I have read at least 30 books for each year I have been alive. And that’s just a conservative estimate.
Some people drink. Others party.
Reading is my escape from the world when things get tough. It also happens to be my most enjoyable pastime. This is something I have been doing since I was a young girl struggling to grasp the English language, and I do not see myself giving it up anytime soon.
And yet, despite constantly reading books for as long as I have been literate (which is as far back as I can remember), it’s only in the past two years that I have truly embraced nonfiction. Prior to that, 99.9 percent of all the books that I read were fiction.
So what changed?
Well, I have been a freelance writer since 2011. After four years of writing, I had an epiphany and realized that my career was stagnant — and it was probably because I was doing something wrong. I kept writing the same things repeatedly, and I felt unfulfilled. My writing skills were limited. I needed a change. So I set about reading books on writing.
I didn’t know what else to do, to be honest.
I was not the most amenable reader at first. After all, nonfiction had always been boring for me. I hated the way most of the books came across as instructional materials. It was akin to going back to school and having to study again — I didn’t like how it made me feel.
But the long struggle to find high-paying writing jobs changed my attitude. I did not want my career to remain static, so I decided to give nonfiction books another shot.
As luck would have it, one of the first books on writing that I stumbled upon was William Zinsser’s On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. I credit that book with changing my attitude toward reading nonfiction. I slowly learned to embrace these kinds of written works, and now they are frequently featured on my reading list.
As a writer, I wholeheartedly recommend reading nonfiction books on writing. Doing so will benefit your mind and career tremendously. Let me share how reading these kinds of books has helped me.
Deciding to read nonfiction books on writing is one of the best things that I have done for my career. I learned of career options that had never even crossed my mind.
For instance, Zinsser’s book taught me not to limit myself to one type of writing when a little bit of creativity would enable me to write on a wide variety of subjects. Prior to that, it had never occurred to me that travel writing and business writing were activities I could pursue.
Robert Bly’s 88 Money-Making Writing Jobs is another book that I benefited from reading. This book raised possibilities of writing avenues that I had never even heard of. Who knew you could get paid to write technical reports and telemarketing scripts? It sounds stupid, I know. But I really never understood how many options I had until I actually read about the types of writing work that’s available out there. Before that, I thought that I was forever destined to write simple content-mill articles that someone else would always take credit for.
Reading nonfiction has opened my mind and taught me about opportunities I had no idea existed. I will always be grateful to the writers who have chosen to share the knowledge they possess. They are doing a great service to people like me. I have used and adapted what I’ve learned to write high-end articles both as a ghostwriter and under my own name.
I had very little experience when I first started writing, and what has most helped me develop my skills is reading. By simply reading words in their right context, I have expanded my vocabulary.
Books on writing have also taught me how to approach different types of writing depending on my target audience and the kind of message I am aiming to give. Once again, I must credit the likes of Zinsser for teaching me about style and word usage, among other things.
Ebooks the Smart Way by Pat Flynn has also been very useful, teaching me how to write an ebook and publish it (now, it is just a matter of committing to writing one).
Reading books written by those with more experience has been a wonderful thing. It’s like having personalized training without leaving the comfort of my own home, and I can learn at my own pace, too.
I would choose one type of writing, such as press releases, and then write one or two pieces as a way of practicing that genre. This exercise helped me remember different formats. As a result, my writing skills have developed tremendously. I have become a very confident writer.
My improved writing skills show in the higher caliber of work I am now able to get and produce. I can proudly say that I have written high-end magazine articles, leadership articles on LinkedIn, newsletters, and well-researched blog posts that touch on multiple subjects, including real estate and entrepreneurship. While many of them are ghostwritten, I am so pleased with the work I have done and been paid for.
I started my freelance career as a content-mill worker. It was mentally grueling. I ended up burning out after staying with it for about four years. Then I took a break, started to read books by professional writers, and my life changed.
One of the first books on writing that I read was a 2013 Writer’s Market book. The sheer volume of markets available to writers was mind-boggling. The fact that there were clients who were ready to pay writers what I considered a decent amount of money was eye-opening.
English is my second language, but that has not deterred me from earning a living writing in it. Reading about how other writers have overcome challenges to get where they are and earn a decent income has been a very positive experience for me. Carol Tice’s 7 Ways to Get Editors’ Emails certainly helped things along. From this one short and simple ebook, I learned how to mine editors’ contact information.
I also remember coming across a collection of case studies on freelance writers that looked at how they had struggled and then made it. While the book’s name escapes me at the moment, the lessons learned have stayed with me to this day.
These books taught me to hope. Sometimes, when the going gets tough, clients are dragging their feet about payment, and I am getting criticized about my career choices, such hope is what keeps me going.
It’s important to keep reading about other people’s successes, and know that if I work hard, and do what they did, I will have a decent shot at being successful also. I dream of one day having a four-hour workweek like Tim Ferriss.
Reading nonfiction, which for me was once a chore, is now an enjoyable activity. Contrary to what people think, reading such books doesn’t need to be a drag. A good writer of nonfiction can definitely change your life, as Zinsser changed mine. You can always learn something new from those who have come before you.
As a writer, my career has grown in leaps and bounds as I have gained confidence in my writing abilities. This confidence stems from the knowledge I have garnered from reading about writing, the improvement of my writing skills, and the hope I have gained from reading about successful writers.
I wholeheartedly urge you to embrace reading nonfiction. If nothing else, you will gain a new perspective on relevant subject matter. And no, I have not abandoned fiction — I still endeavor to fit in at least two works of fiction a month.
Ellie Matama is a Kenyan-based freelance writer. When she’s not writing, she’s reading, watching cooking shows, and fantasizing about global travels. You can reach her via LinkedIn.