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Why Input Determines Output: On the Importance of Reading as a Writer

Without excellent ideas, you cannot be an excellent writer. Without valuable input, there can be no valuable output. Learn why reading is possibly the most critical skill you need to practice to become a better writer.

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Importance of Reading for Writers: Whiskey poured into a glass
Photo: Unsplash.com / Dylan de Jonge
  • Reading can improve your writing in several ways: it can help you focus and think more deeply, it’s raw material for your own ideas, it improves your style and vocabulary—and reading your competitors’ works will also show you what you’re up against.
  • Nowadays, we read too few valuable and thought-provoking books and pieces, instead opting for rather shallow newspapers or blog posts.
  • It’s crucial to read effectively: read slowly instead of skimming, and take notes religiously. Otherwise it’ll be difficult to connect ideas to create something unique.

There’s a crucial step before researching and writing that many writers tend to omit: reading to broaden one’s horizons. Without reading, there’s no knowledge. Without knowledge, there are no ideas. Without ideas, there’s no reason to write in the first place.

Reading feels passive compared to writing. It doesn’t feel like work, and that’s probably one common justification for neglecting it. It seems like we don’t move forward, and that is partially true. Not a single word of our books or articles gets written while we’re reading other people’s works. Nonetheless, there can be no output without input.

Improve your concentration

Reading improves your ability to focus. In an age of information overload, we might assume that we’ve never read more. While that could technically be true, what most of us consume is rather shallow material—and plenty thereof. From social media posts to instructional blog entries, most of what we read follows a simple formula. It’s supposed to be easy. After all, nobody wants to lose you as a reader, and there isn’t anything inherently wrong with that. Even shallow information often help us stay up-to-date on current events and solve urgent problems. Unfortunately, this kind of content doesn’t help us with concentration.

In order to get the most out of books, it’s essential to pick those that makes us think or challenge our beliefs.

Concentration only improves when we tackle reading material that challenges us cognitively. Articles can achieve that, but we rarely pick the thought-provoking ones. Since books are more complex than the vast majority of articles, they’re generally better suited to improve our cognitive abilities. But note that in order to get the most out of books, it’s essential to pick those that makes us think or challenge our beliefs. Over time, we’ll get better at dealing with more complex ideas, which in turn will make us better writers.

Sometimes, though, reading can have the opposite effect. It can cause us to zone out and lose focus. Even that can be a good thing. It helps us get to new ideas that otherwise wouldn’t have surfaced. On news sites and social media, we’re glued to the words on the page because we fear missing out. With a book, we feel much more liberated to let our thoughts flow. Books are never really current—it takes far too long to produce them, and this is exactly what gives us the freedom to let go for a while. This is the kind of letting go that is necessary for creativity to unfold.

The quality of the material that you read massively impacts the quality of your output, whether it is in speaking or writing.

Enrich the quality of your thoughts

The primary purpose of reading is not to learn information but to evoke thoughts. There’s no point in reading books for the sake of simply copying their ideas. It’s about assimilation. You consume the content of a book in order to produce something new and unique—something of your own.

Which brings me to the “garbage in, garbage out” principle. The quality of the material that you read massively impacts the quality of your output, be it spoken or written. That’s why it’s so crucial to carefully select the sources we read. I largely abstain from biased and unreliable news sources, which include plenty that most people would consider legitimate. I rarely read social media posts because they usually lack substance. (I do, however, have to read certain sources because they’re relevant in my industry, even though they predominantly produce fluff.) Virtually all content written for the Internet is the kind of garbage you don’t want to consume on a regular basis. It will not only affect your ability to concentrate and handle complex ideas; it will also significantly weaken the quality of your thinking and reasoning.

Everything you read is raw material for your thoughts—nutrition, if you will. Consuming garbage won’t affect your writing in the short run, but it will sneak its way into your mind and leave a mess.

Enhance the quality of your language

The “garbage in, garbage out” principle applies to language as well. The style of your own writing is heavily influenced by that of the works you read. After a while, you adopt certain stylistic elements from other authors. Some writers fear that that might ruin their own style and, thus, decide to refrain from reading in order to keep their style authentic.

That couldn’t be farther from the truth. No style is entirely unique. Your style of writing has been shaped by the words that you’ve been hearing and reading since early childhood. Not reading anymore would merely stop the process of refining your style. It might’ve stopped developing already at the time you stopped reading. Don’t fear that you’ll sound like somebody else. You won’t; it’s not something that happens accidentally. It would take tremendous effort to speak and write like somebody else—and even if you thought you succeeded, you’d probably still filter everything through your own lens.

For your style and vocabulary to evolve, it’s fundamental that you read and that you choose wisely what you read.

Develop an eye for style and learn to read slowly, and then try to copy the elements that work for you as a reader.

Be aware of your competition

Often, the best way to determine what your competitors are doing is to simply look at what your competitors are doing. If you don’t read what others write, you can’t know what you’re up against. Your competitors’ content strategy becomes apparent in what they publish. It’s also worth observing what writers outside of your industry release—not only because your competitors have the same access as you to these sources, but also because you can be the first to adopt new ideas and techniques.

You will also see what works and what doesn’t. Not everything that gets published is a good idea or of high quality. You can judge on your own which kind of content is attractive and effective, which methods actually make a piece more compelling, and what is just fluff that should never have been published.

However, be aware that you won’t notice these elements if you simply skim the books and articles you intend to read. Develop an eye for style and learn to read slowly, and then try to copy the elements that work for you as a reader. Again, even if you copy a style, it’ll still sound different when you write it yourself. But to evolve faster than your competitors, you have to recognize the things others do differently and eventually embrace or disregard them.

How do you expect yourself to link an idea from the book you’re currently reading to any of the ideas you encountered in a book you read twelve years ago?

Read with writing in mind

Reading on its own will only help to a certain degree, though. If you practice it the wrong way, it might even waste a lot of valuable time.

Reading without taking notes is such a practice. It might give you the occasional new idea, but most of the potential is still wasted, as you won’t remember what you’ve read for very long. Distilling the important ideas and concepts you come across into a reliable system is crucial to proper retention.

Even more important than mere retention is connecting the thoughts you’ve collected with each other and with your own to produce unique ideas in the long run. That’s something reading alone can only rarely achieve because you’re ultimately limited to the ideas you can hold in your memory. How do you expect to link an idea from the book you’re currently reading to any of the ideas you encountered in a book you read twelve years ago?

A method like the “Zettelkasten” approach, made famous by the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, can help you capture ideas from everything you read and create connections you otherwise wouldn’t have been able to recognize.

If you spend so much time reading as is necessary to become a good writer, you might just as well spend a little more time and do it right.