I’m not a good writer. This was made clear to me at an early age.
My high school English teachers took their job very seriously. They helped us understand that not just anyone can be a writer. They taught us that to be a writer, we needed to learn to write the proper way. And there’s no room in the craft for untalented clods who aren’t willing to follow the rules.
So I learned that I wasn’t a good writer. And I stopped writing. For 17 years.
Writing Is Hard. Writing Is Not Fun.
Most people don’t know the difference between a transitive or an intransitive verb. And most don’t see an issue with starting a sentence with a conjunction or ending it with a preposition.
I didn’t learn these rules in English class. What I learned can be summed up in two points:
- Writing was hard.
- Writing was not fun.
I know my story isn’t singular. I wasn’t the only kid in those classes. If this is what we’re taught, it’s not surprising that the majority of people never write for fun after leaving high school.
We’re simultaneously developing mediums that help people spread ideas like never before while discouraging people’s interest in using them.
For all of us looking to better connect, better communicate, and better spread our ideas, a disinterest in writing becomes a significant impediment.
If we expect to take advantage of these opportunities, we need to get past this mindset. We need to find a way to start writing again.
Can Writing Be Easy? Can It Be Fun?
When Tim Ferriss is faced with a difficult business or relationship decision, he’s been know to ask himself the simple question,
“What would this look like if it were easy?”
It’s a question that cuts through our misconceptions about worth. It’s a question that reminds us to look for the path of least resistance, not to seek unnecessary hardship. It’s also how he opens his new trove of incites in Tribe of Mentors.
As someone who’s natural inclination is to overcomplicate the simple, this question often keeps me grounded in the logical.
What would writing look like if it were easy?
What would writing look like if it were fun?
I tried to answer these questions.
I started writing again this year. With the goal of making it fun.
I don’t see a future where I quit my job to write full-time. So I can’t give any advice on developing blogs that will let you retire by the end of the year. Let’s remove that expectation right now.
But I can give advice that helped me transform writing from something I dreaded to something I enjoy. I can talk about some of the mindsets I adopted to turn writing from a chore into an interest.
Here’s my advice on making writing less difficult (it’s still not easy). More importantly, here’s the best ten ways I’ve found to make it fun.
1. Appreciate Bad Writing
Each morning I sit down and write. And the majority of thoughts that make it from my mind to the computer end up being useless.
I’m sure there are people out there who can just sit down and write flawlessly. I’ve heard Christopher Hitchens was one such talent.
I am not. I likely never will be. Which is fine by me.
I need that mess. I need that chaos. Just as every morning my son insists on spreading toys all over the living room floor before he can start playing, I need to see the full landscape of thoughts before I can see what I’d like to write.
Our minds (or at the very least mine) are not disciplined to sit and start writing well. We need to draft and re-draft before our ideas begin to coalesce into a sensible argument. It’s from this mess of bad writing that most of us are able to develop our final product.
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. If this is what I publish, that first draft must be a real train wreck. And yes, it is.
Because it needs to be. We need to have first drafts that don’t make sense and tangents that never circle back to the original point. It’s a critical part of the process to develop any work. And we never know how each component fits within the whole until we’ve developed the entire framework.
Pulitzer-winning writer Jennifer Egan offers similar advice for aspiring writers,
“You can only write regularly if you’re willing to write badly. You can’t write regularly and well. One should accept bad writing as a way of priming the pump, a warm-up exercise that allows you to write well.”
Celebrate that bad writing. Creativity is an iterative process. It’s much easier to fix a bad write-up than create one perfectly from scratch.
2. Notice Things
“A writer is someone who pays attention to the world – a writer is a professional observer.” – Susan Sontag
Most people don’t notice things. They’re caught in their own world or busy looking at their phones for distraction updates.
Most people don’t listen. They’re thinking about what they want to say next and waiting for that pause so they can interrupt.
Most people don’t explore both sides of an issue. They’re quick to find articles that reinforce their own ideas and push them further to the edge.
But when you’re trying to write, you start noticing. Noticing leads to ideas and ideas are necessary.
When you start noticing, you take the time to listen to other people’s thoughts. Each thought is a potential idea.
When you start noticing, you study other people’s behaviors. Each example brings more understanding. More understanding is better writing.
When you start noticing, you watch for motivations. Each motivation includes a backstory. Each backstory gives you balanced perspectives.
