08 Oct 2018

“But…I can’t write!” Yes, you can. Here’s how…

3 smart tips to get you going

Don’t freak out, but it took me over two decades to find my voice.

Now, I’m not talking about some dystopian world where women have to wear bracelets that electrocute them after they’ve uttered 100 words (the plot from the excellent novel Vox, by the way). Rather, I’m referring to my writing voice — the style, tone, tenor, and cadence that makes my writing uniquely mine.

I’ve been writing since I was six and finding my voice took work. I read. I mimicked those whom I admired. I got my master’s degree from Columbia. I endured workshops when all I wanted to do was staple things to my fellow students’ heads. I broke down paragraphs written by authors I loved and analyzed them in excruciating detail. I tried on styles that ended up feeling like sweaters that itched or shoes that were a tad too tight. Even while writing my first book, I harbored a constant feeling that something wasn’t right.

Five years ago, I quit a job that was slowly killing me and I took a trip to Biarritz. I holed up in a cheap hotel by the water and wrote. And it was the first time I wrote something that felt right. That felt like me. I’d spent decades assiduously following someone else’s subjective rules and when I started what became my second book, I was too exhausted to remember the rules. I just wrote. And it made everything I’d written previously pale in comparison.

I’m going to save you the twenty years of agita and share three tips that have helped me along the way.

Tip #1: Unlearn a lot of the garbage taught in English class

Before you have a rage blackout, hear me out. I always felt uncomfortable in high school and college English classes because the rules felt much like commandments. One would never dare end a sentence in a preposition. One would not deign to use sentence fragments. But look at Faulkner’s hot, unpunctuated mess. Look at the great experimental novelists and poets. You learn the rules to find your own ways of breaking them.

While I observe most rules of grammar (and thank god for copy editors for I am not one), not all of them should be sacrosanct. During the copy-editing phase of my second book, I fought with my brilliant copy editor on stylistic choices I’d made.

Writing should have a rhythm, cadence, warmth, and balance. I often juxtapose long sentences with short fragments because think about how you tell stories that captivate people. They don’t care that your grammar isn’t 100%, or that you started a sentence with a preposition. They care that what would you said (or wrote) shifted the ground beneath their feet.

tl;dr: Rules were made to be broken.

Tip #2: Tell them a story; don’t just answer a question

I just finished Rachel Cusk’s Transit and there was a chapter I found particularly salient. The narrator, Faye, is a creative writing professor and she has an ambitious student who often tries to play the role of teacher. An older gent writes stories about his dog. This guy really loves his dog, but he doesn’t know how to explain his love in a way that’s “literary.” The faux professor says during a workshop, “You can’t just say that your dog is beautiful. Why is your dog beautiful?” And the gent sputters and is flummoxed and anxious.

Faye intercedes and asks a series of open-ended questions that force the student to tell a story. She asks about the breed of the dog, the history of the breed, how the student came to find the dog, etc. The gent suddenly has a lot to say, and in the telling of his story, you learn why he loves his dog so much.

Stories bind people to one another. They create neurological and emotional connections. Look at “mirror neurons” to see what I mean, for starters. While this tip may look like a riff off of the old “show, don’t tell” bit, it’s not. I’m telling you that the best writing does both. You write the bold statements and the stories reveal your “why” in a way that makes it your own. You can use all the fifty-cent words and pretty images you like, but that will never make you distinct.

tl;dr: What sets good writing apart is the ability for people to see you and themselves in what you’ve written.

Tip #3: The most compelling stories come from your reader, not you

Now, this is mostly reserved for copywriting, sales copy — copy that invites someone to do something on your behalf. That something can be cash in your pocket or a new subscriber to your email list. A lot of creative entrepreneurs are all me, me, me, and frankly, your customer doesn’t care about you unless it’s through the lens of how you will solve their problems.

Your customers and readers care about themWe live in a world where people want their needs and desires met and your copy needs to come from a place of understanding them, their needs and wants, and challenges and how you will solve for themThen you can waltz in with the “me” language to show them why you are the best person to solve their problems.

tl;dr: Your product or service isn’t about you — it’s about your customer or reader.

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  • You guys. I’m having an incredible fucking year. I’ve published tutorials, thought leadership and essays I’m proud of, I’m working with incredible clients who are breaking ranks, I’m partnering with brilliant people on projects, my pipeline is healthy, my mental health is getting back on track, and I’m reorganizing my business so I can run it more efficiently. Sometimes you have to applaud the wins, especially when they’ve been earned.
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  • What a day! Ive been floored and humbled by the tens of THOUSANDS who viewed my 8-part brand building series on medium (link in bio)! I’ve heard from four university professors who want to incorporate my work as assigned reading, the people who were grateful not to have to spend $2K on some wack course taught by an “expert” whose only success example is their personal brand.
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Today, I had a day of interviews that culminated in a presentation to the executive team. After it ended, several people asked if I’d considered teaching because I just delivered a master class on brand strategy.
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It feels good to know your stuff but still have the hunger and drive as a student!
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  • After a long week of hard work, I scored two new projects, paid some bills, wrote a ton, cheered my medium series, and planned for my trip east this weekend. Sometimes, you need a little chow reward, am I right?
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  • I am OVER THE MOON, my friends. Medium just published my collection of 8 comprehensive tutorials on how to build a brand. Here's why I did it.
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Over the past year, I've seen faux marketers charge upwards of $2000 for courses on what I'm sharing for free. The difference being is that they haven't done the thing they're teaching for no one other than themselves and their personal brand. I've been doing this professionally for 20 years. And what makes me postal is the fact that what they're teaching is WRONG. If you don't know the difference between brand, branding, and brand platform, you shouldn't be selling a course on it. .

