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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  • As you guys know, I am BIG on education. My goal for this year is to share as much education and free resources on freelancing, marketing, and writing as possible. I'm even switching email list providers (moving to ConvertKit) so I can send you better emails related to what you're interested in. Don't care about the brand stuff, but want to know more about writing? I GOT YOU. When I sell resources, I want them to be relatively affordable. So, I'm starting small with a MONSTER guide on freelancing. I originally thought this was going to be 100 pages. Well, it's 150+ pages with 40% of NEW content I'm writing RIGHT NOW. Templates, how-tos, personal stories, resources, and everything you need to know about getting started, getting clients, onboarding them, managing them, and dealing with them when they drive you bonkers. .

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  • In this era of competitiveness and self-serving "entrepreneurs," it's rare to come across a peer who is generous with their work and their heart. Rarely am I moved by people, but today I was on the receiving end of an act of kindness that I had to share. 
I contacted a peer in the marketing space, a woman whom I revere and admire. She's young, smart, passionate, hardworking, and knows more about marketing than most people I've encountered in my two-decade-long career. 
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So many people paint consultants, marketers, educators and course providers with a broad brush. Yes, there are hoards of incompetent hustlers. People who don't do what they teach. But there are those who are bright lights. And today I was reminded of that. 
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  • With the exception of the cruelty that is tax day, I’m toasting some professional wins. I’m creating a comprehensive ebook on freelancing—the ultimate guide before I go the course route. Hit the link in my bio to subscribe to my email list to get all the details! I’m excited about this one because I’m rocking the baby steps before marathon approach.
Inspired by one of my professional heroes, @byreginatv, I removed 2,000 people from my email list and it felt glorious. Don't be tethered to a vanity metric. If people aren't connecting with you, the numbers are meaningless. I'd rather have a smaller, engaged audience of people who are into my vibe and work than the ability to shout out a high subscriber count. #foodforproverbialthought.
I’ve got new book recommendations up on my personal blog: http://www.feliciacsullivan.com if you want to devour some excellent reads.

Finally, aided by a new friend, I’m going to my first Quilt chat this week. The Wing isn’t my vibe and it’s can’t rationalize spending the money and Quilt is my scene. I’ll likely be chatting about this in my newsletter as I’m FINALLY in a place where I can network in a non-smarmy setting.
Here’s to an excellent start to the week!
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  • This year is shaping up to be my best yet, and I’m happy to have made it out of the dark country. I’m writing work that means so much to me. I’m reading 2 books a week. I’m tackling challenging, but thrilling projects. I’m collaborating with brilliant, beautiful friends. And I’m calm, centered, and focused. It too a long while and a breakdown to get here, but I’m grateful for my small patchwork of a family who always checked in, hired me when I desperately needed it, and didn’t flee when things got tough. Sometimes you need to feel the weight of your sadness to unburden yourself of it. Here’s to yummy lunches and the best year yet!
  • Over the past two years, I’ve been toying with teaching. I’ve taught marketing to creatives at USC. I’ve taught creative writing in New York. I’ve mentored employees and friends. I love learning and sharing what I’ve learned, and forpeople I know and love I often do it for free. 
So, what’s stopped me? Honestly, the machine that’s become the online course industry irritates me. Webinars that waste time. Who wants to watch a 45-minute infomercial? Not me. Or how about the fake fan love and Instagram platforms that are transparently transactional? Courses that are a million dollars, taught by people who haven’t done the thing they’reteaching beyond their own privileged platform. And did I mention that everyone looks the same? The super stars are white, well educated, and bragging about their seven-figure incomes. 
I mean, COME ON. 
Listen. I’m half-white, privileged as fuck, well educated, but I definitely don’t make seven figures. And I’m frustrated. I’m frustrated with freelancers who call themselves brand strategists (aka, predators posing as house pets) making bank, yet they lack the experience, education, and discipline. But I’ve learned that complaining does nothing if you’re not creating, if you’re not putting out the thing you want to see in the world. I spent two months creating an 8-step tutorial on how to build a brand platform because I was tired of people not having access to education and opportunity because they couldn’t drop $1,500 on a brand-building course.

Then I thought about how I need to stop complaining about the shady machine that is the online course space and put out the education I want to see in the world, made accessible to people who don’t look like me or have the fancy-pants Ivy League degrees I have (which have driven me to paralyzing debt, but that’s a whole other bag of sad tricks). I’m planning two courses: one on getting into the freelancing game and another on building your brand and finding your customer. Interested? Sign up for my email list (link in bio), where I’ll keep everyone posted.
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  • It may only be 5:48am, but I woke to amazing news. I’m toasting with coffee and a scone this morning. I’m partnering with brilliant friends and marketers (eh-hem, @luciaioevans) on incredible projects, my pipeline is healthy, my mental health is aces since I got off all personal social media. Granted, I won’t be able to see humans for the next two months as I’m locked down with some major projects, but I am not complaining. I’m ELATED. It’s all happening!!!! Yay! Finally!!!
  • 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.
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.
It feels good to know your stuff but still have the hunger and drive as a student!
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