Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

What You Write About Doesn’t Matter as Much as You Think

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Most writers focus on the wrong thing. They have a simple but dangerous belief that holds them back from creating something of real value. What is it?

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Photo credit: mugfaker (Creative Commons)

They believe that what they write about is more important than how they write. And they are dead wrong.

They worry about this, even fixate on it. Fretting and obsessing, they waste tons of time and energy on something that doesn’t matter.

These people are so concerned with what to write about (because of public opinion or what the market demands) that they neglect the craft itself. And they totally miss the boat.

Writing isn’t about picking the right topic; it’s about finding the right voice. [Tweet]

What matters, what readers really resonate with, isn’t so much what you say, but how.

“What’s it about?”

Yesterday, I spoke with a group of authors, and one of them asked me, “What should I be blogging about?”

I replied with a question: “If we were to get together for coffee, what would we talk about?”

She proceeded to tell me her life’s story: a harrowing journey through fear and shame to self-actualization. It was beautiful.

As we considered her experiences, we concluded that what made her story interesting wasn’t any particular incident. Rather, it was the universality of emotions: worry, shame, guilt, fear, passion.

She wasn’t describing the challenges of becoming an author. She was describing what it was like to be human.

This is what good writing does

Writing — good writing, that is — transcends its setting and subject. It speaks to universal truths and core values, how we see the world and what we really believe. Where something happens (or even what happens) is not as significant as how.

For example:

  • Les Miserables isn’t about 19th-century France; it’s about grace in the face of injustice.
  • Gone with the Wind isn’t about the Civil War or living in the South. It’s about the internal conflict of love and self-centeredness.
  • Jurassic Park isn’t about dinosaurs living in Costa Rica. It’s about the dignity of life and limitations of science.

Do you see?

The subject of a story (a child with an alcoholic father) is far less interesting than the theme (forgiveness). My friend Marion taught me that.

If you can find a theme — not a subject or a context — in your writing that connects with a core human emotion, you will never run out of good things to say.

You can jump genres, even change styles, and readers won’t care, because they’re following you for your voice, not your topic.

That’s why you might read The Catcher in the Rye every summer or pull out a Jane Austen novel during Christmas. It’s why we love Hemingway or even gravitate toward Dickinson.

We read these authors not for their subjects, but for their voices, their worldview.

Finding a worldview

Everyone has one. A paradigm. A perspective. A code of ethics. It’s how we live our lives, whether we recognize it or not.

This is what sets a person’s voice apart from the rest of the noise vying for our attention: not what they say, but how they say it.

I hate to be the realist here, but look…

There is no subject you could write about, no niche you could target, no genre you could invent, that hasn’t been done before. So for crying out loud, STOP trying to be so darned clever and original. It’s not working.

Instead, focus on the how, the worldview of what you write.

What about the way you see the world is different?

What would resonate with some and cause others to disagree?

Write that.

Write something worth fighting over, because that’s how you change things. That’s how you create art.

Note: If this resonates, check out my online course, Tribe Writers, where we dive deeply into writing with a worldview. Registration opens only a few times a year. Find out more by clicking here.

Do you worry more about what to write about than how you’re writing it? Share in the comments.

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. Check out my new book, The In-Between. To get exclusive updates and free stuff, join my newsletter.

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  • Wendy Tarasoff

    What am I really willing to speak up about with my voice? Instead of that mousy brunette how about that confident rebel. It is almost like I know I have something to say, and then with determination decide I am going to say it. No holds barred! Between the two perhaps there is balance if one truly wants to be Zen about it. I’ve determined that the more I write, the more I understand what I am writing and how I am writing. Sometimes I am absolutely amazed at what comes out (must be a genus in the walls of my apartment), and sometimes, well, it just doesn’t meet with what I feel. That’s okay, I guess, I’ll just keep practicing until the gems come out.

  • Thiago Toste

    Great Post!

  • http://robertjepson.wordpress.com Robert Jepson

    Thanks Geoff, you’ve helped clarify how to run my blog, subject is important to a certain extent. Focus on and particular area, as you’ve said in other posts, but voice and how you write are the key elements.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      You’re absolutely right, Robert.

  • http://philbryson.com Phil Bryson

    I agree Geoff, I have a couple of people that I send emails to and they like my stuff but I asked them about what I’m saying. You see I love Hampstead Heath it’s in North London. Anyway they said they love my stories and they both felt as though they were there. I’ve gone from narrative to descriptive writing. I write it, leave it for a day or so then read it out aloud and correct any mistakes.

  • http://davidjdelaney.wordpress.com David J Delaney

    With practice and lots of patience I think your voice will naturally take center stage. I found it took a lot of time and allowing natural conversation to flow rather than forcing a topic. I also find this with my fiction as well.

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