In the endless sea of textbooks, essays and lectures, there are obviously more than enough pages about how to better your writing. Be concrete. Focus on the core message. Evoke emotion. Entertain, surprise, tell a story, omit needless words. Simplify, simplify, simplify.
Despite all this useful advice, many aspiring writers fail to heed the most important rule of all: trust your material.
There seems to be a trend where uninteresting ideas try to covertly pass as interesting. A lot of this writing ends up have a cheesy, gimmicky feel. It’s like raving about the amazing quality of high end office supplies. While they have the best intentions, it just sounds cheap.
I’ll be honest, trusting your material is easier said than done. How do you know when your material is amazing, merely mediocre, or, worse, absolute drivel?
The best way, I think, to test the profundity of your material is through enthusiasm. Are you truly excited about your work, or do you spend hours trying to find angles and clever ways to deliver your thoughts?
If you find yourself trying to force excitement in your writing, chances are there’s a problem with the material itself.
To better illustrate, here is a personal example:
Topic: Happiness, liberation, and feeling comfortable within yourself.
I wanted to write an article about increasing your happiness. I could have given 10 suggestions for greater happiness: spending more time outdoors, doing what you love, spending time with yourself, etc.
The only problem with this approach — if you haven’t noticed — it’s not very original. Many people elsewhere have exhausted the number of things you can do to increase your happiness. I realized that in order for me to stand apart, I needed to find a more interesting approach; something more creative and unexpected (something that hasn’t already been written over 40,000 times).
Now, I could have tried all sorts of gimmicks and tricks to make my article seem more interesting than it was. I could call it “10 ways to be happier than you’ve ever imagined” or “Suggestions for making the most of every moment.” I can hype up the reader with a lot of chest-pounding, motivational hype. I can pull out every inspirational idea in the book. In the end, my article will likely be forgotten a few minutes after the reader is finished (if not before he even started).
Instead of trying to force excitement on dull material, I took a different approach: the idea of living without a template. What’s one of the best (if not the best) ways to achieve greater happiness? Being yourself.
I took the idea of being yourself as one of the primary determinates of happiness, and mulled over in my mind the possible ways I could approach it. I could have talked about having greater self esteem. Played out. Self forgiveness? Tired. Being nice to yourself? Boring.
So I waited. I thought of a lot of ideas. I brainstormed. And I waited again.
Then I thought, why not approach the idea of having greater happiness as breaking free from the shoulds of society. Doing what you want to do, rather than trying to live up the expectations of everyone else. Living without a template.
When I came up with the idea of living without a template, the creative and fresh approaches of writing flowed easily and naturally. I came up with the idea of instead of living with a template, you could freestyle life. I also brought to light the fact that living without a template might cause upheaval from others who are living inhibited. With that came the idea of the “anti-role collateral.” The price you pay for living on your terms, the strange looks you might get, the rejection from society and disapproval you will inevitably face. But all the while keeping in mind, your personal liberation and happiness are worth more than anyone else’s fear-driven approval.
Right away I realized that the idea of living without a template was creative and exciting. I didn’t need to force interest on it, because it was internally interesting.
As soon as I realized it was an idea worth pursuing, worth writing about, then came the hard part of simplifying, getting to the core, evoking emotion and entertaining. But this was naturally easier when I trusted my material. Much easier than trying to find an interesting approach to 10 suggestions to live more happily.
The Impact of Trusting Your Material
Trusting your material isn’t easy. It takes patience. A lot of it. You’ll likely go through, 10, 20 or 50 ideas before you find one worth writing about. It take patience to wait for those ideas and at times it can be frustrating as hell.
But I guarantee that if you were to write about those 20 mediocre ideas, forcing interesting on them, you’d have less than half the interest as one completely compelling idea. Trusting your material is definitely a skill that takes time to develop, but once you do, I know you’ll find it extremely liberating.
My college English teacher asked at the beginning of our first day of class, “Why does anyone write?” Myself and all of my classmates squirmed and strained ourselves to come up with an answer to her question. After ten minutes of failed attempts my teacher said, “Because you have something to say.”
It’s so common sense, but it was so compelling that it stuck in my mind to this day. I regularly ask myself when writing, am I just trying to force interest on an uninteresting idea, or do I really have something to say? So the question is… What do you have to say?