I was five years old when I bought my first journal at the Kentucky Derby gift store—a small book with golden pages, a fake lock, and a picture of a thoroughbred horse next to her baby on the cover.
“It’s a diary,” my sister explained. “It’s where you keep all your secrets.”
At the time, I had no secrets. Instead, I wrote a long, exhaustive list about the foods I ate each day, which led to designing magazines in elementary school, among these The News newsletter and Health Digest (despite the fact that I operated a candy business and ate three packs of Sour Punch daily) to hand out to friends and classmates.
My passion for writing persisted into adulthood, writing for the college newspaper, The California Aggie, then hosting a bilingual blog chronicling my adventures while living in Uruguay. And now, for a little over a year, I’ve been working as a freelance writer.
Though my appetite for putting words on the page has never waned, over the years my style has changed, and I’ve learned some things along the way.
Here are six lessons that I’ve incorporated into my tool kit that may be helpful to other writers:
1. Learning to write more simply. At one point I was apprehensive that I would be, as Alain de Botton described it, “Overlooked and dismissed as simple-minded by those with a tenacious belief that impassable prose is a hallmark of intelligence.” And so, I puffed up my sentences, thinking that elevated prose would elevate my ideas. School had taught me to write in a standardized, academic way. This belief guided my writing for years and seemed to hinder me from getting through to people.
I’ve since become increasingly resistant to literary elitism or writing that attempts to shut less educated readers out in order to appear intellectually superior. As Botton wrote, “Wisdom does not require a specialized vocabulary or syntax, nor does an audience benefit from being wearied,” and as Einstein put it, “We should take care not to make the intellect our God; it has, of course, powerful muscles, but no personality.”
2. Distinguishing between the helpful and short-sighted critics. Sometimes I’ll write in one passionate spurt then feel good about it afterwards. Once the energy subsides, the draft stares back at me, a signal that it’s time for the editing process. When that begins, I find imperfections, so I let the draft sit there for a few days. When I open it again, more glaring flaws leap off the page—so I let it sit even longer then revisit it again.
It’s at this point that the critics descend on the rough draft like flies on a carcass. The flies’ initial intent is to protect. They tread slowly, act thoughtfully, and choose every word sparingly, beckoning you to scrutinize each sentence again and again and again until it’s just right. Yet if you allow them to take over, they’ll stifle you more than they’ll help you to grow. They control and impede, truncating thought processes before they can grow to be bold, daring, or anything close to innovative. They pick at the draft tiny piece by tiny piece, like hands searching for lice, not giving the work a chance to truly spread its wings because they fixate on minute structural components. Often the outcome is a snuffed-out shell of a sentence, stripped of its vitality. These critics lose sight of the bigger picture. They’re like that parent who insists you become a successful violinist, rather than follow your heart. Their hyper-protectiveness stifles your authentic path.
I often have to ask myself: Would I rather produce nothing at all because the critics have deemed it imperfect, or unleash a steady stream of imperfect but consistent writing? “Don’t give the critics time to descend” doesn’t mean “throw out bad work.” It means, don’t be afraid to put something out there that’s imperfect—all of us will. It’s through this that we grow.
3. Lessening the need to over-explain. Writing—connecting in general—requires confidence and trust, both in one’s own voice and in the writer’s intended audience. To tone down the explanations is an act of faith. You’re trusting that your readers are autonomous and resourceful beings who don’t need to have every little thing broken down for them. You’re trusting that they can read between the lines, infer, and come to their own conclusions.
Have faith that maintaining the piece’s overall flow and structure is more important than clarifying every small potential for miscomprehension. If a reader doesn’t understand a word, they’ll look it up, or deduce its meaning from context. Think of it as leaving a package on the doorstep and walking away, rather than continuing to shove letters under the door crack while the recipient is still reading and processing the first.
4. Increasing accessibility to a larger audience. When hiking one day, I began writing a story in my head and found myself memorizing the observation, “I am grateful for the use of my hands and legs, which allow me to experience these rocks.” I’d meant no harm by the thought; it had simply popped into my head spontaneously (as many thoughts do). Still, after unpacking it, I could see how certain people—the older population and those living with disabilities and chronic pain among them—might feel excluded from the conversation after reading that line. I’ve also been on the other end of it when an author writes something like, “Girls, find yourself a man who *insert verb here*.” I, as a gay woman, feel left out and unseen. Why not replace “man” or “husband” with “partner,” I think.
I get that some publications do cater to a specific population and while not actively trying to shut out others, they inevitably will. Trying so hard to cater to everyone compromises a piece’s specificity, flow, and focus, yet I still like to veer more on the side of conscientiousness toward as many groups as possible when writing. This doesn’t mean hyper-vigilance, but open-mindedness and willingness to listen.
I aim to remain true to my thoughts and beliefs while also empathizing with others. I believe to benefit a greater number of readers by a feeling of inclusiveness far outweighs the inconvenience, or amount of extra time that it takes, to reconsider specific word choices.
5. Getting clear on why I’m writing. As writers, we have choices. We can write to promote ourselves, or to advance the social good. We can use our voice to re-invigorate people who already share our beliefs, inspiring a call to action or perhaps awaken them from their apathy—or perhaps we can successfully combine all of these. An effective writer can demystify the abstruse and make the nebulous tangible, breaking through apathy. When it comes to inclusivity, I ask myself if what I’m writing will make people feel better, or elevate me while promoting FOMO in them?
6. The importance of balancing writing with reading. As a kid I was an avid reader, and trips to the library with my mom kept my writing spirit alive. I wouldn’t be able to run very far after eating a box of Krispy Kreme donuts and similarly, I wouldn’t be able to write very well after spending mind-numbing hours in front of the screen. If you’re serious about running, you nourish your body with the proper nutrients that will enable you to perform. Likewise, if you’re serious about writing, you read.
So, immerse yourself in information, in stories, in compelling accounts. By soaking in the prose of other great writers, you will indirectly help yourself by tapping into your own abilities.