Personal Writing Should Be an Exploration, Not an Explanation

One of the hardest things about juggling a professional writing career and a personal writing practice is the way professional writing teaches you to package your work perfectly. You get almost too good at wrapping things up in a bow, as that’s pretty much required from you on a daily basis.

But there’s a big difference between writing a news article or a company blog post and working on personal writing, which might take the form of your own blog, poetry, book, screenplay, and so on. And when it comes to work that is meant to express, not explain, nothing can be worse than the habit of only writing when you fully know a topic.

The Best Material Lives in Your Questions

I had the idea to write about this after talking to a friend of mine who is an incredibly talented writer who has made her name in marketing. She knows how to explain anything in a way that’s engaging, funny, and immensely informative. After many years in the industry, this is something she practically does in her sleep.

However, she’s pivoting towards a focus on more personal work that transcends the world of marketing. The major crux of this pivot is a book she’s working on that will likely serve as her coming out party. This is her chance to show the world what she really has to say — and let me tell you, we need to hear it. So, what’s the issue?

She’s too good at writing for a living. 

We were on the phone the other day when she told me that she couldn’t make headway on her book because she has too many nagging questions and doubts in her mind about the topic she wants to discuss. Years of working in her profession have taught her that she can’t tackle a topic before she knows it inside and out, so now she’s feeling painfully blocked.

That’s when I told her, as her friend and reader, that I don’t give a crap about reading a user manual, but I’d LOVE to read her words as they navigate through the maze of those nagging doubts. In fact, I’m of the mindset that the doubts are the work. We already know how to do most things in life — our roadblocks don’t come from doubts about how to do life, but what to do when our instincts tell us something is amiss. And these days I think most people have the feeling that something is amiss — whether that something relates to climate, politics, the future, work culture, and so on. That’s the conversation people are hungry for — the conversation that says, “Something’s off: You know it, I know it, so let’s talk about it.”

Follow the Path Your Doubts Lead You Through

Weirdly, I learned the trick of following the rabbit hole of my questions when I was doing SEO-based work at a startup. I was still newish to the topic, so I had to do a lot of research before I could write even one article. That’s when I noticed that the same questions I’m typing into Google are likely the same questions the reader has in mind. Therefore, every time I typed a question into Google for research, I wrote it down as a headline for a future blog post.

We tend to think we’re totally unique from one another, both in a positive and negative way. On the positive side, we might think we possess skills and character that no one can match. On the negative side, we might think that no one would care about the things we care about, so we’re scared to impose our questions or doubts or conversation on them.

The truth is, we’re a lot more similar than we are different, and if you have questions about something, you can bet someone else does too. The problem is when fear creeps in and makes you believe no one cares about the things you do. But they do. If you have doubts, if you see something off, someone else does too. The quickest way to know what that conversation is would be to follow your nagging doubts about your topic (even if your topic is the world at large).

In my friend’s case, the questions she has are doubts about her industry and the way information and experts are presented. She was scared to write about her topic because she didn’t want to be part of the problem, and I told her that I think the problem is the topic. 

Remember, all writers are reporters. Our job is to see the world for what it is and report back. No matter what medium we use, our writing is meant to give eyes to the rest of the world; to give them a viewpoint they can’t see for any number of reasons. We’re not just meant to tell people how to do things or how to live; we’re meant to open their eyes to truths that they might not be able to see — or that they see but don’t have the courage or the support to admit. We see, we report, we validate for those who also see, we awaken those who don’t. That’s our job.

Please Don’t Write Another Instruction Manual

I’d be lying if I said that writing this way is easy. It’s a million times easier to write about what we know and to focus on the topics we feel totally confident in. That’s fine if there are solid business reasons for doing it — but this is your personal writing we’re talking about, not another client or job or freelance assignment. This is your life’s work. Do you want your life’s work to be another instruction manual?

Or do you want your life’s work to open minds, awaken hearts, build bridges, enact change?

It’s entirely up to you. It’s not easy to trust that your doubts are not yours alone and that they’re the beacon for the really good, important, meaty conversations. It takes hubris to believe that others care about what keeps you up at night — but they do. And if you can fake your way through that belief long enough to get those words on the page, then you’ll never look back again.

The world doesn’t need another instruction manual — not in your personal work, anyway. Trust yourself, trust your doubts, be the reporter, and wake us up. 

Photo by Anika Huizinga on Unsplash