Grind & Gristle

The most important rule about reading

How many times have you daydreamed your way through a book?

Dear Dr. Adler,

To tell you the truth, I find the so-called great books very difficult to read. I am willing to take your word for it that they are great. But how am I to appreciate the greatness in them if they are too hard for me to read? Can you give me some helpful hints on how to read a hard book?


Dear I.C.,

The most important rule about reading is one I have told my great books seminars again and again: In reading a difficult book for the first time, read the book through without stopping. Pay attention to what you can understand, and don’t be stopped by what you can’t immediately grasp. Keep on this way. Read the book through undeterred by the paragraphs, footnotes, arguments, and references that escape you. If you stop at any of these stumbling blocks, if you let yourself get stalled, you are lost. In most cases you won’t be able to puzzle the thing out by sticking to it. You have a much better chance of understanding it on a second reading, but that requires you to read the book through for the first time.

This is the most practical method I know to break the crust of a book, to get the feel and general sense of it, and to come to terms with its structure as quickly and as easily as possible. The longer you delay in getting some sense of the over-all plan of a book, the longer you are in understanding it. You simply must have some grasp of the whole before you can see the parts in their true perspective – or often in any perspective at all.

Shakespeare was spoiled for generations of high-school students who were forced to go through Julius Caesar, Hamlet, or Macbeth scene by scene, to look up all the words that were new to them, and to study all the scholarly footnotes. As a result, they never actually read the play. Instead, they were dragged through it, bit by bit, over a period of many weeks. By the time they got to the end of the play, they had surely forgotten the beginning. They should have been encouraged to read the play in one sitting. Only then would they have understood enough of it to make it possible for them to understand more.

What you understand by reading a book through to the end – even if it is only fifty per cent or less – will help you later in making the additional effort to go back to places you passed by on your first reading. Actually you will be proceeding like any traveler in unknown parts. Having been over the terrain once, you will be able to explore it again from vantage points you could not have known about before. You will be less likely to mistake the side roads for the main highway. You won’t be deceived by the shadows at high noon, because you will remember how they looked at sunset. And the mental map you have fashioned will show better how the valleys and mountains are all part of one landscape.

There is nothing magical about a first quick reading. It cannot work wonders and should certainly never be thought of as a substitute for the careful reading that a good book deserves. But a first quick reading makes the careful study much easier.

This practice helps you to keep alert in going at a book. How many times have you daydreamed your way through pages and pages only to wake up with no idea of the ground you have been over? That can’t help happening if you let yourself drift passively through a book. No one ever understands much that way. You must have a way of getting a general thread to hold onto.

A good reader is active in his efforts to understand. Any book is a problem, a puzzle. The reader’s attitude is that of a detective looking for clues to its basic ideas and alert for anything that will make them clearer. The rule about a first quick reading helps to sustain this attitude. If you follow it, you will be surprised how much time you will save, how much more you will grasp, and how much easier it will be.

The one power you always have over your habits

It may be about time I read The Power Of Habit. It’s recommended all over the place, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. Not one bookstore I’ve been into in the last three months hasn’t had it on prominent display.

Still, I think the main reason is that I already know how powerful habits are. I’m always in the process of establishing one or two, and the list of habits I want to try is endless.

So rather than read about how popular they’ve become, why not a few read older books and realize, in awe, that the power of habit is old news. As in more than 2,000 years old.

Dear old Aristotle calls habit our “second nature.” So what’s our “first” nature? It’s all neatly explained in the short letter I’ve included below (in bold and underlined at the end if you want to skip to it).

Dear Dr. Adler,

We hear so much about the power of habit in human life. William James says it is “the flywheel of society,” and Aristotle calls it “second nature.” But what is this powerful influence called “habit”? And why is it so important in our lives?


Dear B.H.

Let me begin by explaining Aristotle’s famous statement that habit is second nature. Habits are additions to the nature with which we are born. We are born with the power or ability to act in certain ways and also with certain innate patterns of action, which are called instinct or reflexes. Our innate tendencies to action can be developed and formed by what we actually do in the course of living. Such developments or formations are habits.

