Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

Is This Writing Mistake Getting You Ignored by Everyone?

From Jeff: This is an article by Jonathan Mead (@jonathanmead), whose mission is to transform the paradigm of work to joy, service, and freedom. He’s obsessed with writing, gymnastics, and connecting with fellow renegades. And he wants to help you get paid to be you.

It’s easy to write to try to make something popular. Just follow the standard formula:

  1. Choose a proven headline.
  2. Write a catchy intro that surprises, intrigues or seduces your reader.
  3. Follow up with supporting paragraphs.
  4. Make sure it’s scannable!
  5. Follow the template.

There’s only one problem with this: Formulas rarely work.

Ignore zone

Photo Credit: adamgreenfield via Compfight cc

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.

Note (from Jeff): Check out Jonathan’s online business training, Trail Blazer, if you want to learn how to start making a living doing what you love. Click here to find out more.

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.

About Jeff Goins

I help people tell better stories and make a difference in the world. My family and I live outside of Nashville, TN. Follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or Google Plus. To get updates and free stuff, join my newsletter.

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  • http://www.zigazag.com/ Johanna at ZigaZag

    What a fantastic post, and I totally agree. You can become so wrapped up in what you ‘should’ be doing, that the life and spark and fire disappear from your writing.

    • Doris Swift

       I totally agree with this fantastic post also.  I was so on fire for writing for years, then suddenly, nothing.  It’s like a bucket of water had been dumped on the fire, and  left me looking down at a huge puddle.   Maybe the break is a good thing.  Once the puddle dries up, that spark can be reignited.  I think Jeff’s post may have been the spark I needed, very timely and full of wisdom.

  • http://deuceology.wordpress.com Larry Carter

    I agree.  I got caught up in trying to make sure that everything was following a certain pattern that I forgot to focus on what I was writing.  It just didn’t work for me.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jonathan-Mead/1094171589 Jonathan Mead

      Yep, that’s the trap. You can use structures as guidelines, but when you’re so obsessed with them that you end up paralyzed, you know it’s no longer serving you. Master the formula, don’t let it master you!

  • http://twitter.com/cupojoegirl Eileen Knowles

     “What made you fall in love with your work in the first place? Start there.”  Can I stay there too?  :)  Great post.  I’ve been guilty before of fixating too much on a formula and when I don’t follow the formula (or think I should be doing this or that and trying to make my heart want it too)…the perfectionist still lurking inside me will feel like a failure.  I’m learning over and over that we all are called down unique paths.  I just need the courage to walk down the one paved for me. 

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      I second that. :)

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jonathan-Mead/1094171589 Jonathan Mead

        Third :)

  • http://livetheneweconomy.com/ Mike

    I’ve resisted mightily the apparent appeal of “Top 10…” posts.  

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Can you list your Top 10 reasons why? ;)

  • http://twitter.com/WriteEarnChange Sarah Russell

    I think this is a tricky subject.  To an extent, certain formulaic approaches are formulas because they work.  “Top 10″ posts are popular because they tend to be shared more; paragraphs broken up by headers and lists tend to be read more because they’re easier to process visually.

    I could write the most brilliant content ever to walk the planet, but if I publish it under a drab headline or as one lengthy block of text, it’s not going to get read by my audience – and that serves nobody.

    On the other hand, I don’t think that following formulas means that your writing will automatically become soulless and boring.  It’s still possible to inject humor and personality into articles that are based on accepted formulas – it’s just that doing so will help to get your articles read.  That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t experiment with new techniques – just that you shouldn’t dismiss formulas outright without understanding why they work in the first place.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jonathan-Mead/1094171589 Jonathan Mead

      Great points Sarah. One thing to keep in mind with formulaic, or in your example, List Posts, is the quality of traffic you’re getting. I’ve found the average time spent on a list post on my blog is about 20 seconds or less. Not exactly building true fans there.

      It can be good for whetting people’s appetites, but if it’s the only thing you do, you’re going to be stuck with an audience that has very little attention for what you’re creating.

      • http://twitter.com/WriteEarnChange Sarah Russell

        That’s a really great point, Jonathan.  I haven’t ever seen a drop-off in traffic/traffic quality on the sites I’ve run that use more formulaic approaches, but it’s definitely something to keep an eye on.

        I guess it really comes down to writing awesome content that engages people – no matter how it’s formatted :)

  • Spencer Bailey

    I love the idea of “stealing” from many and learning from EVERYONE. Not just those inside your niche, subject, or interest.

  • Yacovdavid

    When I’m editing work, I draw inspiration from watching the youtube videos of a sculptor in Montana, David Lemon, at http://www.youtube.com/user/clayguy1. There are a lot of parallels between putting together a piece of prose and sculpting a man on a horse–the decisions, processes, sometimes taking apart what you did and putting it together in a different way….

