The Anti-Writing Secret I Learned on My Way to Becoming a Six-Figure Writer …

This is hard for me to write because I struggled with this truth for a long time … in fact, I still struggle with this.

Yet, this secret I’m about to share with you has done more to increase my income and help my writing than any other single activity I’ve tried.

Actually, I’ve come to believe writing is the least important part of making a lot of money as a writer.

Truth is, writing – great writing, anyway – is a byproduct.

The problem is, this anti-writing secret didn’t seem like work a “writer” should be doing. It doesn’t seem like something I should get paid for … and I don’t – not directly anyway.

What’s worse, I was raised with a jaundiced eye towards this anti-writing secret. I thought it was too hard. Other times, I thought it was only for pleasure. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in the middle.

So what am I talking about?

Consider …

 … what Melissa Donavan, writer and owner of WriteItForward.com, says on this very subject:

“There are lots of things you can do to improve your writing. You can join a writing community, work on your grammar skills, and you can collect writing resources and useful writing tips and ideas. Put all these things in your writer’s toolbox and you’ll be in good shape. But it will all be for naught if you don’t ever take the time to read.”

Here’s another one …

According to NationalWritingProject.org:

“Writing and reading are closely related and, some would say, inseparable. Better writers tend to be better readers, and better readers produce better writing.”

Starting to see my revelation on what to be doing … daily … to improve your writing? To accelerate your way to the writer's life?

Let’s try one more from a famous writer …

 … Stephen King – yes, 'scary books' Stephen King.

Here’s what Stephen King had to say in his book On Writing …

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that … The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing; one comes to the country of the writer with one’s papers and identification pretty much in order. Constant reading will pull you into a place (a mind-set, if you like the phrase) where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness.’’

Now, this was a tough question I had to ask myself: If one of the world’s most prolific writers says, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write,” then shouldn’t I at least consider this advice?

Of course … I had excuses …

“But I don’t have time to read.”

“I’m a slow reader.”

Like I said, excuses.

Then I realized reading will actually create more time for me to write. Maybe you can apply some of the tough lessons I’ve learned about reading.

For instance …

The Magical Time-Expanding Properties of Reading

Let’s go back and take a second look at King’s quote …

Specifically, the last sentence where he said, “Constant reading will pull you into a place (a mind-set, if you like the phrase) where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness.’’

This is why I redoubled my efforts to read more. Because I see a promise in this quote that is very alluring. If you’ve ever stared at a blinking cursor or a blank screen, I bet you picked up on this promise too.

The promise is that by reading, you can “write eagerly.”

But there is – as we copywriters like to say – more!

He goes on to say you can write “without self-consciousness.” In other words, you can write freely without the constant self-editing you might suffer from right now.

That’s not to say editing won’t be needed. It will be. But it’s to say the first draft comes much, much more quickly for readers than for non-readers.

In short, because you read more, you write faster and with more confidence. And because you write faster and with more confidence, you’ll not need as much time for either writing or editing.

Presto! Time expanded.

Now you may be wondering …

  • “But what exactly do I read?”
  • “How do I know what to read to get this magical gift of time expansion?”
  • “What should I read first? Second? Third?”

What to Read and Why

“In learning any art, the important things are, first, principles, and second, method.”
~ James Webb Young, A Technique for Producing Ideas

The answer to this question is something you ultimately need to figure out for yourself. However, I think I can get you started in the right direction by borrowing some ideas from my friends, mentors, and then a few of my personal discoveries.

So, if you are ready, then let’s dive in!

  1. Read finished products of whatever you are in the business of writing – If you write children’s books, you should be reading a new children’s book every day. If you write financial copy, read a new financial promotion every day. If you do SEO, read pages that are well designed and score well on SEO every day. Bottom line … read more of whatever it is you want to write – daily.

Why? There are many reasons, but let’s stick with three:

  • One, you need to know what’s out there and know what your prospects or readers are reading.
  • Two, you’ll subconsciously begin to pick up styles and jargon for your industry.
  • Three, you’ll begin to develop what mystery writer James Patterson calls the "golden gut – an ability to sense what's going to appeal to a lot of people." You’ll also begin to sense when and why things do not work.

The next two points are actually connected at the hip.

According to James Webb Young in his great little book A Technique For Producing Ideas,

“In advertising an idea results from a new combination of specific knowledge about products and people with general knowledge about life and events.”

I would also say this is true about any type of writing. And Stephen King agrees. In his book On Writing, he too mentions how new ideas are just two old ideas joined in a new way.

So what does this look like for you? How do you get these ideas to join in the first place?

