Have you been writing but keep getting a weird twinge in your gut that something is “off?” Or a deflated feeling that what you wrote doesn’t communicate the image in your head and heart? Or maybe you like what you write but you’re not getting the kind of response that you expected?
Turns out, there might be one big reason for all these writing hurdles. Let me tell you a quick story about how I discovered this massive obstacle in my own writing.
In 2004, I had graduated college with a degree in English and applied to eight writing programs, including two “safety” schools that I thought were no-brainer admissions. During my wait for responses, I got a job at the ABC-TV station in Dallas. I produced my first TV spot. I learned to write copy for station promos and news teases.
And the school rejections started rolling in.
One after another, thin, sad envelopes appeared in my mailbox. My hope became thinner and more desperate with each one. Finally, the last safety school rejected me too.
It was devastating, at least to my ego. My grades and test scores were good. I qualified to go to every school I applied to. The real difference maker was my writing sample. Now eight teams of professional educators and writers and authors and critics were telling me that my writing wasn’t any good.
Outside of my work at the TV station, I stopped writing. For the first time since I was 9 years old, I didn’t write a poem or a story or a journal entry. I stopped. My heart was broken. I felt like my dream was crushed.
Then I got that Emmy nomination. And I was like, HUH????
What I know today is that when I wrote for the TV station, I was far less worried about what people thought of my writing and far more concerned with what they thought about the message.
I needed them to watch the news. I wanted them to follow our incredibly talented weather team. I hoped they’d tune in to see the inspiring story we were teasing during sweeps month. But I never thought about what a viewer might say about the WAY I had written those pieces.
By contrast, in my graduate school applications, I had written essays and stories that were meant to showcase my writing skills. I worked so hard to polish and preen and perfect those lines of text that the power of my message diminished. The method of communicating was more important to me on those applications than the message. That’s where I failed.
I didn’t fail because I was trying to write well, but because I was trying to write like I thought I was SUPPOSED to write.
Whereas, at work, I wrote like I wrote naturally. I just communicated clearly and efficiently. And that’s what earned me a second Emmy nomination and ultimately my win in 2005.
Do you write like yourself? Do you even know what that sounds like?
This is the biggest obstacle people face when it comes to feeling confident about their writing or even their speaking: They are trying to communicate the way they think they’re SUPPOSED to communicate. That, my friend, is what makes your writing fall flat.
No, really. Stop it.
This is killing your message.
You are so focused on how you sound and what your sentence structure looks like or how you don’t know enough vocabulary words or how many bullet points you need or whether your imagery and analogies are standout or whether you’re using the latest slang or jargon—that you’re taking your eye off the real reason you’re writing or speaking in the first place.
You’re communicating to connect with other people. To inspire change. To help. To give hope.
You communicate so you can extend the hand of your spirit and hold someone else’s heart or mind just long enough to make it a little bigger. [Tweet that!]
Yes, style and syntax and structure are all important—which is why I have a writing course to help folks with those things. But let me tell you something we all know from receiving beautifully wrapped packages that end up disappointing us:
If you’re too worried about the packaging, you’ll overshadow the gift. [Tweet that too!]
Here’s a 4-step process to overcome some of your self-consciousness when it comes to communicating like yourself:
1. Write something. A blog post, a short article, a personal essay–no more than 1000 words. Then read it out loud and record yourself as you read. It will feel weird. Do it anyway.
2. Now put down the writing and just talk about the topic. Talk as if you were speaking to someone who can’t read your article or blog post or essay and tell them about what you said. Record yourself as you do this too.
3. Now, listen to both recordings back to back. The first one will sound different in an obvious way. It will either be more formal and stilted, more confusing and elaborate, more flowery and full of imagery, or just less like you. Listen for the differences. Some of the differences will be good. Maybe you explain something better in the written version. But some of the differences will bug you. Maybe you sound like a robot in the written version.
4. Now, take what you learned and apply it immediately. Write something just for you on an entirely different topic. This is a blog post or article or essay that you’re not going to show anyone. The goal is to apply what you just learned and write more like you. Write like the professional and human that you really are, not like a robot or a comedian or a catch-phrase machine.
5. BONUS step: If you really want to cement this lesson for yourself and you’re feeling brave, read both pieces aloud to someone you trust and ask which one they like best.
The goal here is to listen to how you sound as you deliver your message. Often, we write and speak differently. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I don’t write exactly like I talk. But if I were to read this out loud to you, it wouldn’t sound like anyone else but me.
Finding your voice—in life and in writing—is about being brave enough to put your purpose over your status, to focus on the message rather than the method.
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