If you want to learn how to write about yourself, you have to first understand that about 99 percent of the time, writing about yourself is done in a misguided way that will cause no one to want to read your work.
Let me explain…
I’ve talked with many an aspiring writer in my short five-year career. Almost always, the number one mistake I see aspiring writers make is exactly the same.
They don’t want to write for anyone else but themselves. Of course, you should never write about stuff you’re not really into for the sake of clicks, but aspiring writers seem to have this peculiar disease where they think writing what appears to be a personal diary online is the key to writing success.
That’s how human emotions, self-interest, and ego work. As a human being, you have a really hard time thinking about the wants and needs of anyone but yourself. Most aspiring writers don’t lack talent or motivation, they’re selfish.
But what about memoirs and personal essays? There are people who write about themselves quite successfully. What’s the difference between them and the majority of other writers?
There is a way to write about yourself without… writing about yourself.
Let me explain…
The Classic Examples You All Strive For
Eat, Pray, Love is one of the most popular memoirs of all time. It’s about the life of Elizabeth Gilbert, a woman who got divorced and traveled the world to find herself. There were plenty of stories about her life in the book, but here’s why the book did so well.
The stories were about concepts people related to, not about herself. Eat, Pray, Love is not a book about Elizabeth Gilbert, it’s a book about every woman who feels trapped in their circumstances and wants to break away and go on an adventure.
The person in the story doesn’t matter. Good stories make people identify with them. The character, protagonist, whatever, is a reflection of you.
Cheryl Strayed created a similar effect in her best-selling memoir, Wild. In short, she writes about her checkered past and going on this dangerous backpacking adventure to escape her life. She learns all sorts of illuminating lessons along the way yada, yada, yada. Again, the story in and of itself isn’t the focus, so much as the story relates to people who feel like escaping from their life.
She also wrote an amazing book called Tiny Beautiful Things, which is a compilation of answers in her Q & A advice column, Dear Sugar. Instead of providing answers to reader’s questions outright, she starts by telling some meandering story about herself that relates to the reader’s question. She tells gut wretching emotional stories — sexual abuse, infidelity, drugs, you name it. But she doesn’t just tell the stories just to tell them. She tells the story to first let the reader know “I’ve been here before,” and then relates it to their life in a way that says, “I came out of it and so can you.”
Authors like Gilbert and Strayed go well above and beyond what I see from the typical aspiring writer — random ramblings about their feelings, what they ate for lunch, some bland story about where they traveled to that’s full of descriptive writing but lacks any sort of theme or relation to the person on the other side of the screen.
So how can you learn how to write about yourself the right way? These strategies will help.
Ask Yourself This Simple Question
You have to be brutally honest about yourself when you answer this question.
Would anyone other than you want to read what you wrote?
You have to be able to remove yourself, as well as your emotional investment, and analyze whether you’ve created a relatable story or a journal entry.
Often, in your bones, you know.
If you’re like the writer I described above who wonders why no one reads their stuff, you know why.
People who write these journal entries fall into three camps:
- The delusional — They genuinely believe people should want to read their random ramblings. They feel like they’re owed success. These people can’t be helped.
- The oblivious — Some people actually don’t see what they’re doing. They can be helped, but it takes repeated lessons like this blog post for them to “get it.”
- The hiders — The majority of people know this style won’t work, but they write it anyway because it’s a way to hide from the truth. “Half-trying,” always gives you an out. These writers fear having to exert real effort and still failing. These people have the best shot at change because they’re aware.
Aside from just looking at your work and asking that simple question, there are some other techniques you can use to write about yourself in a way that works. But you have to quit hiding.
Do you really want to do this? If so, the following can help.
The “Story Hook” Opener
If you really feel compelled to write about yourself, but want to educate, entertain, and inspire at the same time, the story hook opener can tie your life together with the ideas or concepts you want to share.
Here’s how it works:
- Come up with the idea for the post/essay — Use brainstorming and mind mapping to come up with the concept
- Outline — Outline the points you want to make in the essay
- Add story in — Create the structure of the post or essay first, then dig for a story from your life that matches the concepts to tack onto the intro
Read Jame’s Altuchers work. He’s a master at this. He almost always opens up his blog posts with a story.
As an added bonus, he makes a point to really really catchy, interesting, or straight up bizarre first lines to catch your attention.
