I tweeted this recently and it’s been on my mind since:
When it comes to writing things people care about, bookmark, feel compelled to share, or buy, so much emphasis gets placed on *the writing itself.* In fact, nearly every single “writing guru” on the Internet spends most of their time telling aspiring writers to sharpen their sentences, scrutinize their adjective choices, watch out for bad grammar, and so on.
But not I.
A few years ago, I came to a stunning realization:
As much as it pained me to admit, most of the “in the weeds” things writers think are important, aren’t. (And if you want proof, look no further than a book like Fifty Shades Of Grey — painfully poor writing, but clearly an “idea” that resonated with millions of readers.)
No amount of trading adjectives is going to make you a successful writer.
No amount of hours spent debating, “Should I move this paragraph here, and that paragraph there?” will make or break your piece.
These aren’t the things that matter.
What matters is THE IDEA ITSELF.
What are you really trying to say?
For example, an exercise I love doing with writers — and one I plan on doing with the upcoming Write The Ship cohort that starts in March — is having them all write about the same exact topic. Like, for instance, how to build an effective morning routine.
What most writers will do is they will approach that general idea with a handful of smaller, also-general ideas. Their articles will cover most of the things you would expect out of a typical Morning Routine article:
- Wake up early
- Drink a big glass of water first thing when you wake up
- Get your body moving / do some form of physical exercise
- Journal, set your intention for the day
- Put your phone away, etc.
These are all the things that come to mind as soon as you start thinking about the topic — which is where most writers start.
The result, however, is all their articles end up sounding the same.
And when you read article after article after article in front of a group of writers, the lightbulb moment is pretty dramatic.
Everyone is left sitting there realizing they’re all “competing” against each other using almost identical words, phrases, and most of all, IDEAS.
Forget the writing for a second — what are you actually SAYING?
If your Morning Routine article says the same overall things as the other 10,384 morning routine articles out there, then guess what?
You’re the same.
And if you’re the same, you’re noise.
There’s nothing unique or fundamentally different about what you’re sharing — which means nobody is going to take the time to care.
This is arguably the biggest mistake writers make, period. They think just because they took the time to write it, readers should want to read it. To be blunt, writers have an overwhelming sense of entitlement. “I DESERVE to be read,” they say to themselves — all the while ignoring asking themselves the most important question of all, which is, “If no one is reading what I’m writing, what I’m saying and my ideas must not be unique enough. So what ideas would be considered unique?”
Ah, now we’re getting somewhere.
Going back to the Morning Routine article example, what would be some ideas or pieces of advice that AREN’T in every single morning routine article ever written on the Internet?
Well, you can approach this problem in a few different ways:
- You can change the topics/advice. Make a list of all the conventional wisdom most people would share on the topic (should be 20, 50, 100+ ideas), and then once you feel like you’ve exhausted every option of what has already been written, take all those examples and tell yourself, “I can’t use any,” and start there. What ELSE?
- You can change the aim. Instead of writing another Morning Routine article, you can flip the topic on its head and write an article titled: Why Optimizing Your Morning Routine Isn’t Going To Change Your Life. By changing the aim and reframing the problem, you are also changing the way readers perceive your writing in the context of the market/what already exists.
- You can change the format. If most Morning Routine articles are lists, then copying that same format will likely send another signal to readers that “this piece is the same as all the rest.” So, approach it differently: write it as if it was an idealistic opinion piece in the New Yorker — more prose, less bullets.
- You can change the credibility. If most Morning Routine articles are written from “personal experience” (as in: the author is sharing his or her opinions on what an ideal morning routine should be), then you can change the credibility of the piece by leveraging other people’s insights — ideally famous people, renowned experts, recognizable names, etc. For example, “What’s The Secret To A High-Performing Morning Routine? Jay-Z, Warren Buffet, and Oprah All Do These 5 Things.”
- You can change the pacing. If all the other articles are short, you go long. If all the other articles are long, you go short. If all the other articles avoid description, describe. If all the other articles go on and on, compress. There is tremendous benefit in doing the opposite of what everyone else does.
All of that said, even more important than pacing, format, etc., is the uniqueness of your core idea. And if your core idea is the same as everyone else’s core idea, well, then you aren’t all that different. And if you aren’t different, then you’re the same. And if you’re the same, you’re easily replaceable.
This is what makes being a writer so hard.
It’s really not about the writing. In fact, I’d argue the writing is the easiest part (because once you understand the basics of good, clean writing, that’s about all there is to it).
The whole craft of being a writer is coming up with differentiated ideas.
Being a writer is the skill of saying that which has not yet been said.
So, stop trading our adjectives, or obsessing over whether you should use the word “good” or “splendid.” It doesn’t matter.
What matters is what you’re SAYING.
And what you’re SAYING has to be DIFFERENT.
This article is an excerpt from my daily morning newsletter, Daily Writing Habits.