For example, we have an innate capacity for a great many different kinds of action in which skill can be acquired by practice. We learn to talk grammatically; we learn to think logically; we learn to cook or drive a car; we learn to ice skate or play tennis. In each case the learning results in an acquired skill which is a habit. In each case the habit actually gives us an ability which was only potential in us at birth.

That is why Aristotle calls habit second nature. Our original nature consists of capacities which can be developed or perfected by learning or experience. The development or perfection of those capacities supplements our original nature and thus constitutes a “second” – an added or acquired – nature.

Our need to form habits arises from the fact that, unlike the lower animals, we are not born with instinctive patterns of behavior adequate for the conduct of life. What certain animals do instinctively, we have have to learn to do. Instincts are, in a sense, innate or natural habits, just as human habits are acquired or second nature.

Our original nature – our innate equipment – is fixed for life, though it is subject to modifications of all sorts. The habits we form, which modify our original nature, also have a certain stability, though they, too, are subject to alteration. We can strengthen our habits, weaken them, or break them entirely and supplant them by others. Like our original nature, our second nature – our repertoire of habits – gives each of us the particular character he has at a given stage of life. If you know a man’s habits, you can predict with some assurance what he is likely to do.

So far we have been talking about the individual. Common habits of thought and action in a community, the “ways” of a people, are usually called customs. Customs keep things on an even keel in a society. It enables the common life to go on harmoniously. It smooths the way for interchange between individuals and holds them together. We never feel at home in a new place until we’ve become accustomed to its customs and make them our own.

That is what William James means in calling habit “the enormous flywheel of society, its most precious conservative agent.” (A flywheel by its inertia keeps the engine going at a uniform speed and compensates for torque.)

James applies this insight to social status as well as to personal habits. He says that our occupational mannerisms become so set by the time we are thirty that most of us become perfectly satisfied with our place in life and our function in the social machine. James also insists that our personal tastes, and our habits of speech, thought, and social behavior, are relatively fixed by the time we are twenty, so that we are kept in our social orbit by a law as strong as gravitation.

However, it is important to remember that it is never impossible to shake off an old habit and form a new one. Once a habit has been acquired, it has almost compulsive power over us. But human habits are feely acquired by the choices we make, and can be got rid of and replace by making other choices. No habit, no matter how strong, ever abolishes our freedom to change it. This is the lesson of Shaw’s Pymalion (or My Fair Lady), a delightful dramatization of the power to change habits. Liza Doolittle can and does learn to speak like a lady.

Screwtape’s letter to a copywriter

In The Screwtape Letters two fallen angels correspond about their daily work corrupting human souls. I read the first letter this morning, and I feel it was written to me.

If you are studying direct-response copywriting, as I am, I encourage you to read this two-page letter from Screwtape to Wormwood. Doesn’t these devils’ work sound an awful lot like ours?

How to write it right the first time

As much as we’d like to think so, we’re hardly coherent in our first attempts to articulate an idea or tell a story. Yet just imagine how nice it would be to speak and write fluently, clearly, and beautifully any time we tried. It’s in this that I would like to excel. Wouldn’t you?

…freewriting also brings a surface coherence to your writing and it does so immediately. You cannot write really incoherently if you write quickly. You may violate the rules of correctness, you may make mistakes in reasoning, you may write foolishness, you may change directions before you have said anything significant. That is, you may produce something like “Me and her we went down and saw the folks but wait that reminds me of the thing I was thinking about yester oh dam what am I really trying to say.” But you won’t produce syntactic chaos: language that is so jumbled that when you read it over you are frightened there is something the matter with you.
However, you wouldn’t be frightened if you looked more closely at how you actually produced that verbal soup. If you had movies of yourself you would see yourself starting four or five times and throwing each start away and thereby getting more and more jumbled in your mind; finally starting; stopping part way through the sentence to wonder if you are on the wrong track and thereby losing your syntactic thread. You would see yourself start writing again on a slightly different piece of syntax from the one you started with, then notice something really wrong and fix it and lose the thread again; so when you finally conclude your sentence, you are actually writing the conclusion of a different sentence from the ones you had been writing. Thus, the resulting sentence— whether incorrect or just impossibly awkward—is really fragments of three different syntactic impulses or sentences-in-the-head tied together with baling wire.

