Writing Involves Reading

A lot of people think that ideas simply come into my head from nowhere and then I write them down. At some point, usually after three or four hours with several coffee breaks thrown in, I go fishing or do something else with my life. Somehow, the books just magically appear on sites such as Amazon and in the bookstores.

Unfortunately, writing isn’t quite that simple. During any given week I probably spend a minimum of 14 hours reading, often times more. I don’t just read computer science books either. In fact, many of my best ideas come from non-computer sources. It’s hard to say what will make a good source for ideas for my particular kind and style of writing. I’ve actually had poems influence me and more than a few fiction books. I once created a section of a chapter based on an idea I got from a Tom Clancy novel. The point is that writers are engaged in two-way communication. We get input from all sorts of sources, use that input to create new ideas and concepts, and then write those new bits of information down for others to read.

Reading differs from research. When an author researches something, the focus is direct and narrow. The goal is to obtain specific information. Reading is far more general. There really isn’t a focus, just communication. In reading a book or magazine, I might find a new technique for presenting information or a perspective I hadn’t considered before. The goal is to obtain experiences; to explore the world of print in an unfettered manner. The result is often enhanced creativity.

Of course, just as no one is able to get up in the morning and say, “Today I will be brilliant!” with any level of serious intent, reading may not produce any lasting effect at all. The communication may be an ephemeral experience of pleasure, joy, or some other emotion. Even in this case, letting the subconscious mind work while keeping the conscious mind entertained is a good idea. Sometimes a reading session, followed by a walk or some other activity, yields a solution to a writing problem that has nothing to do with the reading or the walking, but simply the allocation of time to the needs of the subconscious mind.

The bottom line is that if you want to become a writer, then you really must engage in writing activities because writing is as much about practice as it is talent. However, you must engage in other forms of communication as well or your skills will top out at some level and you’ll never fully realize your potential. Reading is truly a fundamental part of writing. Let me know your thoughts on reading as part of building skills in writing at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

What Am I Reading?

Readers often write to ask me what I’m reading. It’s a hard question to answer in some respects because I have a broad range of interests and I often find myself reading more than just one text. However, it’s a valid question and concern because what I read eventually affects the content of the books that I write and that you read. I strongly believe that the most successful people in life are voracious readers as well. Of course, there are likely exceptions (and please don’t fill my e-mail with listings of them). Reading opens doorways to all sorts of new worlds and different ways of seeing things.

It won’t surprise you to discover that I do quite a bit of technical reading. Every day sees me scanning articles from eWeek, ComputerWorld, and InfoWorld (amongst others). I also regularly read a variety of magazines—some quite serious like MSDN and Dr. Dobbs Journal, others a little less serious like PC Gamer. I also technically edit some books every year and read them end-to-end. Sometimes I read a book simply because I want to learn something new. Currently I’m exploring Rod Stephens’ Essential Algorithms (an outstanding book that I’ll review at some point).

Given the content of this blog, it shouldn’t surprise you to discover that I also read a number of gardening magazines such as Mother Earth News and Horticulture (again, there are others). I usually read books from publishers such as Storey. It wasn’t long ago that I completed reading Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens. Of course, I look for articles online as well.

What you may not know is that I also enjoy reading other sorts of books and magazines. For example, I’m currently engaged reading the Patrick O’Brian novels for the sheer pleasure they bring. Captain Aubrey is turning into a favorite character of mine. National Geographic and Smithsonian are both monthly magazines that I read. I keep up with what is happening in the Navy by reading Seapower. Rebecca and I also enjoy a number of crafts and we read some of the same crafting magazines.

As you can see, it’s quite an odd assortment of materials and I love it all. The vistas opened by the materials I read help me provide you with better material that is both more creative and easier to understand. You don’t have to have the best education in the world to succeed. All you really need is a strong desire to find the information you need when you need it. The more you read, the better you understand the world around you and the better prepared you are to take advantage of the vast array of reading resources at your disposal when you need them.

