What You Write About Doesn’t Matter as Much as You Think
Most writers focus on the wrong thing. They have a simple but dangerous belief that holds them back from creating something of real value. Maybe you do, too. What is it?
You believe what you write about is more important than how you write. You worry about this, even fixate on it. Fretting and obsessing, you waste time and energy on something that doesn’t matter.
When we writers do this, we miss the boat. We are concerned with what to write about (because of public opinion or what the market demands) that we neglect the craft itself. But here’s the truth…
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?”
The other day, 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.
- 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.
Do you worry more about what to write about than how you’re writing it? Share in the comments.