list and cross off items as you finish them. Closure on each little task is more satisfying than hours spent on “happy information”, or information your brain is magnetically attracted to.
  • Set short and long term goals. This tactic is intrinsically tied to the to-do list. Longer term goals (weekly, monthly) help you get a bird’s eye view of your productivity.
  • Use software features to stay in the zone. I recently discovered the “focus” setting on my MS Word “View” tab. Presto! Your document now dominates the entire screen. Productivity software like Vitalist, Todoist or RescueTime can help in other ways.

Embrace Awkwardness — Your Comfort Zone is Too Small

Nothing happens in a vacuum.

You want stuff to happen for you, right? Let down your guard. Pop that bubble around you. Emerge from your cocoon.

Get uncomfortable.

I’m uncomfortable just knowing Pitbull can leave his home state of Florida.

People are drawn magnetically to their comfort zones. We’re resistant to change and surprises. Your comfort zone is a magical place where nothing happens unless you expect it to. It’s the place where you dwell when you’re happy with the way things are. It’s also the place you sometimes retreat to when you’re unhappy.

When we go to our comfort zones, we wait for something to happen. And as we established before, nothing happens in a vacuum.

Putting yourself outside of your comfort zone is one of the most enriching experiences life has to offer. It’s why we travel — to explore places that don’t offer the familiar comforts of home. New experiences excite and inspire. For writers, nothing is more important than finding that inspiration.

Pick your ass up off the couch and put yourself into an uncomfortable situation. The new ideas will electrify your writing.

Below are a couple of simple ways to leave your comfort zone.

  • Ride public transportation. You can lose yourself in your own thoughts while surrounded by a whole new world of people and inspiration. Back in Chicago, I took the el and buses all the time. I was harassed, coughed on, preached to, glared at, propositioned, rubbed against — and when action didn’t affect me directly, I got to observe a whole world of new awkwardness and discomfort. I consider myself the better for these experience.
  • Write standing up. Both Hemingway and Nabokov preferred to write standing up. And they weren’t the only ones. We could conjecture for hours on why this strategy is effective and probably still never reach a fully comfortable conclusion. But I’m okay with that, because this post isn’t about comfort. One of the positives here is definitely that you can avoid fatigue by standing up. Your brain is much more likely to shut down on you while your body is in a comfortable position.
  • Say yes more often. It can be hard to say yes to certain social activities that don’t gel with your idea of a good time. Maybe you aren’t particularly fond of the people involved. Or you just don’t dig baseball. If your first impulse is to say no, flip that impulse on its head. Say yes. You may find out you enjoy the experience. Or you’ll find some inspiration. At the very least, you’ll be a better person for riding out your discomfort.

7 Unmissable Blogs for Writers and Marketers

The key to strong writing is plenty of reading. Plan to waste some time on the internets today? Make that time productive by checking out some blogs that’ll help you improve your craft.

Copyblogger

Copyblogger is THE go-to blog for copywriting tips, tricks and best practices. Rooted in WordPress, the company features a slew of different tools for content marketing. But the content on the blog features some of the best stuff for writers. It goes beyond copywriting to cover content marketing, blogging, SEO and general communications.

Content Marketing Institute

The brainchild of content marketing expert Joe Pulizzi, the Content Marketing Institute is one of the web’s premiere resources for up-to-date how-to content. Beyond knowing their craft, it’s important for writers to understand the vehicle they’re driving with their writing. CMI does exactly that. BONUS: You may see some of my own writing popping up here in the near future. Stay tuned.

Problogger

Everything you need to know about blogging, organized in one place. Copyblogger is an extremely popular resource for bloggers of all shapes and sizes. It’s all about visibility and making money at Copyblogger, where you’ll find tons of resources on how to do both effectively.

Cracked

Where to start with Cracked. If you need an intellectual, fact-based and hilarious break from work, Cracked never fails to deliver. It doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the resources on this list simply because it doesn’t offer tips for writers. I think it’s a strong study for writers looking for applicable examples of strong publishing on the web. It’s a great place to find some inspiration and get a good laugh.

Make a Living Writing

Carol Tice is a successful freelance writer who shares tons of great insights on freelancing through Make a Living Writing. Another great feature of this blog is her guest-blogging policy; submissions that get published earn $50 for their work. That’s a breath of fresh air in a world where your guest posts will get you squat.

Men with Pens

Men with Pens is a great resource for freelancers and copywriters alike. It contains similar material to blogs already mentioned on this list, but you’ll find a unique flair here.

The Rant

The Rant is entertaining writing laced with informative content. Not your typical writing blog, John Carlton’s personal vehicle for sharing insights is still a great place to learn from the best.

How to Stop Rambling About Yourself

Attention, aspiring writers and bloggers! How do I put this gently? Eh, screw gentility. Shut the hell up already!

You’re rambling about yourself again. I get it. It’s a subject you’re excited about.

Look deep into the…wait, what the hell? Where’s your reflection? Begone, undead beast!

Part of the problem is you just aren’t that interesting. But before you get down on yourself, you should understand that your perspective is.

The only times it’s okay to write about yourself are:

  • To establish credibility with a fresh audience
  • To frame your experience in the context of the bigger picture
  • To empathize or connect with your audience
  • To keep an embarrassing dream journal that only you will read
  • To make a hilarious joke

People read your writing for your perspective. That’s why the majority of the web’s blogs are followed by about seven people. Those people use blogs as their personal diaries. That’s totally fine, but they shouldn’t expect a gigantic readership.

Whenever you start writing, ask yourself how your reader stands to benefit by spending five minutes glued to the screen.

You’re a big kid now. Start writing like one.