I set way too many goals this year (as I often do — when will I learn?). One of them was to read 52 books — a book a week, on average, seemed like a totally manageable feat.
Another goal was — and still is — to write a whole bunch of words in a span of 365 days at a continuous pace that is probably not achievable for most humans (uh … myself included).
Some days I’m really good at balancing these two very time-consuming tasks. I’ll read my 25 pages in one sitting (dog willing) and I still have time left over to squeeze in about 3,000 words, which is what I typically need to write in order to stay slightly ahead of my overall word count goal.
But as you likely already know, life doesn’t always run on a predictable schedule. You can plan to sit down and read for an hour at 8 p.m. like you usually do, only to realize your dog has made the executive decision to not go to bed at her normal time and instead wants to play with every toy you have ever purchased for her simultaneously with no signs whatsoever of slowing down (!!!!).
It’s no secret that both reading and writing consistently — not necessarily every day, just regularly from week to week — are essential elements in a developing writer’s routine. Reading inspires creativity and showcases different types and skill levels of storytelling (some teach you how to craft a story, and some show you how NOT to). And writing is how various skills are developed.
You can even read books specifically about writing, though you can’t just read about Stephen King’s advice and instantly produce a bestselling novel — you have to, you know … close the book and actually write things.
But when it comes to those moments you have to choose between reading a book of any type or genre and actively engaging in writing practice in its various forms … is one more important than the other?
The answer, it turns out, is really up to you personally. (I know that’s not the answer you want to hear, but I’m here to tell you what you need to hear, so get over it.) Some writers to prefer to spend most of their time keeping up with the latest books and revisiting old favorites. Others would rather spend more of their time actually writing and less of it staring at other people’s pages.
If you’re looking this from the angle of “how long will it take me to do each thing and is one of them less time consuming,” you’d probably want to pick up someone else’s book instead of, theoretically, writing your own.
Depending on the book, it usually doesn’t take nearly as long to read five pages as it does to write five pages. The reason writing takes so long is that not all writing time is spent actively typing or scribbling words. I’d love to take the time (ah, time!) to keep track of how I’m actually spending my writing sessions for one week and make a pretty chart. I think it’s safe to guess I spend about 10 minutes of every hour distracted by Twitter and as much of that time, if not more, sitting with my hands on my keyboard completely lost in thought.
But it’s quite possible that for some people, writing, despite its major time commitment, is in its own way more rewarding than reading a book. Some people get more of an adrenaline rush when they create their own things because it’s an active form of storytelling. Reading, on the other hand, is a more passive way to absorb and learn from a story.
This is why both activities are so important — well, one of many reasons. You need to keep your creativity active by sitting down to write, but you occasionally also need a break, at which point you can very easily pick up a book and escape to a different world.
The issue — if you even want to call it an issue — is that there really isn’t a set and/or proven strategy that’s most efficient for every writer. There isn’t a specific formula you can adapt to your own life — you can’t just read X hours per day and write X words and BOOM you’re guaranteed to be more successful somehow.
What I’ve learned, especially throughout this roller coaster of a year (it’s only July as I’m writing this … yikes!), is that you often have to choose your activity based on how you’re feeling and your level of motivation. Yes, sometimes you have to force yourself to write and even gently coax yourself back into a book you put down a few months ago (I’m talking to you Crazy Rich Asians).
But often times you might plan to sit down to read a book when you’re suddenly overwhelmed with the urge to write, and many of us know that when those ideas come calling, and you’re fully open and available to receive them, you’d better not let the opportunity pass you by. You never know how long those ideas will continue to sparkle!
If you’re worried about figuring out how to make time for both reading and writing in your life, as I am, it might take some experimenting to figure out how to make both equal priorities in your schedule. Maybe you’re most motivated to read in the first few hours of the day, and much more inclined to work on your own book when the sun starts going down. You can try reading in the morning and writing at night, and switch it up from time to time if that routine gets boring.
Or maybe that won’t work. You’ll just have to try something else. Writing on your lunch break? Reading for 30 minutes as soon as you get home? Listening to an audiobook during your commute? This is one of those things that can work if you’re willing to make it work. Words will find a way, if you truly care about their existence.
Happy writing (and reading), dear creatives. I hope you do the best you can to find some sort of balance in your life to satisfy your hungry mind. Whatever that might look like for you, I hope it’s worth it.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.