Writers: Don’t try to be what you’re not…

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Did your mother ever say to you, ‘don’t try to be what you’re not’? It’s excellent advice for writers, as well….

If you want to succeed as a writer, the worst thing you can do is try to be something you’re not.

Do you know what I mean by this? For example, let’s imagine…

  • Your natural writing style involves many wildly descriptive passages. (But you aspire to a cleaner and clearer style)
  • You’re a night owl, who does the best work imaginable at 10 pm and has a hard time getting out of bed at 8 a.m. (But you want to start work at 6 am.)
  • You are shy and reserved and find it greatly uncomfortable to talk to people you don’t know. (But you wish you could be a social butterfly floating through any social gathering.)

There are perfectly valid reasons for wanting to change any of these traits. But instead of trying to remake yourself, I suggest you accept who you are and use that as the starting place for your writing.

Here is why.

  1. Changing yourself is difficult and time-consuming.The person you are goes deeper than you think. It’s a result of the gene pool you were born into, the way you were raised, the education you received, the friends you have and the reading you’ve done. You can make small, incremental changes over time, but you’re not going to be able to change the whole enchilada from beef to vegetarian overnight.
  2. You’ll appear phoneyIf the “new you” isn’t a natural outgrowth of who you really are, it’s going to be incredibly hard to maintain. Cracks and strains will inevitably begin to show and your friends, co-workers, bosses and readers may conclude that you’re a fake.
  3. You’ll lose what makes you specialMy late mother was a potter, and when she learned the craft, her teacher taught her that every piece of work should have at least one “flaw.” And it was this “flaw” that made the work beautiful. Think of Barbara Streisand’s nose. She hated it for many years (and would have had surgery but for the fear it might change her singing voice). But doesn’t it make her look distinctive and interesting?
  4. The people you compare yourself to compare themselves to others as well. You know the expression, “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence”? We all compare ourselves to others, and we assume they are better than us and happier than us. Instead, we all face the same universal challenges.
  5. It’s perfectly normal to have negative thoughts. The human mind has somewhere between 12,000 and 60,000 thoughts per day. But 70% of them are negative according to Psychology Today. The good news, however, is that we don’t have to believe our negative musings. Instead, understand that your mind is only one part of you and you can call on other parts to help tamp down the Negative Normans and Nellies: your body, your emotions and your spirit.
  6. Focus on progress rather than perfection. It’s paradoxical that our need to “get it right” so often trips us up. When our writing falls short of what we want to accomplish, we feel worthless and bereft. Instead, we should be giving ourselves a pat on the back for trying, making progress, and coming as far as we have.
  7. There is more right with you than wrong with you. Even if you don’t like your writing or your writing habits, surely there are some areas of your life where you feel you have it together. Start from this position of strength before you start trying to remake yourself.

I know these ideas probably sound horribly touchy-feely and you may wonder how you can make your writing any better by being so “easy” on yourself.

Well, I don’t see this as easy. In 40 years of working with thousands of writers, I’ve found the number one problem most writers face is they feel inept. As a result, they don’t sit down with their writing day after day.

It may surprise you to learn that, as a writing coach, my first priority is not making people’s writing better. Instead, my job is to help them feel better about themselves — and help them find a way to achieve their long-term writing goals.

Sure, I could go in with my red pencil and shorten rambling sentences, change passive voice to active and remove clichés. But making only that short-term fix would make them more dependent on me, not better writers themselves.

Improving your writing is a gradual and slow process requiring the investment of regular time. It is not about being something you are not (for example, trying to wake up at 6 am if you’re a night owl). Instead, it’s about recognizing who you really are and building from there.


My video podcast last week offered advice on dealing with writer’s block.  Or see the transcript and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email  Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.


How do you stop yourself from trying to be a writer you’re not?  We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by March 31/19 will be put in a draw for a copy of the book The Artful Edit by Susan Bell. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.


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