  • http://www.robertkennedy3.com/ Robert Kennedy III

    This is definitely a tricky post.  I’ve looked at formulas myself and while I think I look at headline formulas more than format formulas, I try to write from my heart.  If I’m true to myself, and that’s what people are attracted to, then its win-win.  If I’m writing solely to get attention then I am out of integrity, I lack authenticity.  I suppose its what your goal is.  I would rather be authentic with 10 people than fake with 1000.  Buuuuuut, that’s just me.  Then again, if the 1000 are PAYING you…..lol

  • http://www.destiny2lead.com/ Jeremy May

    Thanks for this. As a beginning blogger, I found myself being overwhelmed with my writing and it seemed to drain the fun of it away. Didn’t really know what it was that was sucking the fun away, but this post really put things in perspective. If I write out of my passion the fame will follow. If I write for fame, I will have neither fame nor passsion.

  • http://www.toodarnhappy.com/ Kim Hall

    I believe formulas have their place, especially in regards to helping tightening up and organizing thoughts. However, if we only write to the formula, we do miss the opportunity to mix things up and possibly kill the spirit of a piece.
    I agree whole-heartedly with looking elsewhere for inspiration. One wonderful place is my family. When we see something interesting, I say, “You know what I’m thinking?”, and they respond, “Now that would make a great blog post!”. They now stay on the lookout, and share ideas with me.

    I have found many blogs that cater to moms, while wonderful and inspiring, don’t share the nuts and bolts of how-to make personal change, deepen a relationship, or overcome problems, for example. However, business blogs do. I find lots of inspiration and cross-over from the how-to of building successful business to growing happier moms and families. So, I do mix up the type of posts on my blog—some more inspirational, some heavier on the step-by-step, but all with the goal of encouraging faith, practicing gratitude and discovering joy.

    • http://www.OurStoriesGodsGlory.blogspot.com/ Elise Daly Parker

      Good stuff Kim Hall!

  • 21stcenturyconfusion

    Yes, this makes total sense. We are all unique. With this being true, it must also follow that if we are true to our calling as a writer — our uniqueness will be translated through our written word — if the craft has been honed to razor sharpness.

    No formula can reflect your uniqueness unless it is your unique formula. Yes, we can use the basic framework of another but we need to allow our uniqueness to mold it to embrace our own uniqueness. When that is accomplished, both you and your reader will know it. When this happens, the goal of the above author of this post has been accomplished in you.

    Happy and unique writing, ya’ll!

  • 21stcenturyconfusion

    Yes, this makes total sense. We are all unique. With this being true, it must also follow that if we are true to our calling as a writer — our uniqueness will be translated through our written word — if the craft has been honed to razor sharpness.

    No formula can reflect your uniqueness unless it is your unique formula. Yes, we can use the basic framework of another but we need to allow our uniqueness to mold it to embrace our own uniqueness. When that is accomplished, both you and your reader will know it. When this happens, the goal of the above author of this post has been accomplished in you.

    Happy and unique writing, ya’ll!

  • http://thejoshcollins.com/ Josh Collins

    Awesome stuff here!

    I know this place well as I continue to “try on” the outfit of my voice.

    Thanks for sharing this Jeff!

  • http://bobholmes.blogspot.com/ Bob Holmes

    Read this in my inbox and I thought this is great insight and Then found out it was Jonathan Mead. Good on ya Jonathan! Just what I needed for my hard-nose stilted writing. Peace+

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jonathan-Mead/1094171589 Jonathan Mead

      Nice to see you here Bob. Stay hard-nosed!

  • http://twitter.com/Edgeyy66 Sam Edge

    This must be a work in progress for most – it certainly for me it is. 

    I write my natural voice and from my experiences – that is what i do best; however, I try to balance this with keeping my content relevant to the reader (apparently no one really wants to here me talk about me all the time) 

    When I write ot the reader and not from my experience I lose the natural flow and strength and the quality of my writing suffers. 

     Guess that’s why they call writing an art. I have definitely drawn on this blog for inspiration and guidance. 

    Thanks Jeff (et. al) keep it up. :)

  • http://twitter.com/Edgeyy66 Sam Edge

    This must be a work in progress for most – it certainly for me it is. 

    I write my natural voice and from my experiences – that is what i do best; however, I try to balance this with keeping my content relevant to the reader (apparently no one really wants to here me talk about me all the time) 

    When I write ot the reader and not from my experience I lose the natural flow and strength and the quality of my writing suffers. 

     Guess that’s why they call writing an art. I have definitely drawn on this blog for inspiration and guidance. 

