How Many Books Should You Be Reading a Year?

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In America’s culture of “more is probably better”, it’s no surprise that people tend to flaunt their consumed titles like badges of honor that offer implied evidence of competence, just like prestigious awards, titles or hours worked. In this context, if you really do want to know how you stack up, Pew Research says that Americans read an average of 12 books per year. The median is four books per year. But is there really a number of books you “should” or need to read to succeed?

For my part, I do believe that, no matter what you might do for a living, reading has the power to introduce you to all kinds of information and ways of thinking. And in that sense, the concept that lifelong learning through literature, articles or other documents improves with quantity makes sense. After all, you can’t learn something if you never expose yourself to it.

But the fallacy in this way of thinking is that it assumes that a person actually will apply what they have learned through the books. This is not necessarily true. Some people read and understand an enormous amount, yet they don’t act or make new decisions based on what they’ve acquired. In these situations, they arguably aren’t much better off than if they hadn’t read the texts at all, because the reading doesn’t yield change or growth. I much rather would read just a handful of carefully selected books that prove to be largely influential in what I do than spend weeks or months with what doesn’t inspire or direct me.

Additionally, it’s simply not true that everyone has the same amount of time or resources that allow them to read. Many people work multiple jobs to make ends meet, for instance, and don’t have as many free hours. Even if they do have a little time, those minutes might go to connecting with family instead, or they might be so tired that it’s hard to really mentally process what’s on the page. Other individuals might have time but lack the  quick, reliable access to as many physical or digital books, such as if they are in a rural or underprivileged community. So it’s unfair to compare reading levels when some people are in circumstances that naturally make reading more of a challenge.

Lastly, we’ve probably all been in the situation where a book isn’t quite as engaging as we’d hoped, or where it doesn’t give us the answers we’d anticipated. Continuing with these texts arguably is a bad idea, because it takes time from books that would engage and inform as you need them to. Strategically choosing to stop and move on to something better can be quite rational. Yet, there is a problem in that we don’t acknowledge time spent reading books we eventually drop, which skews the perception of how much we’re reading in total.

There’s a similar problem in book lengths. Although it’s true that most genres have a “typical” word count, the range for content is enormous. For example, most publishers consider novel length to be between 50,000 and 110,000 words, but the English Penguin Classics translation of Les Miserables, which is one of my favorite texts, weighs in with a whopping 364,000. So that book is like reading three, yet you only get one title to brag about on your “finished” list.

So when push comes to shove, the basic rule of thumb is just to read as much as you can given your situation at rate that allows you to make use of what you learn. There’s little value in tracking how much you read by title and comparing yourself.


Should Writers Use Writing Prompts?

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In my daily Twitter scrolling a few days ago, I happened upon a May 11 post by essayist Paul Crenshaw (@PaulCrenstorm). In the post, Crenshaw asked,

“Am I the only writer who not only thinks writing prompts are not good, but that they’re actually harmful?”

After looking through the comments, it was clear to me that plenty of writers share Crenshaw’s view and have some legitimate concerns. For instance, writing prompts can create the following big problems:

  • Distraction from other writing projects that might be more important or have upcoming deadlines
  • Limiting the creative flow of the writer to a particular path or type of voice, preventing them from finding their own freedom of expression and style
  • Solidification of the bias that the writer is “amateur” or not a “real” writer because they “cannot” come up with their own ideas
  • Potential loss of quality because the writer is creating based on demand under a feeling of obligation, not because they truly are interested in or moved by a concept

But just as many writers shot back about the positives associated with writing prompts:

  • Getting the writer to consider other options for writing that might be outside their niche or comfort zone, thereby helping them be more creative overall
  • When well defined, can help writers avoid being daunted by the broadness of “write about anything” so that they actually focus, write and grow more confident
  • Can reveal subconscious connections or concepts the writer didn’t realize were lurking
  • Can allow the writer to take a mental break from larger project for a change of pace without abandoning the writing process or practice entirely

My view is that writers are highly individual. They need different tools, freedoms and constraints to be consistent, get into a state of creative flow and get better at their craft. Classifying the use of prompts as “good” or “bad” ignores the diversity within the writing community and distracts away from the most important issue–whether the writer is producing a final result that is authentic, fresh and of high quality. If a writer is getting to that point, then reader likely isn’t going to care where the idea came from, instead being more concerned with elements like feelings of empathy, realism or effective pacing.

That said, some prompts are a ton better than others. Good prompts have clear directions (e.g., specific steps, rhetorical mode, etc.) that you can’t misinterpret. They also have clear constraints–it’s how you navigate around those and get creative within limitations that helps you think more imaginatively. Be selective, and don’t settle for the first thing you find in your first five seconds of a Google search.