Here are some examples:
- “I had to get 100 prostitutes to like me in 5 seconds or less” — https://bit.ly/2ESXkiT
- “I am mentally ill. And I’m in a mid-life crisis. I’m dishonest. And I’m a horrible father. And I think with my dick.” — https://bit.ly/2Z7wuey
- “I have one bag of clothes, one backpack with a computer, iPad, and phone. I have zero other possessions.” — https://bit.ly/2WLt7MW
Notice how all the opening lines are about himself but are so damn interesting you feel compelled to read more. This is how you integrate your story with your writing.
Draw From This Unusual Source
Fiction serial author Sean Platt credits an unrelated genre for his success as a fiction writer — copywriting books.
Reading books about copywriting, marketing, and persuasion will help you get out of your head and understand that regardless of what story you write, including stories you write about yourself, you are ultimately writing for other people.
That is if you want to have an audience and career. As Robert Kiyosaki says, “It’s called best selling author, not best writing author.”
Often, when you read great copy in something like a sales page, it will include a story about the creator of the product, but you’ll see that the story connects with the reader.
The classic example, “How I went from dead broke on my mom’s couch to running a million dollar company.” It’s cliche and trite, yet devastatingly effective because it tickles all the human emotions.
If you don’t understand human nature and psychology, you’ll never be a great writer.
Copywriters, advertisers, salespeople, all get a bad rap. They’re some of the greatest storytellers you’ll ever come across. They know more about character development and storytelling than your average pompous MFA grad.
Here are some great resources:
Do This the Next Time You Read a Personal Account
Many authors swear by a technique called marginalia, which is a fancy way to say “take notes on the books you read.”
With marginalia, you highlight important passages, write questions and notes in the margins, and most importantly try to get inside the head of the author.
Some people go so far as to hand copy the words of great storytellers to absorb their powers through osmosis…or something. Either way, trying to understand the motivation of a storyteller can help you tell great stories yourself.
Read autobiographies and take notes on what you read to find out what’s so interesting about this particular person’s story.
Often these are things like:
- They have something you want and you aspire to be like them (this would translate to you writing stories about what you have that people want)
- The stories they tell are downright insane or interesting (as Ryan Holiday suggests, if you want to be a better writer, maybe you should live a little more first)
- Almost always, you see yourself in the author (I’ve hammered this to the point of redundancy, because it’s very important)
You can learn from great storytellers, but you can also become a great storyteller by…not telling stories.
Just Don’t (For a While At Least)
Often, I have to put new students through their paces and teach them traditional blogging techniques like:
- Creating “how-to” posts
- Writing listicles
- Using the word “you” often
- Opener formulas like “problem, agitation, solution”
- Simple 5-section post structure
- Motivational closes
I do this because I want to teach them the foundations they need to become popular online writers with fans, which is what almost all of them really want.
I purposefully get them out of the habit of writing about themselves so that they can do it successfully in the future.
Now, I can weave in stories about my life into posts and essays. I often do. I could write a mediocre memoir at this point in my career, mostly due to the fact that I learned blogging techniques first.
Why? Well, blogging teaches you a few key things:
- You learn how to work — If you want to become a successful blogger, you have to write a lot. Most aspiring writers who want to write about themselves don’t have the stamina to even do it successfully
- You learn about audience — You learn how to cater to, but not pander to an audience. Huge difference.
- Platform means everything — You can build a platform as “just a blogger” and parlay it into more traditional means of publishing, just ask Jeff Goins or Mark Manson.
By first understanding the mechanism of not only the blogosphere but how people interacting with online writing in general, you will reduce your pretentiousness tenfold, which will enable you to write about yourself effectively.
The Bottom Line When it Comes to Learning How to Write About Yourself
Building a successful writing career is all about learning how to get out of your own way.
That’s 90 percent of the battle.
You can’t write about yourself properly because you’re preoccupied with yourself.
Lowering your ego and humbling yourself will all of a sudden make you a much more effective writer.
Lack of success in writing is almost always due to selfishness above everything else.
Remember, if you wanted to write for yourself alone, all you’d need is a journal.
But you want fans. All writers do. If you want to get them, you should, um, think about them.
Originally published at http://www.ayothewriter.com on June 6, 2019.