I also created this because $2,000 courses give access to an elite group of people. Not everyone can afford that kind of coin and I think knowledge should be shared and accessible by all. Especially if you're like me, privileged. I'm passionate about this to my core, and why you may think--meh, this is just a series of posts, it's so much more to me. It means people can learn for free or on the cheap. .

I'm sharing detailed tutorials, downloadables, graphics, and extensive vetted resources for further learning, including free online courses from MIT, Google, and more. You know, reputable brands.
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Check out the collection via the link in my profile. If you like the tutorials, clap more than once and share. Thx!
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  • My freelance career is nearing its best-by date. This realization didn’t come from some climactic third act. Instead, it was an acknowledgment of a simple truth: everything expires. The shiny and new loses its sheen and pallor. What once made you bolt out of bed becomes the thing you run from screaming. You tally the things you keep losing, which loom large and incalculable. You’re bombarded by seemingly motivational Instagram quotes that tell you to keep working, keep hustling, keep pushing through it. What the platitudes neglect to add is that some battles should be abandoned. Sometimes it’s okay not to play your hand and to walk away from the table. There is a difference, albeit subtle, between what’s hard and what’s Sisyphean.
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Yes, I want to go back to full-time. Yes, I have no idea how I’ll pay rent this week but I’m surprisingly calm because there are some things out of my control.
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I do have a whole slate of morning interviews for a role back east later in the week so I’m pumped about that. Check out my new medium post (link in bio).
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Image: cosmaa / Getty Images
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  • I’m honestly crying tears of gratitude. I should tell you that I’m not a cryer. Unless it’s those Sarah McLachlan animal shelter commercials and then I’m a puddle. But I’m getting really excited about how this @medium series is coming together. I’ll probably top 50K words including the downloadable resources. And I’m even more humbled that my friend @lorissas (we’ve known one another since 2002 and we’ve worked together since my book publishing days) created these gorgeous custom graphics. I really want my collection branded in the blues and to reflect my vibe as much as possible. I’m spending my own $ to license photography and illustrations.
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All because I’m really fucking tired of faux marketers who don’t know of what they teach. Or they teach what has worked for them, their blog or IG, which doesn’t necessarily translate to big brands. Then you have scammers who make it hard for the legit marketers who have to go through hoops because companies have gotten burned by incompetence.
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I also want to make use of my educational privilege. I went to an excellent private college and Ivy League graduate school. I had the privilege of working for brilliant marketers, from whom I learned everything I know. And I want to share that as much as possible. For free. This is my goal in 2019–create and share tons of pedagogical content. For free.
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I’m so excited!!!!! Shout out to @omgstephlol for believing in my vision and putting up with my craziness.
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#fuckfauxmarketers #makinguseofmyprivilege, #brandstrategy #marketing #marketingtips #strategy #thehustle #freelance
  • THIS WEEK. Well, let’s see... I wrote a total of 32K words, accepted an offer to be one of a few operating owners of a funded content start-up (no $ now but I think this will blow up), I had another interview with an agency in Philly and we talked money, balance, neuroscience and I like their vibe. I’m not moving cross country just yet so let’s all take a pause. I finished a good book, started another. Got my mammogram results back—no cancer! I got angry with my health insurance company like the rest of America. Part of me hopes I can get a full-time job so I can enjoy a consistent paycheck for a hot second. Celebrated a month off the sauce (let’s not get telenovela about this). I cleaned my house and burst into tears talking to my bankruptcy attorney because apparently no one cares that you’ve been making on-time payments for over a year and you’re going through a rough patch. It stormed and I loved it and prayed for more rain. It’s sunny now. I have a first line for a new chapter but I can’t write because all I’m thinking about is work and how I’ll make rent. But here it is: “Love in their home had become its own form of violence.”
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I met up with @bhatmon who always makes me smile and if I move back east she’ll be the one true thing I’ll miss. I listened to podcasts, read science articles, and wished that I could get a neuroscience degree but a kind reader pointed me in the direction of MIT’s free classes so I’m jazzed. I emailed a rescue service and filled out an adoption application but no one ever wrote my back so that made me sad.
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I have no idea how I’ll at for anything but I can’t freak out over that which I can’t control and like that. And love is kind of violent if you really get to thinking about it.
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I’m annoyed that I’ve lived get for over three years and I haven’t seen nearly enough. And on it goes.
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#weekendvibes #weeklyrecap #realtalk #instayum #thehustle #amwriting but am I?
  • Love can sometimes create its own form of emotional violence.
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I used to rummage through photos as a means of being cruel to myself. You used to be thin! You used to be slightly fashionable! You used to be disciplined! And as the edges softened, as your wont to do as you get older and let a lot of the hardness within you go, it occurred to me that the things I used to want and love were violent. I was ruthless to my body to get it to a certain shape instead of eating to sustain myself and moving to feel. I went at everything so hard! Then I worked all hours of the day and night until it made me literally sick. My hardness, my love and desire to look and be a certain way, was hurting me.
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Now. I’ve softened in all senses of the word. I’m calmer. I have a different (and healthier) view of my body and what it means to be beautiful, and I have strong boundaries that guard against the people with whom I work and the projects I’ve taken on. I’ve fired abusive clients. I make clear when and how I work. And I put me first. I have a lot of writing to do to make $ to pay rent this month but I rested yesterday because I need it. I didn’t realize how tiring writing could be when you’re doing it for 10-12 hours a day. Sometimes you need rest.
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Now, I look for pictures like this when I’m happy. When I’m laughing as feeling joyful and hopeful. Because I’m trying to be kinder to myself.
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#tuesdaymotivation #bekind #beingboss #boss #thehustle #amwriting

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