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Grammar Is Sexy

To Be a Great Writer (or Blogger), Read like One

Recently, I had a breakthrough in my writing process. The breakthrough didn’t come from some new writing software, book, or technique. It was far simpler than that.

What if I told you there was a way to cut the time spent writing a post in half? Well, there is.

What is this magical technique?

Taking notes.

Yep, it’s that simple. I had always heard that taking notes on what you read (especially nonfiction) was useful for later retention of information. While that made sense, it was only a little bit compelling. I figured that I would remember anything, well, worth remembering.

That changed with the last nonfiction book I read. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow is a dense, long read. Every page is packed with so much information that in order to process it all I decided to take notes on each chapter.

Specifically, I underlined important passages and occasionally make marginal comments as I was reading the chapter. After I was finished, I would go back through the chapter and create a bulleted summary of the information in Evernote.

TF&S-Notes-Screenshot-for-Blog-Post

A small selection of my 7,844 words of notes on Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.

By the end of the book, I had almost 8,000 words of notes.

The notes really came in handy when I began writing a post for College Info Geek a couple days later. I pitched Thomas, my editor, a post summarizing what the book had taught me about cognitive biases and fallacies.

In the past, my process for such book-based, research-oriented posts had been to flip back through the book as I wrote, copying out previously underlined quotes that seemed useful. While it was better than if I hadn’t annotated the book at all, it was still pretty time-consuming; I would sometimes spend thirty minutes pouring over the book for a quote.

With my detailed notes, though, it was simply a matter of using Evernote’s search function to find key terms such as ”bias” and ”fallacy.” I had already copied most of the quotations I needed, so I just had to paste them into a new document, add relevant examples to each, write the intro and conclusion, add images and formatting, and then be done.

It still took time, but it was a lot less than my previous efforts.

Writers Read

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Beyond the value of taking notes, this experience got me thinking about how some of my best writing (in my opinion) has begun with things I’ve read. Indeed, much greater writers and thinkers than I have built whole blogs around the concept:

“Books aren’t about ‘real life.’ Books are about other books.”

– Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot

The above quote doesn’t just apply to books–it can apply to your blog just as easily. Brain Pickings and Farnam street are quite literally ”about other books,” and no one’s accusing them of being unoriginal.

Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings, while not limited to books, is primarily based on Maria’s voracious reading of authors varied as Carl SaganAlan Watts, and Susan Sontag. And when I say ”voracious,” I mean it. In an interview with Tim Ferriss, Maria says that she reads fifteen books a week on average. With a site averaging 5 million visitors a month, she’s clearly doing something right, and I suspect it starts with her habit of reading.

Reading is similarly central to Shane Parrish’s blog Farnam Street, though his focus is more on business and decision making, whereas Maria’s is more on literature and art. He reads an impressive three to five books a week, which, while well above average, seems more reachable than Maria’s enormous intake. He’s so casual about his process, too:

Early in the evening, say around 8 or 9, I’ll grab a glass of wine and sink into something serious. Something I want to read without interruption. Some nights I’ll read well past midnight, other nights I’ll stop reading around 10 or 11.

I’ll then do a little bit of blogging and plop myself into bed and read till I fall asleep.

And then there’s James Clear. Many of his habit-focused articles are inspired by books, and he also leans heavily on relevant scientific studies. You can bet that he’s doing his share of reading.

Caveat: Now, I’m not saying that what you read is the best or only valid starting point for writing. Personal experience is just as important. Including personal stories makes your writing more, well, personal and thus more relatable.

Nonetheless, you could do worse than follow the example of the above bloggers and base at least some of your writing on your reading.

In Practice

Samuel Johnson in 1775, via Wikimedia Commons

Samuel Johnson in 1775, via Wikimedia Commons

“The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.”

– Samuel Johnson, in James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson

How exactly do you create quality blog posts based on what you’ve read?

A starting framework would be something like this: quote, comment, and repeat.

Quote

Self-explanatory. Whether it’s a blockquote like the Johnson one above or an in-text quotation, you accurately transcribe the source quote and provide attribution, ideally of the quote’s original source. If you’re unsure of a quote’s original source, Quote Investigator is handy (thanks to Zen Pencils for recommending this website).

Comment

When I say ”comment,” I don’t mean ”offer a redundant summary of the quoted material.” The best writers:

  • Engage with the quoted text, critiquing it and adding their own reflections. For instance, here’s Vladimir Nabokov engaging with Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis
  • Distil dense material into a form their audience can understand (Josh Kaufman does this masterfully with the topic of business in The Personal MBA)
  • Connect the book in question to other books they’ve read (Shane Parrish and Maria Popova do this all the time)

Repeat

See above steps.

Start Reading

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What are you waiting for? Put the method into practice. Find a book relevant to your blog’s topic, read it, take notes, and create something awesome!

What books have inspired content for your site? Share them in the comments below.

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For Further Reading:

Images: “Boeken Kringloop Woerden 03” by Onderwijsgek via Wikimedia Commons.

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