– Peter Elbow, Writing With Power

The wrong time to daydream

There was moment this morning, while I was copying out a book by hand, in which I suddenly felt completely mindless. I noticed I was daydreaming, and I suddenly became aware of the fact that I was just ‘going through the motions’, and not actually learning. It frightened me. The whole point of copying, of course, is to deliberately become a more skilled writer.  Yet even though deliberate practice is meant to be difficult, I’ve come to find this daily hour relaxing. Realizing that I was hardly even thinking scared me. If I’m not actively thinking and learning, what the heck am I getting out of this hour I spend every morning?

The takeaway question: Are there any activities in your life that have become mindless? Is there anything in which you’ve begun ‘going through the motions’ without realizing it?

Hard-to-find insights in long-form journalism

What if you only used books to solve very urgent practical problems, and otherwise you didn’t read? How would you read those books? Would you try to read them from cover to cover? Or would you skim the books for the information and insights that offer solutions? Wouldn’t you be more selective?

Do you feel bad for not reading the whole dictionary? If you’re like me, you crack it open with a very specific problem in mind: “What does this word mean?” You’re not looking for anything besides a particular definition, and you’re not easily distracted by all the other information on the page. You find your answer and get back to whatever you were doing.

Ideally this is how we -or rather, I – would use Google, but that’s not often the case. Links lead to links lead to more links, and by the time you remember what you were doing in the first place, you’ve lost a lot of time. Oftentimes it’s easier to click-through than it is to decide whether links are worth clicking at all. I wonder, can you go a whole day without falling for a hyperlink?

The dictionary is designed for easy referencing, as are books like How To Read A Book and How To Win Friends and Influence People. The authors have taken care to organize their ideas and label them in ways that help the reader find what’s needed. But what about insightful books that are written as long-form journalism? Influence and Malcolm Gladwell’s works come to mind. There are gems of insight in these, but you have to weed through the excess of storytelling to find them.  Since the authors haven’t provided or highlighted their books’ structures, you have to do it yourself.

How do you mark these books to make them easier to reference?

Do you forget to write what you mean?

When you drive, your main objective is to get from A to B. But when you’re a beginner, you fret the details. There are so many little things to remember… mirrors, gears, gas, and breaks, not to mention the other cars driving around. You’re nervous before you even turn the key. You tentatively back into the road, jerking your breaks when a car passes close by. Then you slow down too much before the intersection, even though there’s no stop sign. When you hit traffic, you’re overwhelmed. You forget your main objective, which is still just to get to B.

Before you get comfortable with all the little actions that make up a short drive, you’ll sweat every single one of them. You might even lose sight of your ultimate destination because you’re so anxious about the intervening steps. You’ll forget, when it comes down to it, that all you need to do is get from A to B without bumping into anything.

The same goes for writing. You’ve got your great idea, i.e. your destination. But you sit down to write and suddenly you’re overwhelmed by the complexity of the situation. “In order to get my point across, I’ve got to write words, then sentences, then paragraphs! I’ve got to use logic, rhetoric, and grammar, too!” If you haven’t been writing much, you’ll sweat. And if, like most, you begin your work at the top of a blank page, the situation can be really terrifying.

Before you begin, make sure you know where you want to go. What are you trying to say? What’s your destination? Keep this in mind as you go along. Take the most direct route, and try not to bump into anything. You’ll be fine.

Are sentences keeping you from writing?