In a truly inspiring book on writing, Anne Lamott shows us the benefit of better observing life as it progresses around us,
“One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore. Another is that writing motivates you to look closely at life, at life as it lurches by and tramps around.”
When you start noticing, you realize that life is much more interesting. And interesting writers live interesting lives.
3. Write Something Meaningful to You
“Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.” – Kurt Vonnegut
Ask someone about their passion and their eyes usually light up. Their body language and tone change almost immediately. They’re excited and engaged and those feelings are contagious.
It’s the same communication with writing. When we’re reading something that an author believes is truly meaningful, it comes through in the writing. The emotion is held in each word, emphasizing the author’s convictions.
Conversely, it’s a miserable experience to read something that lacks feeling. There’s no depth. It’s obvious the author is disinterested in the topic.
Like a salesperson who doesn’t believe in the product, an author who doesn’t believe in her ideas will always struggle to connect. If our sole motivation is money or clicks, it’s difficult to tell a story that excites and inspires.
Kurt Vonnegut, master storyteller, recognized this importance. In his 1985 essay, How to Write with Style, he emphasizes the criticality of focusing on the meaningful,
“The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not. Don’t you yourself like or dislike writers mainly for what they choose to show or make you think about? Did you ever admire an empty-headed writer for his or her mastery of the language? No.”
People read to gain new ideas. People read to provoke their thoughts. People read to be entertained and educated and inspired. None of these are possible with a topic the writer finds disinteresting.
Focus on what you consider meaningful. There will be others who share your interests. And you’re doing them a justice by writing on the topic.
4. Write Every Day.
“If you work on something a little bit every day, you end up with something that is massive.” – Kenneth Goldsmith
Writers write. Every day.
Whether identity drives behaviors or behaviors drive identity (I think the case can be made for both directions), neither is sustainable without consistent practice.
We improve by doing. By figuring out what works well and trying new things. We can’t do that from the sidelines.
Get in the game and start writing. And if you’re worried about quality, take solace in the fact that no one will read you for a while. When I started writing, it was depressing to think that few would ever read my initial posts. Now I consider that a blessing. It helped me refine my craft and improve. So when people did start reading, I had a product that was (slightly) more impressive.
Start a daily writing habit. Figure out what works for you, but commit to making it a priority. With practice comes improvement and writing is a lot more fun when you can notice the improvement.
Writer, author, and professional bar-setter Susan Sontag included the following reflection in a 1972 journal entry,
“A writer, like an athlete, must ‘train’ every day. What did I do today to keep in ‘form’?”
What did you do today to keep in form?
5. Research. Read. Experience.
I’ve found there to be no better cure for writer’s block than research. Whenever I’m not sure of a topic or am questioning a position, becoming smarter on the subject always helps.
Research isn’t limited to reading periodicals. It’s about gaining experiences. It’s about being curious. If I’m curious about it now, likely someone else already was and someone else will be again in the future.
Research is reading other authors that we respect. It helps us see what works and what doesn’t. It gives us tools to improve our writing.
Research is seeking new ideas and viewpoints that grab our interest. It’s about understanding what moves us and what doesn’t. And about understanding why.
In Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull emphasizes the importance of encouraging writers and designers to take research trips before developing Pixar’s movie scripts. He cites these trips as a critical element in maintaining the level of innovation that Pixar is continuously recognized,
“In any business, it’s important to do your homework, but the point I’m making goes beyond merely getting the facts straight. Research trips challenge our preconceived notions and keep clichés at bay. They fuel inspiration. They are, I believe, what keeps us creating rather than copying.”
Research helps us understand multiple perspectives. In today’s culture of immediate opinions, there’s no shortage of people willing to blindly defend their current views. The Internet is full of edge case opinions that aren’t interested in considering the other side. The alternative – telling the whole truth – is much more scarce. And hence, much more valuable.
6. Don’t Worry About Being Original
“Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.” – Salvador Dali
Echoing Dali’s perspective, Mark Twain famously wrote a letter to his friend Helen Keller, saying that “substantially all ideas are second hand.”
Steve Jobs recognized this as well. In a February 1996 issue of Wired, aptly titled as Steve Jobs: The Next Insanely Great Thing, he gives his succinct view on the creative process,
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.”
Steve Jobs wasn’t a creative genius. He was someone who put systems in place to support creativity and demanded a level of quality that perfected his products to a level of genius.
