It’s easy to write to try to make something popular. Just follow the standard formula:
- Choose a proven headline.
- Write a catchy intro that surprises, intrigues or seduces your reader.
- Follow up with supporting paragraphs.
- Make sure it’s scannable!
- Follow the template.
There’s only one problem with this: Formulas rarely work.
It’s not because they’re not based on sound principles. It’s because they sap all the energy and passion from your writing.
When you write formulaically, you think too hard about what you’re going to write. You waste so much time trying to say the perfect thing, that your message gets watered down. Your attempt at making something viral only comes across as cheesy and predictable.
But the worst part isn’t that your writing doesn’t succeed; it’s that you end up feeling like a fake.
You lose all your energy for what you’re creating. The fire and drive that made you absolutely lit up about writing is now buried under the desire to make something popular.
You might think that my next point would be to tell you to stop trying to follow formulas, to stop trying to be popular, but I don’t think that’s the right answer either. In order to really diagnose the problem I think we need to get a bit deeper.
Getting to the core
Underneath the drive to use a formula is… what, exactly? To create something that’s popular or successful. Right?
Well, what’s underneath that desire? To create great work work that makes you feel competent. Right?
Is there anything underneath that desire? Perhaps your real, true, most fundamental goal is to create something useful and creative.
The goal is to serve and be creative. Now, can’t you make something popular by doing that? Absolutely. In fact, I think the way to creating something that gets shared and is successful can only come when you’re doing those things.
The problem arises when you revert to the formula, or the standard template first. When you try to focus too soon on creating something popular, you fail.
A closer look at formulas and templates
Everyone wants to write stuff that’s popular, that’s successful, that gets noticed. We all have a desire to be recognized for our work, so we try to follow the advice of others and what’s worked for them. The only problem with this is that we tend to get too incestuous.
What worked for someone else may or may not work for you. But when everyone is trying to do what the last successful person has done in any given niche, it starts to become nothing more than a gimmick.
In the book Steal Like an Artist, author Austin Kleon makes a great distinguishment between good theft and bad theft. Bad theft is stealing from one. Good theft is stealing from many.
I agree, but I’d take this a step further. Bad theft is also when everyone steals from many — in the same niche. Instead, why not seek inspiration from many different sources?
If you’re a novelist, look to jazz artists, sculptors, and orators for inspiration. If you’re a poet, take inspiration from carpenters, painters and bellydancers. If you’re a blogger, take inspiration from classic fiction, street performers, and documentaries.
Don’t stay confined to the same typical posses and cliques.
Two possible scenarios
If you’ve felt dead inside with your writing…
Chances are you’ve put too much pressure on yourself to follow formulas and be successful. You need to spend more time connecting with your heart, and why you’re doing what you’re doing.
What made you fall in love with your work in the first place? Start there.
If you’ve been struggling to make it as a writer…
Chances are you need to become inspired and energized by the works of others, and learn from those that are incredibly prolific and successful.
Who inspires you on a daily basis? Who can you learn from outside of your circle? How can you be inspired by others but make it your own?
Learn from the greats. But don’t stop there. Uncover and develop your a greatness uniquely your own.
Then maybe one day you’ll be the one others are trying to copy.
What would it look like for you to not follow the average formula for your given niche? How can you break the mold? Share in the comments.
Disclosure: Some of the above links are affiliate links, which means I get a commission if you click them and buy something. Remember, though: I only recommend products I use and love.