So what does it take to get people to read your stuff? You can go the click-baity route and mimic the latest Buzz Feed headlines. Offering little depth and sounding like a boring robot.
You could go the opposite extreme and write stream-of-consciousness drivel amassing three readers including your hippie roommate from college and your mom. Are these our only options? Is there a better way to engage readers? I think so.
Listicles and 7 Steps to whatever is not always a bad idea. Bestselling books like 7 Habits of Highly Effective People are built around this premise. Still a bestseller years later.
Stream of consciousness and creative writing has also reached audiences. Cormac McCarthy rarely uses punctuation. You do, you.
But what does it take to engage readers even if you’re starting out? Are there particular principles we must follow?
Red Smith, a Pulitzer Prize winning sports writer, is credited with saying this about writing:
“Writing is really quite simple; all you have to do is sit down at your typewriter and open a vein.”
On the surface this might not appear as helpful advice. We have to bleed, and what’s a typewriter? Many writers have assumed the way to make good art is to sacrifice and suffer for it. No pain, no gain. I’m not sure that’s what Smith had in mind.
I think what Red is getting at is closer to what Frederick Buechner said about this quote:
“Write about what you really care about is what he is saying. Write about what truly matters to you — not just things to catch the eye of the world but things to touch the quick of the world the way they have touched you to the quick, which is why you are writing about them. Write not just with wit and eloquence and style and relevance but with passion.”
When You Care Others Will Too
Remember those teachers in school that loved their subject. No, really loved their subject. I had a history teacher that wore Civil War era costumes when teaching on the subject. He went into full Al Capone mode while teaching us about the infamous mobster.
Before history class sophomore year, I was indifferent. After Mr. Bolt showed us his passion for history, I became a fan. When we care about something, it rubs off on others.
When you write about things you care about, you’ll find a tribe that cares too. They might not even know they care until you show them how much you care.
Write about what moves you, write with passion, bleed a little. Your voice will come out and draw others in.
Forget the Market and Choose Passion
Similar to the above principles. Don’t obsess over the market. How many books, music, and other art are rejected because the gatekeepers said: we don’t think this material is sellable.
Hugh Howie wrote a 15,000 word Sci-Fi novella called Wool that’s now sold millions of copies. The gatekeepers said, you can’t sell novellas, you can’t indie publish, you can’t, you can’t, until you can.
You can have success when you write with passion and not for markets. When you write and create because you have to.
Most listicles are boring writing because people chase what is hot. Their too now-specific. Markets change by the minute. And if you chase markets, you’ll end up writing something no longer relevant when completed, you’ll hate what you’re writing, and hate yourself. Nobody wants that.
Write about what inspires you. Tell stories about your experiences and allow it to resonate with others. Use humor, be serious, or somewhere in between. The thing that draws people to your work isn’t profound insight. Often it’s the unique ways you say things people have been saying for years.
Everyone is looking for the next great idea or next popular trend. But the best ideas come from what we’re thinking about, passionate about, and experiences we’ve had. These are always relevant because nothing is new under the sun.
If you’re starting out, and worried about finding readers. Do the first best thing, open a vein and be yourself. Bleed a little, write with passion, write what interests you, and you’ll find a tribe sooner than you’ll think.
*Originally published on Medium.