The Power of Writing About the Things You Read

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At the beginning of this year, I interviewed Cal Newport about his new book Deep Work. Few books have had an impact on my creative output as much as this one. Nearly all of these articles below and many more were written using ideas from this book:

A few days ago I was getting ready for a talk I just gave at the Experiential Marketing Summit. I normally go through a whole set of steps to prep for a talk, which is probably a topic for another post. After about 10 or 12 run throughs I remembered something that Cal had told me in our conversation when I asked him about study habits.

One of Cal’s first books was called How to Become a Straight-A student. I was a piss poor student in college. I got straight A’s in high school, but when I got to Berkeley no matter what I did, my grades remained terrible. While my publisher didn’t ask about my GPA, I was still curious to learn about what I might have done differently when it came to study habits. I figured there had to be a place in my professional life where they might actually come in handy.

Nearly all straight A students understood one big idea, the difference between active and passive review.

  • Passive review involved a lot of highlighting, rereading and attempting to memorize things.
  • Active review involved actually being able to recreate the material.

If you can recreate the material that you’ve digested then you truly understand it.

So the next morning, rather than attempt to do a rehearsal, I decided to open up a blank page and see if I could rewrite the entire talk without referring back to my material. And I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was able not only to recreate it but add some other sections and clean up the flow a bit. It also ended up being one of the best talks I’ve given in my career, with tons of positive feedback from people in the audience.

If you’ve read anything I’ve written, you know that I almost always reference ideas from the books that I’ve read. And you’ll frequently see that I start my articles with a quote. Quotes give you an easy starting point when you can’t figure out what the hell to write. By writing about these ideas, I’m not only able to synthesize them, but incorporate them into my life.

So how exactly do you do this?

The first piece of the puzzle is to be a voracious reader. While you’re reading dog ear pages, and underline passages that stand out to you. This next part is something I can’t take credit for. It’s something that Ryan Holiday taught me in a recent conversation I had with him about his new book Ego is the Enemy.

After reading a book, Ryan puts it down for about 2 weeks. Then he returns to the book to look at the sections he underlined, and the pages he dogeared. From those, using the notecard system that he learned from Robert Greene, he creates notecards with quotes and categorizing them by subject. A card he created 4 years before the book was written became the impetus for his book The Obstacle is The Way.

When you write about the things you read, it causes the value of you reading to increase exponentially. You don’t just gain more knowledge, you’re able to put into action.

Listen to the Unmistakable Creative Interview with Cal Newport

I’m the host and founder of The Unmistakable Creative Podcast. Every Sunday we share the most unmistakable parts of the internet that we have discovered in The Sunday Quiver. Receive our next issue by signing up here .