    Thanks Jeff (et. al) keep it up. :) http://www.edgeynotes.com

  • http://www.danerickson.net/ Dan Erickson

    As a songwriter I learned to write songs using standard phrases, chord progressions, and rhyme schemes: formula.  After writing songs for 20 years, I started to break the rules.  But if I get too far out of bounds, the music becomes strange and the average person would not be interested in listening.  Rules and formulas are made to keep our work recognizable, but to learn to break the formula and still keep your listeners or readers interest is the true test of talent.  

    As a novelist, I’ve paid no conscious attention to formula.  I write in a way that moves the story along, but without preconceived notions of how a novel should be written.  I love that kind of freedom.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jonathan-Mead/1094171589 Jonathan Mead

      I think you touch on something really key Dan. You can break the rules, but it’s more effective if you already know the rules like the back of your hand first. It’s not very wise to go completely off the grid and the trail until you’ve had a little wilderness training. :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/carol.malone Carol Anne Olsen Malone

    Jeff, thanks for the post this morning. I’ve been struggling for months to know what to write in my blog that would inspire, motivate and excite people. I’ve come up blank. Because I write with a Christian flavor, I fear critiques. Fear their condemnation. Your idea to “look to jazz artists, sculptors, and orators for inspiration” is inspiration for me. I couldn’t figure out why the author that I love and follow is always posting about Jazz singers and old noir comic books and novels. I just learned that it inspires him. Is that what you’re talking about?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jonathan-Mead/1094171589 Jonathan Mead

      Yes, definitely. And then using that to create your own unique masterpiece. I highly recommend picking up the book Steal Like an Artist for more on this (link above in blog post).

  • http://www.OurStoriesGodsGlory.blogspot.com/ Elise Daly Parker

    Challenging…It’s hard to find your niche that reaches with so much on the Internet about what works, how to grow, how to be heard. I find this can be overwhelming. I like the idea of being inspired by those outside of our little world. And I’m finding too that my facebook groups are stretching me and reminding me that I have some things to say about issues that people find hard. I’ve been through some stuff, lived a while on this planet, and I’ve learned some things that truly might be helpful. I’m paying more attention to this…

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jonathan-Mead/1094171589 Jonathan Mead

      Yes! We all have gifts to share. Keep digging.

  • Wendi N.

    Good stuff by Jonathan! Tapping into your own creativity by way of other creatives.  But you could potentially end up all over the place if you don’t at least stick to a semblance of a so-called “formula” or template. Just for guidance. My 2 cents!

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jonathan-Mead/1094171589 Jonathan Mead

      I definitely think structures are super useful. For instance, it would probably be a bad idea to through out the “formula” to building a house. ;)

  • bcoelho2000

    Great work Jonathan!

    I believe that writing, like every other Art form that we share with the World, should be about creating a meaningful impact in the lives of those who see it.

    And that’s why I believe Jonathan’s work on Trailblazer is so important – he guides people on their quest to reclaim their purpose as they quit following a path that wasn’t meant for them!

    Blazing my path with the Trailblazer program and Jonathan was one of the best decisions of my Life!

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jonathan-Mead/1094171589 Jonathan Mead

      Glad to see you here Bruno. You’re a bright light for anyone that wants to live more deliberately.

  • Laura

    Great post! Stepping outside of my niche for inspiration is something I haven’t done, but will definitely employ now. I felt myself getting stale with my writing and this could be just the thing to put the adventure back in and make it sparkle. Thanks!

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jonathan-Mead/1094171589 Jonathan Mead

      Yep. Too much of the same, just makes everything recycled. We all need to step outside our normal patterns to stay alive.

  • http://kimanziconstable.com/ kimanzi constable

    Great post Jonathan and you have some great content on your site. As far as myself, I feel on I’m the mold and it’s been good :)

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jonathan-Mead/1094171589 Jonathan Mead

      Thanks man, glad you dig it!

  • http://www.asimplehaven.com/ Jenn at A Simple Haven

    “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. ”
    I needed this today. Thanks for pushing us to be authentic.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jonathan-Mead/1094171589 Jonathan Mead

      We all need a good nudge sometimes. :)

  • http://twitter.com/OneWayThoughts Ericson Ay Mires

     I

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jonathan-Mead/1094171589 Jonathan Mead

      Great to hear that Ericson!

  • http://thesimplistlife.com/ Mark Blasini

    Great post, my friend.  Purpose and creativity are the names of the game.

  • Ralph Hua

    Thanks for your post, Jeff. 
    I started blogging since late 2013/early 2013 and I want to make blogging and writing a living.  
    I can’t say I break the mold, but I am writing about what we can learn from historical events. I get inspired by the lessons and examples from history. It is like a big self-reflector for man.
    Often, history repeats itself and man never learns.