It’s important to know that the authors you read are also well read—that they make use of all of the available materials to write better books. Experiencing the world through the written word is an essential part of the learning process. Today we have all sorts of multimedia presentations vying for attention with the written word, but in many respects writing isn’t easily replaced because it brings the world to you in ways that other forms of media can’t. Of course, that’s a topic for another post. Let me know your thoughts on the importance of reading at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Getting the Most from Your Technical Reading Experience

There are many ways to work with books. However, in all cases, there is some work involved. No book, no matter how well researched and written, will simply spit out answers without any effort on the reader’s part. It’s true that the author can employ techniques to make the reading experience more pleasurable, productive, or efficient, but in the end, it’s the reader who decides just how much information a book conveys with regard to a specific need.

Of course, the first step is to ensure you get the right book. I’ve already discussed this issue in the Techniques for Choosing a Technical Book post. So, let’s assume that you have possession of a book that’s the best possible match to your needs. It may not be a perfect match, but it offers more than any other book you’ve checked.

Now you have to decide on how to interact with the book. That may seem simple, but many readers fail to discover what they need from a book, even when the book contains the required information in several places. Let’s face it, books are relatively large and it’s easy to lose track of a required bit of information. Without some guideline, the mind wanders and tends not to work very hard.

To obtain the most from a book you need a goal. The goal determines how you approach the book. Someone who is trying to learn a new skill will probably begin at the front of the book and work toward the end. Skipping chapters is akin to skipping classes in collegeyou can’t expect good results if you don’t obtain all of the information. As a contrast, someone who is trying to fix a specific problem under the watchful eye of a boss, probably doesn’t want to waste any more time than necessary finding the required information. This sort of reader will want to locate the section of the book containing the answer quickly. There are some readers though, who really don’t know what they want to dothey lack a goal and are thwarted when the author can’t guess what the reader wants. So, ask yourself why you’re reading the book and create a goal for that particular session. In some cases, you may very well want to wander through the book randomly looking for something interesting, but few people have the time or need to perform this sort of reading with a technical book.

Depending on your goal, you’ll want to determine where to start. Someone who is learning a skill will start in the Introductionnot in Chapter 1. If you don’t read the Introduction, you’ll discover that your educational experience is going to be less helpful. The Introduction is where the author conveys book goals, knowledge requirements, and required training aids. For example, you might not be able to use the educational version of the product you have to learn a new skill with this particular bookit may be necessary to get the released version of the product instead. Researchers and those who simply need the book for reference would do well to check both the Table of Contents and the Index. A book intended solely for reference may include tables in an appendix that provide additional ways to locate information, so you’ll want to find these tables as well.

You’ve likely heard all of the advice for creating a good study environment before, such as turning off the radio. A good study environment also requires focus on your part and the availability of the required equipment. Simply reading about how to perform a task isn’t nearly as good as actually performing the task. Reinforcing the information by putting it into your own words is helpful as well. Everyone learns differently, so it’s important that you take time to discover how you learn. Whatever it takes for you to create a good study environment, you won’t get much out of a book until you create it.

Everyone seems to be in a hurry today, but being in a hurry won’t help with technical information. Hurrying only creates errors. Take time to actually read and understand the materialread it several times if necessary. Work through the material before you act. Yes, I realize that the boss is ready to pound little knots all over your head, but he’s simply going to have to wait. A good solid answer that produces results often requires a little more time up front to create. The book probably has the information you need, but you have to take time to find it.

One of the most important things to remember is that the author isn’t clairvoyant. You won’t find a precise answer to any given question in any book. It’s possible to find an answer that’s close, but in most cases you’ll have to create a solution based on the information the book providesquick answers are rare.

I wish it were possible to create some form of instant mental transfer of precise data. Perhaps someday it will become the norm to do so, but I hope I’m not around. Part of the joy of technical reading is obtaining the author’s point of view and then creating your own permutations of that information. Working through problems creatively is a challengeone that I hope people working in technical areas continue to enjoy. If you have any pointers to getting more from a technical reading experience, let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.