There are, I believe, two more pieces to the puzzle …

  1. Read deep in your subject area – You need to know your area well. I guarantee your prospects know it well. Think about whatever it is you are most interested in … if it’s fishing, I bet you have 5–10 different books, CDs, and DVDs on fishing. You may have hundreds of lures, who knows how many poles, and you probably subscribe to at least three, if not four or five, magazines about fishing. Same is true if you love decorating … you have books, magazines, and the TV might as well only have one channel – HGTV. Same with food, chinchilla farming, and quilting.

What’s true for you is also true for the audience you are writing for. You need to read deeply in your area. Not just technique stuff either. Think about whatever it is your prospect would be reading and read that.

But there is another place you should be reading …

  1. Read wide and shallow outside of your subject area – You need to be reading things you don’t normally read. This is probably the hardest thing to do, but it doesn’t have to be. What you are really looking for here is what makes people tick.

    Here’s a segment of a seminar famous copywriter Eugene Schwartz gave to Phillips Publishing in October of 1993 …

    “Now, I don’t know how many of you read the National Enquirer every week. I don’t know how many of you go to every film that makes over $100 million and see every one of them. You cannot lose touch with the people of this country, no matter how successful or how potent you are. If you don’t spend at least two hours a week finding out where your market is today, you are finished! You will have a career of three blazing years and be finished.”

Now, don’t overdo it like I like to do; don’t get bogged down in it, but do spend at least two hours a week staying in touch with the general psyche of America.

Here is what I like to be looking for when I read wide …

  • What Fascinates – Scan through the life section of USA Today … you can do this online for free. Read through the titles of the New York Times Bestseller list. Or go online to the Amazon bestseller list. See what’s been there a long time. Look at all the categories, not just the ones you like to read. What is it that these top 5 or 6 books have in common? Listen to the news Monday morning and find out what the top three grossing movies were for the weekend. How does that relate to, or counter, the news going on? Are people celebrating or escaping?

You see, you’re not reading wide just for information. You’re reading wide for insights about human nature and the human psyche. You’re trying to figure out what’s on your prospect's mind right now … and why.

Then, and only then, can you begin to relate your writing to your audience.

Next …

  • What Dominates – Perhaps you’ve heard the advertising saying: “You can never be too rich, too thin, or too good looking.” In many ways, this is what dominates the thoughts of many people. Sometimes directly, sometimes not so directly. The other big dominator is, unfortunately, worry.
  • What Motivates – What are people rallying behind? What are they excited about? What is the herd doing and why? Every generation has different motivators. And every generation has different motivators at different times. Watch for clues in what you read. Look for trends. I think you’ll be surprised by how few motivators there really are. They may be packaged differently, but there are only a few real motivators. Figure these out and you can move mountains with your writing.

So, now you know to read deep in your subject area … and you now know to read wide to uncover the nuances of human nature.

There are still a couple of more steps to really make reading pay off for you as a writer. A few steps that I believe can put you in the top 15% of all professional writers on an income-earned basis.

How to Put Your Deep and Wide Reading to Work for You as a Professional Writer …

Earlier, I mentioned a book called A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young. In that book, he lays out 5 simple steps to creating and writing great new ideas.

Here they are in his own words …

First, the gathering of raw materials – both the materials of your immediate problem and the materials which come from a constant enrichment of your store of general knowledge.

Second, the working over of these materials in your mind.

Third, the incubating stage, where you let something beside the conscious mind do the work of synthesis.

Fourth, the actual birth of the idea – the ‘Eureka! I have it!’ stage.

Fifth, the final shaping and development of the idea to practical usefulness.

Only the 5th step of this process is actually writing … the rest is reading and thinking.

In his book, he goes into more detail on each step. Certainly worth reading, and at only 48 pages, you can read it over lunch.

Which brings us to …

Resources and Recommendations …

First, a little proof about the resources and recommendations below from one of your fellow AWAI members and a coaching client of mine …

“All this reading is making a big difference. My content and thought life are getting richer and I'm feeling more like myself. What wonderful advice.”
~ Cyndee Davis

So, I’ll give you the list I gave her …

On Writing by Stephen King – Just get it and read it. Send me thank-you letters later.

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White – This classic will help you tighten your writing and will reveal some very “a-ha” moments.

On Writing Well by William Zinnser – Another technique book, hard to explain, but worth the time to read.

A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Young Webb – Super easy to read. Worth reading a couple of times per year.

Influence by Robert Cialdini – This book was originally written to “expose” the advertising industry. Instead, it has become a classic read for most marketers. It is also great for any writer because it deals with human nature.

These books are all easy to find. The library is full of them … so are the thrift stores. You can get them on your iPad or Kindle too.

