To be a writer is to swim in a sea of self-doubt. I don’t think it’s because we’re all tortured artists, but rather because we make it our jobs to question everything around us, and it’s only natural that we’d include ourselves in the interrogations.
But it’s easy to think that other writers don’t have this self-doubt. The better their work, the more we might assume that they confidently bang out everything the write and pat themselves on the back in the process. However, I recently received a reminder that this is unlikely to be the case.
It’s All Been Done Before
I have a few friends who are such great writers that I have to remind myself not to compare myself to them, lest I get pummeled by a tidal wave of self-doubt. One of them surprised me recently when she posed a fear of hers. Her worry? That there’s simply no room for her content on the web. Her reasoning? Because so much of what she wanted to write about has already been done.
In an effort not to sound like my old college professors who liked to remind us that even Shakespeare’s stories weren’t original, I tried to empathize with my friend. I knew how original her writing could be, but it wouldn’t matter if she couldn’t see it. Here’s what I ended up telling her.
It’s Not Just What You Say, It’s How You Say It …
Here’s something you should know about this particular friend of mine. I’ve never met anyone like her. She’s fun, she’s wacky, and she’s smart as hell. All of these wonderful traits are wrapped up in a ball of magic that, when she fully leans into herself, can be truly impactful.
But she, like I, came of age in a professional writing world that forced her into a box. She wasn’t allowed to choose her topics or write in her own voice, and we were all required to write in a manner that could be replicated by anyone. Though we were thrilled to receive a paycheck for our words, the result was that we lost our voices. By the time we moved on to different jobs, our writerly instincts were hanging on by a thread.
So it didn’t surprise me that much that she’d be feeling self-doubt. It takes years to come back from what we went through. The problem was, the doubt was strong enough to bring her work to its knees. Should she publish? Should she not publish? Was this work she cared so much about worth doing at all? These questions were plaguing her.
That’s when I reminded her that I’ve never met anyone like her, that her voice was truly unique, and even if she and I sat down to write the exact same article, it would sound very different. That’s sort of the magic of it all. Your voice is the fingerprint of your work — others might be able to imitate it, but no one can own it but you.
… And How You Look at It
But what makes someone’s writing unique isn’t just their voice — it’s also their angle. We all have a framework from which we view the world, and that framework constructed by our environment and our personalities is the lens through which our writing is focused.
Imagine if your point of view was a pair of glasses. The only way I could write like you is to put on your glasses. But I can’t do that, because I’m wearing my own pair, and the two together would distort the picture. I might be able to empathize with what you see, but I can’t look without seeing your picture through my lens.
The lens, or the framework, doesn’t just dictate your tone and word choice. It also determines your take on a topic, or your angle. When you research and write something, what questions do you ask? What questions don’t you ask? What details do you focus on? What aspects of the topic do you choose to spend less time with?
Writing is made up of a million little choices like this. Some are as automatic as breathing while others can send us into an analysis paralysis-induced writer’s block. Either way, these choices determine the direction our writing goes in.
But the uniqueness of our work doesn’t stop there. Our mood can play a large part as well. Right now I’m writing this article in a conversational tone. Earlier today I wrote it with a more instructional feel. Yesterday I couldn’t figure out how to write it at all so I wrote a few lines, deleted them, wrote a few more, deleted them, and finally slammed my laptop shut after an hour of frustration.
Add this all up and you have proof that your treatment of a topic will be different from someone else’s. And this is what I told my friend when she wondered if there really is room on the web for her take on a particular subject.
Going back to what my college professors would say, Shakespeare’s ideas might have been done before, but his treatment of those ideas was truly original. That, plus his absolute talent as a wordsmith, led to unoriginal stories being told in an original way that is still impacting people centuries later.
Shakespeare didn’t need to write original stories to create work that lasts, he simply needed to approach and write those stories in an original way — in his way.
Never Forget That the Reader Seeks to Identify With You
You, like my friend, could agree with everything I’m saying here and still think that there’s no room for your take on a subject. And that’s where we get to the most impactful part of this whole thing: the reader.
To better understand the reader, think of yourself as a reader for a minute. You’ve probably come across writers that you totally agree with on paper that you just can’t stand to read. And there are probably others that you would never think you’d be interested in, but if someone hands you their work, you can’t take your eyes off of it.
That’s because we care just as much about the way someone sounds as the thing they choose to talk about. We want to read authors that feel like us, that we want to know. Why else would this be such a common question:
“What author, dead or alive, would you invite to a dinner party?”
Go ahead and think of who you’d invite. Chances are, that writer’s work gives you a sense of comfort, maybe even a sense of home. They write or wrote in a language that makes sense to you and about topics or stories you’re interested in.
Writers give voice to those who identify with their work. They’re the megaphone for their readers’ thoughts, fears, hopes, and dreams. For those who identify with your work — which is what all readers subconsciously seek to do — hearing you talk about the world as you experience it validates their experiences. It validates them.
Therefore, we don’t just read things because we want to know the information or stories, we choose what to read and who to read because we find ourselves in those topics and those authors.
When you think about it this way, how could there not be room for your work? You’re the one putting in the work to explore a topic, after all, and you have every right to put your take on it out into the world. Some writers even see this as their duty.
If you’re honest about who you are and stay true to that in your writing, then you can be the voice for people like you. And they’ll be grateful you did.