How Digested is Your Reading Material?

How many people have touched your reading material? I’m not talking about germs on used books or the grimy bits hiding on the surface of your tablet. I mean how close to the source are you when you’re reading that neat article on characterization, burial practices in the Andes, or top business practices of successful authors?

Written content comes from experience. Someone, somewhere, had an in-person experience, processed what happened to them mentally and emotionally, and wrote down the product of both their experience and what they thought about it. Some people translate their experience into fiction, others translate it to non-fiction. It’s just a case of different strokes for different folks. What they write is called a primary source.

What happens once it’s written down is where things get sticky. Others read it, perhaps read the material of several other people who have experienced something similar, and then write about the conclusions they draw from these other people’s experience. This creates a secondary source.

After that, many people read several articles on a subject, often written by people who have only read secondary sources, and come up with their own articles. They support their opinions with these secondary sources, multiply misquotations, and often lose the original content author’s attribution completely. At this point the complex experiences of a number of individuals have been boiled down to a few lines under a picture in a click-bait slideshow. Some of these tertiary sources are more credible than others, but they’re still the farthest from the original experience.

This isn’t something unique to the internet. Do you remember the Reader’s Digest? It pioneered the popularization of secondary sources. DeWitt Wallace was an avid reader. He read intensively and eventually came to the conclusion that he could share some of this information with people by condensing the primary source articles and books for easy … well, easy digestion.

Before Sparknotes, there were Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. There’s a stack of them decorating the shelves at my day job. I haven’t read them, so I don’t know how successful they are at condensing four books into a single, uniform volume 600 pages long.

Looking at them, I imagine the many “top tip” lists for writers. Of course, on a shelf, they’d look a lot more like pamphlets in bright colors with famous faces on them and a mail-order address (or QR code) on the back linked to something sketchy. Not all of them are (sketchy, I mean) but it takes effort to vet the voices clamoring for clicks and likes.

So here’s a novel idea; be a primary source.

It’s not impossible, and it doesn’t even have to be difficult. Go have an experience. Visit the Andes and see the burial rites (or your crazy neighbor’s backyard party and ask about the budgie graveyard under their walnut tree*) and write about your conclusions. Get up the nerve and track successful people you can use as direct models for your burgeoning business plans. Ask them how they got as successful as they are now, even how you might get there someday**.

As for that article on characterization you dug up on somebody’s blog: read. Read extensively and do your own reviews on how their characters worked or didn’t work for you***. Then put the book down and read another by someone else!

That’s down and dirty research for writers. You’ll come to conclusions people disagree with, your thoughts will likely conflict with others’ views, and what you ultimately learn and share may run directly opposite to someone else’s conclusions from their similar experience. The clash of ideas is part of the experience, plus it gives secondary and tertiary sources something to talk about. There are no short cuts for that kind of learning.



* Do change names and/or ask permission before making that budgie burial story public. That’s part of writing from life. You don’t own others’ experiences, so ask permission.

** I recommend hoarding these gems of business information for a while until you’ve tried them for yourself. That may take some time, but the point of asking is to learn what works and get ahead.

*** This is not the kind of review to post on Amazon or Goodreads. That’s the kind of review to put on your blog or just keep for later reference in your personal files. Just because you thought it up doesn’t mean the author and all future readers need to hear your mini study paper on their use of characters (or setting, or theme, or whatever)… at least not until you’re confident you can write well enough to demonstrate your point!



Research Source Material – Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources:

Origin of Reader’s Digest:



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