One of the primary functions of imitation is its problem solving capacity. It makes use of experience – one’s own and that of others – to find solutions. Applied to writing, imitation means that we do not need to invent a new form every time we want to express an idea. Trial-and-error writing depends too much on reinventing the wheel. Much more efficient is to ask: How has this this problem been solved before? – Dana Gorrell

Picture this:

You’re taking a long, hot shower. All of a sudden you have an epiphany. A big idea has just surfaced out of the depths of your subconscious, and you want to write about it. You come up with a title for your piece on the spot and hurry to write it down before it slips your memory. You’re excited, and you’ve got high hopes for how this idea will pan out. All you need to do now is sit down and flesh it out on paper. Easy, right? Not really.

A few days after your epiphany you sit down with the intention to write. You start to struggle. You sit there staring down the page, fingers ready, brows furrowed. You write one sentence at a time, fretting for five minutes before you write the next. Maybe you string together half a sentence, but then… oh no, you lost it. There was no good way to finish it, so you delete it. Back to square one. You’re certain you have a great idea, but it’s simply impossible to spit it out. You’re stumbling over the words, so you continue to sit there scratching your head… thinking, but not writing.

We all have great ideas mulling about in our heads, but when it comes time to articulate those ideas – to speak or put them on paper – we struggle. Why? Why is it so much more difficult to actually write down our ideas than it is to think about them?

In my experience, it’s because I’m not comfortable writing sentences. I don’t think in sentences, let alone paragraphs. My mind flits from idea to idea, giving me the impression I’m thinking, yet when I sit down to write I realize there are no sentences. There’s no shape or form to the thoughts I have throughout the day. The struggle of writing is in giving shape to those thoughts: sorting them, arranging them, finding the words with which to say them. It’s hard to shove your ideas through the filter of syntax, and it’s even harder if you’ve trying to do it all yourself. Where can we look for help?

How about our favorite authors? Instead of deferring to our old teachers’ rules for proper writing, how would our favorite writers solve the problem? How would they express your idea? Hunt for sentences and passages that express ideas like yours. What makes them effective, beautiful, or compelling? Analyze their form. What structures do they use to express themselves? How many clauses do they use? What pronouns? Substitute your words in for theirs. This is the approach I’ve been taking recently, and it’s gotten me through the initial phase of writing – getting thoughts on paper – better than anything I’ve tried before. There’s an entire method of teaching composition through studying and imitating the masters, and I plan to write more about it. For now I’ll leave you with an analogy.

Do you know how classical musicians learn their craft? They don’t improvise in the beginning. Rather, they train themselves by imitating the masters who preceded them. They spend years studying and practicing pieces by classic composers until they know them by heart. Only then, if at all, do they make their own music. Likewise, renaissance painters developed their skills by apprenticing under and imitating the masters before them. Why not do the same with writing?   

What I learned rereading my first college essay

In the heat of finishing an essay you think to yourself…

What if really had nothing to say? What if none of my arguments are true? What will I have left?

Just imagining the effort required to revise your work can be exhausting. So much so that you skip it altogether.

Revising is tedious, but it doesn’t have to be as tedious as you’re making it.

The anxiety you feel before turning in your work can make your eyes glaze over. You try to reread your paper but you’re too worried to actually see any of its problems. You overlook misplaced punctuation. You can’t tell whether your conclusion really sums up what you were trying to say.

All that is what happens when I write, anyway, both now and in my last four years of college. I even struggled in high school.

I dreaded rewriting so much that I avoided it at all costs. I procrastinated so that I wouldn’t have the time.

As a result I never saw the problems right in front of me, in every paper.

I’ve decided to revise a few of my term-papers from college. They’re not pretty.

They’re impossible to understand. The arguments don’t hold, their evidence is has no weight. They’re arranged haphazardly because I was determined to come up with a new structure every single time. The effect is that my main questions and points are buried when they’re there at all.

Reading and revising your work – whether it be an essay, proposal, blog post, etc. – will be extremely nerve-racking without a strategy.

There are so many potential ways to go about it. Do you correct for punctuation? Change passive constructions to active? Should you attack your main idea head on, focusing on the arguments and nothing else? Where do you begin?

To avoid the pain of diving in and fixing all the problems that make your writing a chore to read, you decide to put it off or not revise at all. That’s what I always did.

If you don’t revise now the pain will find you when you’re least expecting it.