Those are five books to get you started. Read those along with a weekly perusal of The National Enquirer, a daily glance at USA Today, and daily readings in your chosen niche, and you will see a marked improvement in both the quality and speed of your writing.

I’d love to hear your suggestions based on what you read or anything else you’d like to add in the comments section below.

Thanks for reading.

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

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Published: May 9, 2011

13 Responses to “The Anti-Writing Secret I Learned on My Way to Becoming a Six-Figure Writer…”

  1. Hey Sean.

    This is exactly what I needed! As I get busier with my writing, I keep hearing myself say, "I don't have time to read anymore." Thanks for drilling home that I am skipping an important step. And I'll get on your list ASAP. Appreciate you sharing this "writing wisdom" with us.

    Best, Janet

    Janet GrosshandlerMay 9, 2011 at 7:14 am

  2. Excellent article Sean! I've always felt a little guilty peeking at USA Today for a few minutes every day... but now I know it can serve a greater purpose... especially since I live overseas. I suppose it's a great way to keep in touch with what's going on back in the USA when abroad.

    I also like the idea of reading outside your subject area. I've gotten some of my most promising ideas from some seriously random sources (one was from a surfing magazine... another was from watching the cult classic film "Animal House"... and others I won't bother to mention.

    Hope to see more great "reading" articles like this. I've already bookmarked this one!

    Thanks,

    Jason

    Guest (Jason Gaspero)May 9, 2011 at 10:29 am

  3. Great article and I heartily agree...again! You mentioned above the value of reading James Webb's book a couple times a year, and you've also recommended to me that I read Stephen King's book just as often. It's amazing what reading books like these does to help the writer's flow of thoughts and words. This book has helped me trim down unnecessary words and expressions that only clog the message. I could go on...but, I won't.

    CyndeeMay 9, 2011 at 4:12 pm

  4. Sean, many thanks...great article, great advice. I'll be acting on this... in fact, The Elements of Style just made it way from my shelf to my desk as I write.

    You taught me last summer to act now...well, I am all for acting now!

    Will be looking to find those other recommended reads soon...

    Thanks,

    Jerry

    Jerry BuresMay 9, 2011 at 4:15 pm

  5. I completely agree with you! I picked up a copy of Under The Table Books, by Todd Walton. Reading it started my creative juices flowing. I just copied the titles of the books you suggested and will look into these as well. Thank you!

    LAFMay 10, 2011 at 10:12 am

  6. Sean,

    I want to take this opportunity to thank you for writing such an excellent piece.

    I also appreciate AWAI's editorial team for having the vision to publish it.

    I think it is equally important, however, to read the literary masters, both contemporary and from the past.

    Especially don't miss out on the works of Nobel Prize winners.

    Art can teach us something that transcends time and space; something that is eternal, universal and true North. That is the power of art.

    Indirectly, this information will help you in your career as well. Cheerio.

    Archan MehtaMay 11, 2011 at 6:08 am

  7. I am very excited to find myself involved in this learning process, grateful to AWAI. I don't know what 'niche' or niches are for me, but I am already reading much more than I have in a long time. Many thanks for this piece because it kind of indicates to me I am and have been doing much of the things you talk about. Thank you Sean McCool. I am going to go get my library card!

    Michael F RogersSeptember 11, 2011 at 4:46 pm

  8. Thanks Sean for this article. Priceless advice. The part about, writing freely with out constant self editing, really struck home with me.

    This article also showed me, no matter how much I thought I read, I dont read nearly enough.

    Thank you for the reading list, I cant wait to get started.

    And Influence by Dr Robert Caldini is a favorite of mine. I think I'll read it again.

    Guest (Christopher K Tatum)November 30, 2013 at 7:02 pm

  9. Excellent article and a good reminder that writing isn't just writing!

    Charlotte Hicks February 19, 2014 at 9:33 am

  10. Thanks,Sean. I'm a new Accelerated Copywrting student and just read this article from the program's Suggested Reading list...great advice! I've taken note of the books you suggest and will begin reading them. A QUESTION...I want to write for the Christian Market...Any suggestions of what I should be "reading daily" from that niche? Thanks for your response.

    Susan Palmer-Christian CopywriterNovember 26, 2014 at 9:51 pm

  11. Thank you Sean for your life affirming advice! I received my MA in History in 2012 and have been struggling since to find a consistent job that delivers satisfying results. My love for writing and the arts keeps me grounded, and reading your article this morning has reaffirmed my quest to be a successful copywriter. I would love to hear your suggestions on what materials I should be researching and the next steps to take? Thank you for your honesty and passion!

    Guest (Amy B)May 28, 2015 at 1:27 pm


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