Generative Reading

It has been almost 20 years since I first read a book called Weinberg on Writing after a good friend had recommended it. It is a small book, and judging from the number of reviews on Amazon, it is not very known. As the name suggests, Gerald M. Weinberg wrote this book to help people write, or more specifically, collect ideas that will later be used in writing. In retrospect, it seems obvious why I still remember it, but “remember” is really an understatement. Since I read it almost two decades ago, it has affected much of my work in ways that weren’t always about writing. When I started to explore creativity and develop the Creativity OS model, Weinberg’s ideas echoed in my mind. It was more than remembering his insights and methods. It was even more than putting them to practice. I felt like I was taking his ideas to a completely different playground and using them to create something new. 

Reading is one of the best and most accessible sources of inspiration. Books and articles capture infinite knowledge. When we read, we get a peek into minds other than our own, and each book and every article out there is an opportunity to meet a whole new brain. But what is the essence of this encounter? Is the goal of reading to accumulate knowledge and collect raw material with the hope we will retrieve it someday and use it? And what does it mean “to get inspired” by what we read? 

For most people, reading is a passive experience. We think of reading as an act of consumption. We read and hopefully remember the important stuff. Some people take notes or summarize key ideas. If your goal is memorizing the ideas you read, it certainly helps, but at the end of the day, it is an act of recording; it is still primarily passive. We rush through books and skim through articles if only because there are so many. Each book we read becomes a new trophy in our collection, and each article is an opportunity to like or share. 

Passive reading is a missed opportunity. 

Generative Reading is anything but passive — it is an experience in which you are an active participant. Generative Reading is focused on processing and not just consuming. We don’t read just to remember or just to understand. Instead, we aim to utilize and make the most of what we read. When we use what we read, we make it our own. As a side effect, we remember it better; it leaves a more meaningful residue.

Generative Reading can be divided into three levels, each with a different impact: reflecting, acting, and creating. 

Reflecting

One of the things I aim for when writing and helping others write is making sure the content resonates with the reader. Resonance doesn’t mean agreeing, and it’s not a synonym for understanding or making sense of the text. When the text resonates with the reader, it taps into an existing experience, thought, or feeling the reader has; it triggers and makes them surface. When an idea resonates with the reader, it echoes longer; it is hard to ignore or dismiss because it taps into something familiar the reader already knows, even if they can’t articulate it before reading it. A resonating text creates a shared experience — a common ground — between the author and the audience. 

As an author, I have to be honest with myself, though: no matter how good I aim for resonance, eventually, it happens in the reader’s mind. As such, I cannot control it. Just like a piece of art where the viewer can experience a completely different story than the one the artist intended to convey, when I put my ideas in writing, I must let go of them. Some readers might “get it,” others might not, and some will have a completely different experience than the one I intended to invoke. From the reader’s perspective, the idea of subjective resonance becomes a powerful tool. 

When you practice Generative Reading, you are hyper-aware of what ideas or stories resonate with you. You are attentive to what parts tap into your experiences and what thoughts and feelings are invoked. From the author’s perspective, resonance is designed to convince you, the reader, and bring you on board. From a reader’s perspective, resonance can either have this or the opposite effect. For example, you can identify with a scenario the author describes and disagree with their conclusions. You might understand the rationale described by the author only to realize that you’ve followed the same logic in the past but found it was wrong. All these are kinds of resonance, even if they are entirely different from what the author hoped. When you reflect on what resonates with you and process it, your reading becomes active, and, at the same time, you let the text affect you. 

In a sense, reflecting as you read, using not just logic but also noting what feelings and thoughts the text triggers in you, is like having a conversation with the author. You don’t read to agree or automatically absorb knowledge; you read to converse and realize things together, even if the dialogue is not really bi-directional. No matter what you decide to do next (if anything), such a conversation is valuable. It turns reading from a consumption activity or a theoretical discussion into an experience-based discussion, and it does so whether it reinforces what you have previously known or thought, overturns it, or just adds nuance to it. 

Acting 

Effective content changes something in the reader’s behavior. Content is aimed at invoking action and not just nodding in agreement. Many people think nonfiction content is mainly designed to sell something. I think of a different type of action: something that helps the reader do something different and better — something that will have value in their lives. 

Just like the case is with resonance, the author of a book or an article should have some goal in mind: a vision of the action they would like us, the readers, to take. If the text is well-written, the proposed action might be implicit or explicit, but it will be rationalized and explained. It will be based on the author’s thesis, and the text will unfold the logical argument, leading to an actionable conclusion. Just like the case is with resonance, we, the readers, can buy into the thesis or not; we can be convinced to take the proposed action or think it does not address our needs. But not taking the action the author was aiming for does not mean not taking any action. 

A couple of years ago, I read the book A World Without Email by Cal Newport. I was thinking deeply about effective content then and was looking for ideas to extend what I had learned and developed to workplace communication. As I read his book, I agreed with the diagnosis of the problem. The picture Cal portrays about the ineffectiveness of email as a means of communication and its impact on productivity and motivation resonated with me. I recognized the problem in my own experience. I suffered from it, and everyone I knew professionally felt pretty much the same. But when it came to taking action, I thought about Cal’s proposed solution and felt it was not the right one; at best, it was incomplete. For one thing, he barely addressed the content of emails and was focused on the fact they are asynchronous and, therefore, potentially distracting. With that realization, I was ready to act. I started to think and experiment with different communication flows without trying to eliminate email. On the contrary, in some cases, for some purposes, my usage of emails grew. It was probably not the action Cal Newport had in mind when writing the book, but it was an action inspired by his book. I didn’t remain indifferent or passive to Cal’s ideas. 

The second layer of Generative Reading is taking action. Sometimes, it will be the action the text proposes; at other times, it will be the complete opposite. Sometimes, it is as simple as reading more and exploring the topic further. The action could be reinforcing a current behavior or experimenting with a radically different one. Whatever I choose, doing something based on what I read makes the book or the article more valuable. 

Of course, not every text I read triggers action. Not all the content I read is good enough and relevant to my life at the same time. I read many things I dismiss without action or take note of and file for future use. But when I do manage to translate the ideas encapsulated in the text into a concrete action that affects my reality, the benefit I gain from the text is an order of magnitude greater. 

Creating 

Around the time I started to explore what makes some content more effective than other, I read three books almost back-to-back: Present to Win by Jerry Weissman, Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath, and Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds. Weinberg on Writing was also in my mind, if only because it had never left it. These books somewhat overlap, but they are different enough in their content and style. While I didn’t like them equally, I found value in each. As I read them, I developed my ideas about effective communication and writing. I didn’t just process what I read; I used it to create something new. The result was the framework I use when I write and when I help others write and communicate better. It is not like any of the ideas I read in these books, but it is clearly a fusion of all of them combined with my own experience and insights. 

Nothing new is created in a vacuum. Any original idea is built on a fusion of previous ideas. My ideas about effective communication are no different. I didn’t invent anything from scratch. I created a new quilt from good pieces I had found; many of them were things I had read. It was like engaging in joint creation with smart people I had never met or talked with face-to-face. It was, nevertheless, a conversation, even if most of it was in my head. Some bits of the ideas I got from these smart people I adopted almost as is; I modified (and hopefully improved) other bits; and some bits I rejected altogether, but processing these ideas pushed me to try taking a different direction. That is the best thing I can hope for when reading. 

Fusing existing ideas and creating new ones is a unique form of action. It is the best action possible because it doesn’t stop with you. Your ideas will be just another link in the chain and hopefully be used by others to create even better ones. This is the highest degree of Generative Reading as it morphs reading into an act of creation or, better still, co-creation.

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