If you’ve submitted an essay without revising, you’ll be docked points for simple problems that you could’ve easily fixed. If you’ve submitted an unrevised proposal, good luck being granted what you were asking for. I hope it receives more than raised eyebrows from its readers.

The real pain comes from realizing you could be far better right now if you had been a tiny bit less lazy the last time you wrote.

Luckily you can avoid the pain by taking an extra hour, today, to read and correct what you’ve written.

I don’t want you to find yourself in a situation like I describe above. So here’s a strategy for rereading and evaluating your essay that will help you find what you’re really trying to say. After all, having a point, an idea, or a question is the whole reason you’re writing in the first place. Isn’t it?

Note: Don’t use this method if you think you’re already a hotshot writer.

It will tear down your delusions in a heartbeat. It’s brutal. I didn’t expect it when I first started this project, but this approach has been hugely motivating. It has shown me where I stand and how to improve.

This technique is not designed to reduce the hard work involved in editing and rewriting. It is only meant to provide you with a more effective way of doing it.

I’ve tried two distinct ways of approaching the revising process. The first is and always was far more tormenting and no where near as effective. I’ll describe it anyway so you know what to avoid.

Approach #1: Begin at the beginning.

You read your essay as you would read anything else. From the first paragraph onward. You first read the evidence for your conclusion, then the conclusion itself.

You ask as you read: “Given these facts and ideas, does my conclusion really follow?”

Here’s the catch. You don’t know the main point until the very end. Revising this way you risk finding that your very first ideas are wrong, and that you have written your entire essay on shaky ground. It hurts to think about.

Let’s say you’re revising a ten-pager. On the first page you find a mistake – an overly bold or unwarranted assertion. Now you have nine pages left totally ungrounded.


You’ve undermined your entire essay on the first page. What can you possibly do now? Actually, I don’t know, which is why I recommend this second way.

Approach #2: Begin at the end.

Don’t revise your essay in the same direction you wrote it.

If you started writing from your introduction and worked straight to the end, read it from the conclusion backwards. Start from the end – the very last paragraph – and work your way to the introduction.

Begin with your final conclusion – the very last sentences of your piece. Say to yourself, “Ok, if this is where I ended, how did I get here? Is this a logical conclusion, based on good evidence?”

You then look backwards for the nearest supporting idea. If you find none you toss out your conclusion. Luckily, with this approach, you still have the nine beginning pages of your essay to work with. There’s a lot less at stake, so you can relax.

Notate your essay like this for an even more effective revision.

Beginning in the last paragraph, note each major point or question starting with 1.a, then 1.b, 1.c, etc.

Evernote Snapshot 20140911 184749

I didn’t use letters the first time, as you can see. I don’t recommend this because you’ll get mixed up if you have more than one big idea in your paper.

The purpose of this is to trace a single idea backwards through the essay, and to find its source as near as possible to the introduction. It works surprisingly well.

At each point on your way back through the paper you can summarize your argument. “I thought Z because of Y. I thought Y because of X, and so on.” At each point ask yourself “Why?” Why is this important? Why is this true? Then you look for the answers as you march on.

By asking “Why?” you heighten your sensitivity for evidence. You become more demanding of your ideas. You want to know whether what you’ve said is actually true.

Finally, after making your way through your essay using this process, and having found the question or point that inspired your paper, turn around and make your way forward. Gather the points you marked into an outline.

From there try to rephrase those points as questions. An easy way to do that is to read each point and ask “So what?” or “Who cares?” By asking this you make sure that each point is a meaningful one, one that will make the whole essay more interesting than if it were left out. When I did this, the resulting list of questions revealed to me what I had been meaning to write all along.

Evernote Snapshot 20140911 184517

This is the most clearly stated the parts of my freshman essay have ever been.

You’ll see that you do have something interesting in mind, even if that idea needs fewer pages to explain.

Try this, and when you’re done see whether or not you have a stronger and more compelling vision of your own ideas.

P.S. If you use this, or if you have an idea about the above method, let me know in the comments below!