Learn more about writing with this collection
How to set achievable goals
How to manage time for personal and professional life
How to avoid distractions
A book is made of books. “The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading; a man will turn over half a library to make one book,” Samuel Johnson said. As Ryan Holiday was putting together the bibliography for Courage , he counted something like 300 books he was directly sourcing from.
The bulk of the work is researching — collecting stories, anecdotes, and data to marshal your argument. The writing is stringing those pieces together. Ryan has used stuff he has found in in-flight magazines, discovered snippets on social media, even heard things mentioned on TV. As Shelby Foote put it in an interview with The Paris Review : “I can’t begin to tell you the things I discovered while I was looking for something else.”
Ryan Holiday turned in a book proposal for his next book before the latest one came out. "When I have a commitment that I know I have to meet, resistance doesn’t have the time or space to creep in. Right now I am on a book year path for the next four years. It keeps me honest and keeps me working. Meet deadline, or death."
Success requires greater investment in the creative process. Pay for professional help that aids your creative process. There’s a saying: If you think pros are expensive, try hiring an amateur.
“To have something to say,” Schopenhauer said, “by itself is virtually a sufficient condition for good style.” Share your ideas instead of worrying about the outcome of expression.
Thucydides had Herodotus. Gibbon had Thucydides. Shelby Foote had Gibbon. Every playwright since Shakespeare has had Shakespeare. Everyone has a master to learn from. Be it Elon Musk or Adam Grant, let someone inspire and teach you.
You don’t “find the book as you write.” You have to do the hard work of solving the problem first. You have to figure out the best route, too. Before you start to write, articulate the idea in one sentence, one paragraph and one page. Nassim Taleb wrote in Antifragile that every sentence in the book was a “derivation, an application or an interpretation of the short maxim” he opened with.
A Confederacy of Dunces was rejected by publishers. After the author’s suicide, it won the Pulitzer prize. People don’t know shit. YOU know. So love it while you’re doing it. Success can only be extra. You can't control everything. What you can, however, is your work. Focus on that.
Ryan Holiday has found that picking one song—usually something he is not proud to listen to—and listening to it on repeat, over and over and over again is the best way to get into a rhythm and flow. It not only shuts out outside noise but also parts of the conscious mind you don’t need to hear from while you are writing.
Great artists work. Mediocre artists talk a lot about tools. Software does not make you a better writer. If classics were created with quill and ink, you’ll probably be fine with a Word Document. Don't let technology distract you from your goal — to write. Helen Simpson has “Faire et se taire” from Flaubert on a Post-it near her desk, which she translates as “Shut up and get on with it.”
Many a times, Ryan has thought of a great line or solved an intractable writing problem while running or swimming. Exercise is also an easy win every day. Writing can go poorly, but going on a run always goes well.
James Altucher has a great rule that you can steal: Write what you’re afraid to say. If your stuff isn’t scaring you, you’re not pushing yourself enough. Writing things down also creates a channel for you to express yourself.
Don’t talk about projects until you’re finished. Save that carrot for the end. Talking and doing fight for the same resources. Staying mum about your progress until you reach a milestone also prevents embarrassment if you unexpectedly quit.
Hemingway advised fellow writer Thomas Wolfe “to break off work when you ‘are going good.’—Then you can rest easily and on the next day easily resume.” Brian Koppelman has referred to this as stopping on “wet edge.” It staves off the despair the next day and brings a fresh perspective to your writing.
Ryan Holiday's editor Niki Papadopoulos once told him, “It’s not what a book is. It’s what a book does .” This is why musicians follow the “car test” (how does the song sound in a car driving down the highway). It’s just about whether you like it…but about what it does for the people buying it.
This was David Ogilvy's rule: “Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.” The other one is: “Never use two words where one will do.” Write like you talk.
When you get stuck, talk the ideas through with someone you trust. As Seth Godin observed, “no one ever gets talker’s block.” Sharing ideas with others also helps us refine them.
When Thomas Mann described a writer as “someone to whom writing does not come easy,” he was putting it lightly. Walker Percy said “that writing is like suffering from a terrible disease for a certain period of time. Then when you finish you get well again.” Challenges help you improve and grow. Embrace them.
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