So if you use writing prompts, you’re right. And if you don’t, you’re right, too. Do what works for you and just write as much as you can, because regardless of where your inspiration comes from, it’s practice that moves a writer from meh to memorable.


Why You Need to Start a Creativity Journal (and How to Do It)

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Traditional journaling is a fantastic way to clear your head, get rid of stress and center yourself to stay productive. But if you really plan to make it to the top, you also should keep a separate creativity journal.

What is a creativity journal (and why should I start one)?

A creativity journal simply a journal intended specifically to keep track of and work through concepts. It’s designed to let you consider as many possibilities as you can in an organized, objective way. So while you might come up with some great products or other sellable results as you explore options, the real benefit of using a creativity journal is simply training yourself to look at problems or ideas under many lenses, and learning how to avoid automatically dismissing potential paths because of conscious or subconscious biases.

How do I put a creativity journal together?

There’s no real right or wrong when it comes to creativity journals–after all, you’re supposed to get creative! You can use a Google Doc, traditional journal or even a 3-ring binder or expandable file folder.

Some people truly love the convenience of a digital creativity journal, especially if they can use it in conjunction with other applications. But other people prefer the look and feel of a physical, hard copy option. Still other people use a mix, creating on paper and then uploading images or using digital journals designed to mimic the paper experience.

The most important thing is that the tool you choose to use is

  • easy to access at any time,
  • able to provide the level of security or shareability you want, and
  • intuitive and feels comfortable for you to use repeatedly for the long-haul.

What are the styles of journal available?

Creativity journals can mesh a huge range of activities and styles. For example, you can use your journal for general brainstorming, drawing, jotting down items you’d like to remember for later (including dreams), answering prompts, mind mapping, pulling together inspiring quotes or stories, and even scrapbooking. You might also want to consider an area of the journal for positive and relaxing activities that can get your mental juices flowing, such as coloring pages or puzzles you like.

When you’re thinking about which style(s) to use, consider the ways of communicating that feel especially easy to you. If you’re a very visual person, for example, it might be more useful for you to have an unlined journal that allows for sketching, color coding or other graphics. Be honest with yourself about how much you need on the page to remember your concepts, too. If you know you’ll forget details if you don’t bullet them all out, for example, give yourself the room to do it. At the same time, exploring different styles might improve your ability to think about or communicate your concepts in many different ways to others, which can be incredibly useful when you need to pitch to different audiences. Have fun challenging yourself a little, even as you acknowledge your natural modes of self-expression.

What should I consider when using my creativity journal?

Useful questions to ask yourself when working in a creativity journal include:

  • What would happen if I…?
  • What resources would I need to…?
  • What does this make me remember or think of?
  • How many ways could I…?
  • What do I feel when…?
  • What emotion am I wanting to convey?
  • What senses am I using to…?
  • What are the most important keys to keep in mind?
  • What details would others need to know to make sense of this?

When should I use my creativity journal?

Creativity journals really are anytime affairs, so long as you respect your own limits and are considerate to others. Pull them out any time something interesting pops into your head you’d like to explore, when you need inspiration, or after a long day of traditional work for a change of pace.

You can schedule a time to work in your creativity journal if you like. Some people enjoy this because then they know they’ll have some consistent down time where they can let their mind wander authentically without sacrificing other tasks. But because you never know when a good idea will come, taking a “whenever” approach can work well, too. The most important thing is not to pressure yourself, because worrying about production or quantity can create anxiety that actually cuts your creativity down. If you set aside 30 minutes to journal and nothing really comes during your session, that’s OK. You’ll probably have better luck next time. And by the same token, if you jot a ton down unexpectedly in 5 minutes and feel like you don’t need more time in the journal for that day, that’s OK, too. Quality always matters more than achieving a quantity or time quota.

If you are dealing with something particularly heavy, those issues can distract your brain and keep you from relaxing into a good state of creative flow. So if you find yourself “blocked”, don’t think you’re not creative enough to do a creativity journal well. Focus on sorting out those worrysome issues first, and then return to the journal.

Deciding on content

You can put anything you want in your creativity journal. The only rule is that you don’t limit the content by demanding immediate relevancy or follow through. Certain ideas might not be doable right now, for example, because we lack specific technologies. But that doesn’t mean the ideas are bad. See the journal as a depository for things you could solve or do, not that you have to do. You’ll likely come up with dozens more concepts than you could finish in a lifetime, so just hone in on projects that interest you the most, or that could have the biggest influence. Even if you don’t have time to explore the rest, someone else might later. And if you start working on something and later decide it’s not worth your time, don’t be afraid to let go and pivot to something new.