Mike Posner’s YouTube video, I Took a Pill in Ibiza, has nearly one billion views. But it didn’t take off until another group remixed the song and put it out with their own spin. Mike, as someone who started out remixing others’ music, recognized this as a critical part of the creative process.
Worry about authenticity, not originality. Take ideas and connect them. Give credit where it’s due, but build off them. Use your experiences to put your own spin on things. You’re still adding value to everyone.
After all, Andy Warhol didn’t invent Campbell’s soup.
7. Tell Your Own Stories
“Good fiction is made of what is real, and reality is difficult to come by.” – Ralph Ellison
I’m as guilty as anyone of over-citing scientific studies. I read new studies and consider how the results would apply to my life. Never mind if the details have nothing to do with my situation.
It’s as though we’re all waiting for science to give us a solution that’s based on how forty undergraduates respond in a controlled environment.
Make no mistake, I love science. And the scientific process is critical to moving our understanding and theories forward.
But no experiment will ever perfectly represent our specific circumstances unless it happens in our own lives. So design your own experiments. Put yourself into interesting situations. Use that story to help the rest of us understand your ideas.
We often hear the advice to “find your own voice.” As if the vocal sound we’ve been using since birth is now lost to us. More apt advice would be to “not lose your voice.” Write as you talk. Don’t create an impostor voice for the purpose of trying to please others. Tell your stories as they’re meant to be told.
I’d much rather hear about them than read a twenty page journal article that culminates with a recommendation for further research.
8. Become Part of the Community
One of the greatest aspects of writing is to become a part of the community. Whether it’s Medium or Quora or a broader community of writers, it creates a sense of involvement that I’ve found incredibly rewarding.
When we write, we become part of a growing community. We build connections with other writers. We’re able to leverage their strengths and find ways to help others.
Not ready to start writing yet? Read, appreciate, comment, congratulate, and suggest improvements. Just take steps to contribute. Make connections. Become part of the community.
Each subsequent step becomes a little easier.
9. Revel in the Negative
“Having your work hated by certain people is a badge of honor.“ – Austin Kleon, Show Your Work
There’s no sense telling you that negative criticism is a great tool. You’ve heard it before.
Deep down, you know it’s true. But it doesn’t take the sting out of negative feedback.
What does? More negative feedback.
When you put your work online, it will undoubtedly be subjected to the thoughts and opinions of those who disagree. Negative comments will come streaming in, complete with ridiculous suggestions and unhelpful advice.
It’s this freight train of criticism that helps toughen us against negative feedback. It conditions us to focus on the important and brush off the negative.
One of histories most celebrated poets, W. H. Auden, captures this perfectly with the following thought,
“Every writer would rather be rich than poor, but no genuine writer cares about popularity as such. He needs approval of his work by others in order to be reassured that the vision of life he believes he has had is a true vision and not a self-delusion, but he can only be reassured by those whose judgment he respects. It would only be necessary for a writer to secure universal popularity if imagination and intelligence were equally distributed among all men.”
As you slowly become a collector of negative feedback, you clearly see which judgments deserve respect. And you realize that universal popularity is not something to be admired.
“The only purpose of starting is to finish, and while the projects we do are never really finished, they must ship.” – Seth Godin, Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?
When I first started drafting posts this year, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to perfect the first one. I made minor tweaks and edits, punctuated by full rewrites, trying to get it just perfect.
Looking back on that first article, I’m embarrassed of the quality. Despite many edits and hours invested, I cringe at the writing.
This is unavoidable. I couldn’t have written a better article then since I didn’t have the experience of publishing, gaining feedback, and trying to improve with each step.
Hopefully, six months from now, I’ll be embarrassed by this article and everything that’s come before it. The alternative is to not improve, stuck in a state of perpetual stasis.
When we publish our work, we give our work to the world. We open ourselves to both congratulation and criticism and practice the ever-difficult feeling of vulnerability. But more importantly, it forces us to move on.
When we publish, we’re able to move on to the next work. We move from trying to perfect one piece to building a portfolio. As bestselling author Ryan Holiday recently wrote,
“Each time you do this, it not only increases your mastery in your chosen craft, but as a result it also increases your odds of creating something brilliant and lasting. It also grows your back catalog and your platform. The key, though, is that you must do it – you must create, create, create.”
Write. Have fun. Write some more. Keep improving. Make an impact. Enjoy it.
If you’re having fun, the quality will take care of itself. You’ll care enough to ensure it.
As literary genius and one of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman, wisely put it,
“The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.”