Please welcome writing coach and author Dana Leipold with an article on staying sane as a writer.
When I was in college, I had to write a senior thesis about marketing that had to be eighty pages long, minimum. The most I had written up until then was a twenty-five-page short story about a girl who was obsessed with the color red. I was freaked out. Completely frozen. I couldn’t even write the words, “In this paper, I will…” I fretted over every word and sentence, trying to make my thesis compelling.
After losing forty hours of sleep and much of my mind, I finally made an appointment to see my advisor. I remember running into his office with a pen and paper (this was way back in 1989). I whined and cried about not knowing what to write. He took one look at me and said, “Calm down. Take a breath and put your pen down.”
I did what he said because he was kind of scary. He had these thick glasses that made his eyes look huge, like he was constantly glaring at you, upset that your writing sucked.
He said, “Tell me the main idea you want to get across in your thesis.” I spoke the words with ease, no stress, and without worrying about how to say it. I just said it.
“Write that down,” he said.
Stop Writing and Just Talk
Something bizarre happens when you sit down to write. You think you have to communicate in a certain way that’s different from how you talk. I have no idea why you do this, but don’t worry—you’re not alone. I used to do it too (see story above). If you look at writing as a form of speaking on paper (or on a computer screen), it doesn’t seem as hard.
When you’re toiling over the words and feel like pulling your hair out, stop trying to write and just say what you want to say. I wouldn’t recommend doing this if you’re working in a Starbucks or anything. They might think you’re hearing voices and answering them. But if you’re alone, say what you want to communicate out loud, and then write it down.
To this day, I still use that advice whenever I’m stuck. Many of my clients have also used this advice to start writing. However, to write really well, you have to imagine that you are actually speaking to someone.
Pretend You’re Talking to Your Reader
Imagine you’re talking to a close friend over coffee. Would you say, “Hello friend, how are you doing today?” or would you say, “How’s it going?” When your friend asks what you’ve been up to lately, would you say, “I am engaged in a new business venture of which I am investing my time and money with the hopes of generating sustainable income?” Well, you might if you were my fourth grade teacher. She was a stickler for proper grammar. The funny thing is that lots of people believe you have to write in this academic, know-it-all style to be a good writer.
Even if you’re writing about the history of the electric light bulb, most people will enjoy it more if you use a conversational voice. That means using plain, simple language that everyone understands.
Make It as Clear as Possible
Writing well is all about communicating clearly and simply. There’s no use writing something if no one understands it. Here’s proof:
“When the process of freeing a stuck vehicle that has been stuck results in ruts or holes, the operator will fill the rut or hole created by such activity before removing the vehicle from the immediate area.”
Did you get that? Good, because I didn’t either. I found this example by searching the web for “confusing writing.” It’s a notice from the National Parks Service. I probably wouldn’t know what to do if I read this, so I rewrote it as follows:
“If your vehicle gets stuck and you make a hole while freeing it, please fill the hole before you drive away.”
This makes much more sense. Most people don’t talk like the original sentence. Well, people who don’t get out much might talk like that, but no one will understand them. Use simple words. Don’t try to sound smart or profound when you write because you’ll just end up confusing people. It’s better to write like you talk so your unique voice and style can blossom.
About the Author: Dana Leipold is an author and writing coach. She began her writing career as a copywriter for corporate America. In 2011 she wrote and published Stupid Poetry: The Ultimate Collection of Sublime and Ridiculous Poems. It was an accident that made people laugh so she kept writing. People asked how she published a book herself and that’s how she became a writing coach. Her newest book is titled The Power of Writing Well: Write Well, Make a Difference (aff links). You can visit her website at: www.danaleipold.com.
Dana, Good tactics. Hemingway had another that’s worth throwing into the discussion. And that is after youve written a bunch, stop writing when you know what’s going to come next so the next day you can pick right up where you left off.
Tony, that’s a good one! I’m always afraid I’m going to lose my momentum or forget what I want to write next so I just keep going until I can’t see straight. Sometimes that’s not a good tactic though. Thanks for the comment!
Thanks for the reminder that writing can be as direct and simple as talking.
You are welcome, Joni!
This is excellent advice, Dana. I think it may help me free a poem that’s been rolling around in my head since yesterday. Thanks for sharing your experiences.
Yay for you, Abby!
Glad you found it helpful, Ashen!
Interesting advice. I do often stage conversations in my head – usually when I am trying to really get into a tricky scene and want to know the most realistic way it would play out between the characters.
just a tip for those in Starbucks (or other coffee chains) Its the same with reading your work., something people are often told to do out loud. Its just as easy to do in your head and no one thinks you are crazy! plus that way is actually more compatible, bridging the two forms, written and spoken..
MK, you bring up a great point! Reading your work out loud is invaluable. I actually just started doing it myself. I think I should wear a shirt that says, “I’m a writer. Yes, I am crazy.” That way people will just know. LOL!
Sound advice and obvious when you think about it. The best books and articles I’ve read have flowed naturally from the page but how often do I write like I talk? Not as often as I’d like. I’m always trying to ‘improve’ my writing when my own voice might sound good enough.
Try it more often Chris. I think you’ll find that writing becomes easier and when you read it back, you will like how it sounds because it’s YOU! 🙂
I’ve never thought of talking it out, but that’s a genius idea. I’ll definitely have to try that one. Thanks for the great suggestions!