    Ralph Hua
    Singapore

  • http://therightvolume.com/ Samantha Livingston

    This is incredibly encouraging and inspiring. It’s easy to get caught up in the game of comparisons. I desperately wanna be true to who I am and create the art only I can create. For me, that means less over-thinking and over-editing. I get stymied when I start thinking too much! This morning I had an idea for a post, I wrote it and posted it within a couple hours. (that was HUGE!) Typically I labor for days over my words. Thanks Jonathan.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jonathan-Mead/1094171589 Jonathan Mead

      Yes! I love that kind of flow. I’ve created most of my best work on the spur of the moment and then just launching it.

      • http://therightvolume.com/ Samantha Livingston

        That’s really encouraging to hear!

  • http://twitter.com/SproutLifestyle Skylor Powell

    The best part about not following a formula is that it’s a challenge!! It’s easier to say – I’ll try this because it will work. It’s harder to truly be yourself, because there’s fear that yourself may not succeed. BUt in truth, it is your genuine self that people want to meet. Thanks for the article!

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jonathan-Mead/1094171589 Jonathan Mead

      You’re welcome Skylor. Glad it hit home for you.

  • http://www.lifeofasteward.com Loren Pinilis

    I think it really comes down to where your focus is. It should be about others and not yourself – which is essentially the core concept that you were talking about.
    It’s good to want to make useful content, readable content, and aesthetically pleasant presentations for the sake of the end user. But it loses its luster and power when we do those things to pump up our own ego and to “make it.” That inauthenticity, I think, comes across even online.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jonathan-Mead/1094171589 Jonathan Mead

      Well said Loren. I agree 100%.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jonathan-Mead/1094171589 Jonathan Mead

    Thank you Jeff for the opportunity to connect with your audience. I’m honored to be able to share my message with your brilliant and gifted readers.

    Thank you all for your comments and sharing your own insights. I love the collaboration and connection going on here!

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      It’s a pleasure, Jonathan. Thanks for joining us!

  • http://twitter.com/francescastaana Francesca StaAna

    I love what you said about getting inspiration from sources outside your niche. I’ve been guilty of failing to see all the inspiration out there because I’ve been too closed-minded and stuck in my own niche/industry. 

    It really is all about keeping an open mind. Be open enough to veer away from the formula (if you have to) and again, be open enough to seek inspiration outside your comfort zone. 

    • http://twitter.com/JMZeiger Jennifer M Zeiger

      I fall into this too, only looking at my own niche for inspiration when I need to pay attention to all sorts of other things.

  • http://www.colorexpertsbd.com/ Jackson Hill

    Great opportunity you shared with us. Thanks a lot Jonathon !!

  • http://www.joanhallwrites.com/ Joan

    “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.”

    Love this post. If I’m writing by formula and not writing what I’m passionate about, then what’s the use? 

    Thank you for sharing with us.

  • http://theannoyinglife.com/ Kevin Martin

    I agree with what Jonathan is writing here. Sometimes we become so wrapped up in the hunt for popularity that we end up hindering our chances of success. Nice post!

  • http://www.mondayisgood.com/ Tom Dixon

    I tried set formulas when I started blogging, but found them too constraining and zapped me of any creativity. I write first and then try to edit to conform to a rough template to give some consistency. Maybe not the most efficient, but seems to be working for me.  I also find looking at things outside of my niche (magazines, etc) for ideas is a great way to give a different perspective to my readers. Thanks!

  • http://pickadirectionandgo.blogspot.com/ mickholt

    I am lucky in the fact that I am still working on my niche. I have some ideas but I am still trying to work them out. So, I am not really tied into too many of the same kinds of things. 

  • Margaret Feinberg

    Always love your perspective, Jeff!

  • http://www.sani-bright.com/avon-indiana/ Tom King

    Loved your outlook on this situation. Keep it up!

  • http://www.theconfidencelounge.com/ Aaron Morton

    I see it as scales when you are learning an instrument; you can use them to learn how to flow around the instrument but at some point you have to let them go and find your own path in order to stand out.

    i am learning my path and i have had to accept some time along the way there will be some rubbish articles coming out of it. But by carrying on I am able to get more and more people reading my stuff because it has become more about who I am rather than the template I have used.

    Let me ask you a question Jonathan if I can? How long into the writing process was it before you confidently could say you found your voice within your writing style? I’d be interested to know.

    Many thanks and great article

    Aaron Morton

  • http://sparkvoice.wordpress.com/ DS

    I really enjoy gaining various perspectives – it helps my understanding of subjects, and aids in the formulation of my true opinion/idea on a particular topic.

    Writing to a formula has always made me slow down or worse, stop.  I try now to just write, and then work on the formula or how it fits into a formula later.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sairakhan19 Saira Khan