Writing | Creativity | Productivity

Tired of Not Getting Noticed? Maybe It’s Time You Write About the Proverbial Train on Fire

How being too friendly can jeopardize your chances at success

Joe Duncan
Nov 27, 2020 · 7 min read
Photo by XPS on Unsplash

I’ve got a question I’d like for you to ponder. If you landed here, I’m going to presume you’re looking for ways to perfect your writing and put your finished work in front of as many eyes as possible. You’ve probably been writing pieces that tick all the boxes of things that you’ve been told are necessities to drive traffic and get you the views you were hoping for…and still…for some reason…you aren’t getting there. I get it. I too know this frustration…

The question I’d like you to ponder is whether you’d rather be liked for what you write or successful for what you write. Those two things won’t always be congruent and, in my experience, oftentimes come into conflict.

I’ve had a lot of people send me their work to glance over and see what I can find that might be holding them up on their paths to becoming a bigger name and most often, the one thing I see is a lack of conflict in their stories.

Wait, what? Conflict? Yes, you read that right. There’s an American idiom we use when someone’s talking about viewpoints that aren’t controversial, saying things that everyone around them already believes, we say that you’re preaching to the converted. You’re trying to win over people who’ve already adopted your point of view; trying to win when you’ve already won.

When I first got started out blogging on my own, I sent some pieces to some of my friends. Ever the contrarian in my personal life, I took the surprising approach of trying to write nice stories that I would publish so people could leave them feeling all warm and fuzzy inside like I had read their mind and put it into words in the most perfect of ways that only a professional could do.

In other words, I wasn’t being my authentic self. I traded authenticity for what I thought people wanted me to be.

Some of my friends stared back at me blankly as they read my stuff. “What happened to you?” they asked. “Where’s the Joe I know and love? Did you kidnap him? Are you an imposter? Where’s the contrarian? Where’s the fight? There’s no conflict in this. There’s nothing that strikes me as unusual, this doesn’t challenge any norms, this doesn’t tell me anything new.”

“I, being your friend, have got to be honest with you and say this could be much better,” one person told me. “You know I love you, Joe,” they continued, trying to muster up their gentlest tone possible, “But this is kind of crap.”

A quick aside, these are the kinds of friends you want to keep around in life.

My eyes widened as I leaned in to pay attention. “Yes, go on,” I said, with that sickening feeling in my throat and nervous feeling in my gut like I was bracing for the impact of a punch.

“You need to dig deeper. Don’t tell me about the superficial things. There are a million people out there selling the idea that everything is pretty. But life isn’t pretty and you’re the person who taught me that, Joe.” I was astonished. I had to concede, they were right.

You see, I initially started by tailoring my work to fit this mold that I thought everyone wanted to be. And in that, I’d lost my boldness. I was afraid to go deep, I was afraid to talk about the things that made me feel vulnerable, to touch the sensitive social issues that cause friction in our society, even really off-the-wall things that we all take for granted.

After this conversation, I even later wrote a story that raised the question of whether it’s morally right to separate children by sex as they grow up. We seem to have a very big problem segregating children by race, but everyone seems to be perfectly on-board with segregation by sex.

This is something we take as self-evidently good, but might it cause deep confusion in people when they reach adulthood and realize that they’ve been viewing the opposite sex as some elusive other their entire lives? I’ll leave that question to people far more educated than I in the requisite fields to answer.

It’s a dangerous topic, to say the least.

But the point is, these pieces were by no means popular — if by popular I mean that everybody loved them. But how did those pieces perform? How did they do when I said the hard thing in terms of metrics and readership?

Without question, they outperformed all of the pieces that I’d thought I’d been tailoring so perfectly to appease the invisible audience on the other side of the platform.

Some pieces garnered hundreds, literally, hundreds of negative comments. “This article is kinda trash,” said one man.

That comes with the territory of writing or any creative pursuit, honestly, not everyone’s going to like what you have to say. Think about it, if you take a stance against something as obviously bad as racism, and people will still be angry with you for being against racism, there’s really no limit to what will upset people.

It’s basically a law of writing, with success comes ire; with mass readership comes a greater amount of people who are going to vehemently disagree with you and that’s just part of the job.

But you know what? For each of those comments, there were more comments saying things to the effect of, “Oh my God, you said the quiet part out loud,” and, “Finally. I’m glad somebody finally said it.”

To quote one woman: “Heavens what a great piece! A topic that has existed in my head for what feels like forever. I could never have articulated so clearly though… Very nicely done!!!”

Robert Sapolsky, human behavior biologist and primatologist at Stanford University, once said something that really stuck with me. He said, “The opposite of love is not hatred; the opposite of love is indifference.”

Anyone who knows the pain of being in love with someone who’s completely indifferent to their existence viscerally knows the truth of this statement. And it applies to our writing, a fact that virtually every writer who doesn’t get read can tell you about. We all know that burning, soul-agonizing pain of writing our heart out all day long, only to get seen by a few pairs of eyes.

So many idioms and quotes reinforce this idea…

From the old saying that characterized antiquated newsprint media, “If it bleeds, it leads,” to famed author Neil Gaimon saying writing is like walking down the street naked, the concept is the same. To quote Neil directly:

“The moment that you feel, just possibly, you are walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind, and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself…That is the moment, you might be starting to get it right;”

People want a story that’s unusual, unorthodox, something that shatters their sense of reality and transports them to another place or time.

Now I’m not saying you have to do clickbait or fear-mongering posts. But I am saying you have to dig deep for the stuff that people pay attention to and not try to mimic everyone else’s content. That’s truly how you stand out in this world, but, a word of warning, it’s only for the brave.

So ask yourself again, would you rather be liked for what you write or successful for what you write? Because when we scan the horizon for all the successful people we can think of, very few people respond to them with indifference.

Because their work challenges the delicate sensibilities of people, it makes them think in new ways that are sometimes uncomfortable, it makes them unearth parts fo themselves that they’d rather leave buried, and this process comes from writing authentically, from being bold, and from not shying away from the tough topics in favor of creating the same six or seven polished pieces over and over again in hopes that we’ll build a following by telling everyone how great the world is when everyone knows, it isn’t always, in fact, a great world. Sometimes it’s an ugly world. Write that. Talk about it. And people just might begin to pay attention.

In a world full of self-help gurus, maybe try letting your work be the flaming train-wreck that the entire world can’t take their eyes off of.

You never know, it just might be the zest your recipe needed.

Thank you for reading. A couple of people worth checking out who’ve mastered writing about the kinds of controversies people pay attention to are Tracey Folly and Shannon Ashley. See their work if you haven’t already, they’re both great at finding highly interesting topics and putting them into publication in interesting ways.

Inspired Writer

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Joe Duncan

Written by

From Los Angeles, California. Life isn’t a series of many moments, but one moment that is always changing. Buy me coffee here: https://ko-fi.com/joeduncan

Inspired Writer

Sharing our stories in a supportive global community. Home of the Inspired Writer Academy

Joe Duncan

Written by

From Los Angeles, California. Life isn’t a series of many moments, but one moment that is always changing. Buy me coffee here: https://ko-fi.com/joeduncan

Inspired Writer

Sharing our stories in a supportive global community. Home of the Inspired Writer Academy

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