Your value as a writer is determined by your output, but your input sets the stage for your work. Just like that guy who died drinking nothing but Coke, writers who read, watch, or follow only one thing doom themselves to a sugary, carbonated death.
By input I mean intake, including reading, watching, and listening. By output I mean any kind of creative product, whether it’s a press release or poem. What you take in will affect what you put out. It’s the garbage-in-garbage-out principal, or the reason why each minute you spend scanning slideshows of busted bikini bodies on DailyMail, you lose an IQ point.
Intuitively I’ve always known that creative success has a direct relationship with your intake. For example, as an undergrad studying philosophy I was reading Kant and Hegel and Kierkegaard, all kings of thought but barbarians of language. Even though I learned to use polysyllabic words like teleology and phenomenology, my prose was a fucking mess of comma splices and parentheticals.
Exhausted by slicing through these dense academic thickets, I fell into a post-postmodern literary wormhole with iconoclasts like Borges and Pynchon and Wallace and Calvino. I learned to play with language and style and though my writing improved it was still uneven and unpredictable. On a variety of freelance projects, I was told to “dumb it down.” I took it as a compliment, but mostly because I didn’t want to admit I still had things to learn.
After a couple more years I started grad school and needed smarten things up again. And I did pretty damn well at it, with papers published, presentations presented, and speeches spoken. But too quickly grad school ended and it was back to the real world.
Then when I started my communications career as a copywriter, I quickly realized the shit I needed to get together. I’d spent a decade across disciplines, working in various writerly styles, but never paid attention to the full roll “input” played in the process. I’d never been forced to put my generalism into practice.
More than almost any other profession, communications—including public relations, public affairs, marketing, journalism, and even graphic and digital fields—demand a comprehensive, constantly engaged, generalist knowledge of business, politics, policy, culture, and other professional skills.
To succeed in communications, and as a writer in general, you need to diversify your input to meet the demands of your profession. For writers, this has two main benefits.
- Knowing the conversations helps you control the conversation. (And it can vastly improve your pitch game.)
- Knowing how other people talk helps you do it better than them. (e.g. If they’re talking about art, they might not be thinking about economics. Good thing you know about both. Now set the record straight.)
So how can someone whose bookshelf is lined with comix, fiction, and philosophy become a better (and more profitable) writer and communicator?
Change what you’re reading.
That’s what I did. And it’s working. Previously I was reading novels and The Onion, but when you’re writing op-eds for elected officials and press releases for multi-million-dollar acquisitions, that shit won’t fly.
So here’s what I’m reading now. And why I’m reading it.
All of these are print + digital subscriptions, though I use print more than digital. Better resolution and secondary usage for public transit emergencies, like covering up vomit. Alphabetically:
The Economist | Weekly | Economics
If I’m going to read on economics, it might as well be from the publication of record. Yearly subscriptions aren’t cheap, but you can sometimes get good deals on DiscountMags.com.
The New Yorker | Weekly | Hoity-Toity
Because it’s the New Yorker, and it knows it.
Mags are good to have around, newsletters are my fave. Alphabetically:
AJC Dispatch | Weekly or more | News and Jewish Affairs
The American Jewish Committee is an international Jewish advocacy organization. The Dispatch wraps up news and policy affecting Jewish international relations. Because I’m Jewish and all.
American Press Institute Need to Know Newsletter | Daily | Journalism and Media
Basically a brief about the latest news on journalism and the press. Who’s who, and what they’re doing. Plus trend coverage.
Chicago Tribune Newsletters | Daily | News and Affairs
It’s Chicago’s only real standing newspaper and it’s good enough for at least getting a general idea of things.
Communication, Research and Theory Network | Daily | Academics
Better known as CRTNET (crit-net), it’s a Web 1.0-style listserv from the National Communication Association on academic news and trends within communications studies. Sometimes wordy, but always good to reference.
Content Marking Institute Newsletter | Daily | PR and Marketing
Though I work a lot in traditional PR, the field is going increasingly digital, blurring the lines between itself and related fields like content marketing. CMI is the authority.
Fortune Term Sheet | Daily | Business and Finance
Latest news on deals, deal makers and Wall Street trends. Good for keeping all other conversations in context.
Harvard Business Review Newsletters | Daily | Business
I subscribe to the Management Tip of the Day and Daily Stat letters. The writing is always good and it demystifies the coded language of MBA culture.
HODINKEE Newsletter | Weekly | Watches
Because is it so bad for a guy to look at pictures of nice watches?
Investopedia Newsletters | Daily | Business and Finance
They have a lot of options but I only subscribe to the Term of the Day. Still a have a foot in student debt and am not part of the investing class. Purely educational at this point.
New York Times Newsletters | Daily | News and Affairs
Haven’t ponied up to buy a NYT subscription, so newsletters are a good compromise for now. Lots of options to choose from.
NiemanLab Newsletter | Daily | Journalism and Media
Updates from the Nieman Journalism Lab, which was formed as “an attempt to help journalism figure out its future in an Internet age.” Stats, trends, bullets.
O’Dwyer’s Newsletter | Daily | PR and Marketing
Every trade has its publication of record. O’Dwyers is that for public relations. Content would be a yawn to anyone outside PR.
POLITICO Tipsheets | Daily | Politics
THE BEST, JERRY, THE BEST. My favorite source for political news. Super comprehensive. I subscribe to the Daily Digest, Mike Allen’s Playbook, Illinois Playbook.
PR Daily Newsletter | Daily, like the title says | PR and Marketing
PR news and occasional white papers and case studies on related topics, like content marketing and social media. Part of the Ragan brand so there’s a lot of upselling, but it’s easy to ignore.
Slate Newsletters | Daily, but it could be worse | News and Affairs
Slate is a content machine and if you give them too much leeway your inbox and feeds will be oversaturated with their snark. Everything in moderation. This is a good place to start.
I’ve also liked or followed these publications and their writers and editors across my various social media profiles. It’s nerdy, but it saves from distraction. I’m also a huge fan of DNAinfo for local news and The Onion for real news.
While my input covers a wide array, I take it in through a single focus: to get better at what I do. That’s it (and I guess maybe get better in general, too).
Knowledge doesn’t expand overnight, but as I get more involved in these conversations, I can already see distance between where I was and where I am. Which helps me know where I want to be.
Other newsletters or subscriptions I should have on my radar? Comment below or let me know here!