Want to Build a Better Writing Business? Read MoreBy Paulette Perhach August 21st, 2018
Francine Prose said, “If we want to write, it makes sense to read—and to read like a writer. If we wanted to grow roses, we would want to visit rose gardens and try to see them the way that a rose gardener would.”
Since I enjoy reading and can spread out on a couch with a book, it feels less important than washing the furry dishes in my sink. I’ll look over the edge of my book to my laptop teetering on a pile of mail and think, I should really go handle that.
No, I have to remind myself. This is an essential part of my business as a freelance writer.
As writers, reading is one activity we have to protect. It’s an important but non-urgent part of our lives, valuable whether it’s for pleasure, research, or professional enrichment. Reading is so essential that I dedicated a chapter of my book, Welcome to the Writer’s Life, to it.
Appropriately enough, it was a book that first turned me on to the idea that reading was critical to building my business. It sounds a little hokey now, but Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People helped me see my life and my work differently.
Covey divides things you could spend your time on into four quadrants. On one axis is urgency. Urgent is a crying baby or a ringing phone. Not urgent is, well, not. The other axis is importance. A crying baby is both urgent and important. A pop-up on a website is urgent (you have to deal with it now to see the website), but signing up for that newsletter is not important.
Covey tells us to start paying attention to things that are important but not urgent. We all know health is important, but because no one is making the gym urgent, we often let it slide. We know flossing is important, but just this one night we let it go without strangling our fingers to get it done.
I stack my day, which might start at any given time I get up, with the most important tasks I want to do—those things I know will get lost in the bustle of life after I start checking email. First comes meditation, then reading. I lay back down in bed and, on the optimal days, consume the written word for an hour. If I only have 20 minutes to spare, I’ll read in other increments, like a chapter a day, or one of the essays I’ve saved on Pocket. On days when I just can’t let myself relax enough to do it, I at least try to read the daily poetry email I get from poets.org. My morning pages are always a little more inspired after fueling up on the words of fellow scribblers.
In many ways, these authors have become my writing mentors. I still remember reading Chuck Klosterman’s book Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs for the first time. When I saw that he started a paragraph with “ANYWAY” in all caps, I was thunderstruck. Whoa, wait a minute. That’s how I write to my friends. I didn’t know you could do that in a book.
Just as everyone you meet demonstrates some form of the person you could be, every book, story, and poem you read demonstrates the kind of story you could tell and the ways you might tell it. So keep reminding yourself that, as a dedicated writer, reading equals working.
What I Read to Work
It’s nice when I can carve out time to settle in and focus, but I make sure to always have reading material ready for lines at the store or those 10 minutes before I have to head out the door. By blocking all social media on my phone and stocking it with e-books, I steer myself toward getting my reading in. On my coffee table, I stack books of poetry, short stories, and essays I can consume in free moments.
Here are a few books that have shaped my writing and, by extension, my career:
Tenth of December, by George Saunders: Is anyone having more fun writing than George Saunders? I can’t imagine it. His work makes words feel like a game I want to play, preferably with the same skill and joy he takes in it. He’s the writer who taught me how to write through confusion, rather than waiting until I had every piece in place before I put pen to paper.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo: Some writers simply show you what’s possible. This book is a masterpiece, a non-fiction book reported over four years and told with as much depth and beauty as a novel. It shows you how high the bar can go in both reporting and storytelling.
Best American Series: I love picking up a Best American. A convenient way to sample writers who focus on your genre and to learn which magazines publish them, this series curates the best short writing published in North America every year. Categories include poems, short stories, comics, science and nature, sports, travel, mystery, essays, and science fiction and fantasy, so it’s a great way to find a lot of writers in your genre to follow. You can always find last year’s still-fresh editions on sale when the new ones come out
Paulette Perhach’s writing has been published in the New York Times, Elle, Slate, Cosmopolitan, and Marie Claire. She’s worked for Health and Coastal Living magazines, as well as various newspapers. Hugo House awarded her the Made at Hugo House fellowship in 2013. Her book Welcome to the Writer’s Life: How to Design Your Writing Craft, Writing Business, Writing Practice, and Reading Practice is available now through Sasquatch Books.