3 tips to yank you out of the “but…I can’t write” vortex
Don’t freak out, but it took me over two decades to find my voice.
Now, I’m not talking about some dystopian world where women have to wear bracelets that electrocute them after they’ve uttered 100 words (the plot from the excellent novel Vox, by the way). Rather, I’m referring to my writing voice — the style, tone, tenor, and cadence that makes my writing uniquely mine.
I’ve been writing since I was six and finding my voice took work. I read. I mimicked those whom I admired. I got my master’s degree from Columbia. I endured workshops when all I wanted to do was staple things to my fellow students’ heads. I broke down paragraphs written by authors I loved and analyzed them in excruciating detail. I tried on styles that ended up feeling like sweaters that itched or shoes that were a tad too tight. Even while writing my first book, I harbored a constant feeling that something wasn’t right.
Five years ago, I quit a job that was slowly killing me and I took a trip to Biarritz. I holed up in a cheap hotel by the water and wrote. And it was the first time I wrote something that felt right. That felt like me. I’d spent decades assiduously following someone else’s subjective rules and when I started what became my second book, I was too exhausted to remember the rules. I just wrote. And it made everything I’d written previously pale in comparison.
I’m going to save you the twenty years of agita and share three tips that have helped me along the way.
Tip #1: Unlearn a lot of the garbage taught in English class
Before you have a rage blackout, hear me out. I always felt uncomfortable in high school and college English classes because the rules felt much like commandments. One would never dare end a sentence in a preposition. One would not deign to use sentence fragments. But look at Faulkner’s hot, unpunctuated mess. Look at the great experimental novelists and poets. You learn the rules to find your own ways of breaking them.
While I observe most rules of grammar (and thank god for copy editors for I am not one), not all of them should be sacrosanct. During the copy-editing phase of my second book, I fought with my brilliant copy editor on stylistic choices I’d made.
Writing should have a rhythm, cadence, warmth, and balance. I often juxtapose long sentences with short fragments because think about how you tell stories that captivate people. They don’t care that your grammar isn’t 100%, or that you started a sentence with a preposition. They care that what would you said (or wrote) shifted the ground beneath their feet.
tl;dr: Rules were made to be broken.
Tip #2: Tell them a story; don’t just answer a question
I just finished Rachel Cusk’s Transit and there was a chapter I found particularly salient. The narrator, Faye, is a creative writing professor and she has an ambitious student who often tries to play the role of teacher. An older gent writes stories about his dog. This guy really loves his dog, but he doesn’t know how to explain his love in a way that’s “literary.” The faux professor says during a workshop, “You can’t just say that your dog is beautiful. Why is your dog beautiful?” And the gent sputters and is flummoxed and anxious.
Faye intercedes and asks a series of open-ended questions that force the student to tell a story. She asks about the breed of the dog, the history of the breed, how the student came to find the dog, etc. The gent suddenly has a lot to say, and in the telling of his story, you learn why he loves his dog so much.
Stories bind people to one another. They create neurological and emotional connections. Look at “mirror neurons” to see what I mean, for starters. While this tip may look like a riff off of the old “show, don’t tell” bit, it’s not. I’m telling you that the best writing does both. You write the bold statements and the stories reveal your “why” in a way that makes it your own. You can use all the fifty-cent words and pretty images you like, but that will never make you distinct.
tl;dr: What sets good writing apart is the ability for people to see you and themselves in what you’ve written.
Tip #3: The most compelling stories come from your reader, not you
Now, this is mostly reserved for copywriting, sales copy — copy that invites someone to do something on your behalf. That something can be cash in your pocket or a new subscriber to your email list. A lot of creative entrepreneurs are all me, me, me, and frankly, your customer doesn’t care about you unless it’s through the lens of how you will solve their problems.
Your customers and readers care about them. We live in a world where people want their needs and desires met and your copy needs to come from a place of understanding them, their needs and wants, and challenges and how you will solve for them. Then you can waltz in with the “me” language to show them why you are the best person to solve their problems.
tl;dr: Your product or service isn’t about you — it’s about your customer or reader.