Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

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. 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 am the author of four books, including The Art of Work. I also run an online business teaching writers how to get the attention their work deserves. Every week, I send out an email newsletter with free tips on writing and creativity.

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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.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      I think that’s true, David. Hope it’s going well for you. :)

  • http://www.audacity2lead.com Dayo Samuel

    I wish I had read this some months ago when I was starting my newest blog that focuses on leadership. I think my main theme is simply why young and emerging leaders need to make the leap. Anyway, it’s not too late to make the change. Thanks Jeff. I’ll focus on my theme now instead of scouting for subject.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      That’s right, Dayo. Never too late!

  • Luana Hugel

    Jeff, you’ve just confirmed everything I’ve been feeling. I’ve been hesitant to blog because I was focused on the “what ifs.” But sharing my heart, that I know how to do! Thanks for narrowing the focus for me.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      You’re welcome Luana!

  • Ray Buchanan

    I don’t think I have a problem with finding my voice, but even after 6 years I still don’t have the number of followers that I desire. How do I get the word out and attract a larger audience?

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Good question, Ray. I think you make it about them. This might help: http://goinswriter.com/listen
      Also, this is what I teach in Tribe Writers, so you may want to consider being a part of that course. All the info is here: http://tribewriters.com

  • http://www.dianewbailey.net/ Diane Bailey

    I have always had a view that saw a different main point than the rest of the world. I keep it to myself because I really hate debating.Then, over time I see others picking up on what I was thinking and saying it out loud. Sometimes It’s difficult to create words to accurately express the thoughts.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      You’re absolutely right, Diane. It’s not easy, but I think it’s worth it.

  • Lyn

    I have read this post a few months ago but was too stubborn to believe that my topic/niche is less important as my voice. It was only now that I get it, Jeff. I realized that what attracted me to all the bloggers that I have been faithfully following for many years now is not their topic. It was their worldview. There’s this blogger whose every single post I read whether it’s about relationships or money or health. Some of his posts I love and some are just ok. But whether his articles are perfect or not doesn’t change the fact that I love him and I will never stop following him. I bought his online course and I’m a paying member of two of his sites because I trust that he is a good person who will never give me junk. I even encourage my friends to subscribe to his sites too. I truly am a part of his tribe. This whole tribe thing was murky for me until now. So this is how a tribe is built. I just had a lightbulb moment right here in your website. Thanks very much.

    P.S. You are a good man, Jeff. I am halfway across the globe and I can feel it in your writing. May God bless you more. :)

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Thanks, Lyn. I love this example!

  • theinspiredcafe

    I’ve been unsubscribing to a lot of newsletters lately. Except this one. I really feel that you are being real when you write and that you understand artists. I really appreciated this post. I just wrote a blog post a few days ago expressing my need to give myself permission to do exactly what you are saying in this post. Here is the post http://theinspiredcafe.com/2014/08/29/permission/ if you have a moment. Thanks for not giving up and creating the ninth blog!

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins


    • http://www.kikiunhinged.com KikiUnhinged

      I second that sentiment. I’ve gotten very discerning about the writing-blogs I follow and this is my go-to blog. I love this article especially because it speaks to one reason I’ve avoided my blog for a long time. Thanks again Jeff! I too just wrote an article about my fear of blogging and of being the real dark humor me rather than worrying too much about “what’s my topic? what’s my value?” when all I really wanted to do was write from the heart, which can be a dark, shadowy, scary place sometimes. If interested please see it at http://www.kikiunhinged.com/fears-of-blogging-that-the-blogging-gurus-dont-understand/

      • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

        Wow, Kiki. That means a TON. Thank you!

  • Malinda Fuller

    This was a confirmation of what I’ve been feeling (and maybe running from?) I’m so tired of doing what everyone else says I “should” be doing. And I wish I had the budget for Tribe Writers…

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Hey Malinda. So glad to hear that. And no worries. The blog is free and will continue to be. Maybe you can join a future class when it makes sense.

  • Sharon

    I don’t have the concentration to read every thing that comes down the line. I often read your blog, Jeff and you are right on. I’m not technical by any means so I don’t listen or chase what is out there. I write what is on my mind and at 62 I have lived a life full of ups and downs. You have convinced me it’s okay. I have lots to learn and make plenty of mistakes like you do on a new job. Thanks!

  • http://Rickenba.ch/blog/en Ralph M. Rickenbach

    I full-heartedly agree. It took a while, but finding my voice has given me peace in writing. Not that I found a large audience – yet. But I feel authentic. And since the topic does not matter so much any longer, I feel free to experiment. And still, in most my texts, people recognise me. Good advice.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      I love your writing, Ralph.

      • http://Rickenba.ch/blog/en Ralph M. Rickenbach

        Well, thank you, Sir. That is an encouragement.

  • Jim Brennan

    I’m a published author, more than fifty articles in local and national, print and online media. I published my first book with a small independent press in 2013. The only reason I mention this is to make a point; that is that I still struggle with finding my voice, not always, but often. Sometimes I have to work hard to find that place where my voice, my inner self, resides. I’ve found the most reliable place is on the streets, in pubs, laboring at dangerous jobs–that is where my voice resides, in the blue-collar world. I am at home with my characters—welders,
    carpenters, ironworkers, bartenders, roofers. They are flawed and endearing, fragile
    and resilient, and their lives are lessons about hard work, hard living, love
    and redemption. They work arduous jobs, raise families, battle their demons,
    coach Little League, and then congregate at pubs in the evening. Jeff, you are right on the money, my friend. Once you tap that voice, that worldview, the rest flows like a river to the sea. Thank you for this post.

  • Fabian Fabbo

    I read all your posts. Even though I’ve never commented on any of them until today. I must say you’re everything a novice blogger needs to be successful. Keep up the good work…

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Wow. Thank you, Fabian!

  • Dave Burnham

    Great advice Jeff. Many thanks.

  • Ngobesing Romanus

    Jeff, your advice is sound. No doubt I love reading what you write. I’ve got the advice and you will get the results of your good teaching.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Thanks, Ngobesing!

  • http://www.atypicalitalian.com Chris Silvestri

    That’s exactly what I’m struggling to come up with, interesting things to say on my blog. I guess I’ll have to focus more on my voice and brand and then hopefully find what ti write about on the path. Thanks for the great posts Jeff!

  • Beth Coulton

    This is so perfect for what I’m thinking about writing right now. I’ve stepped away from blogging for almost a year because I simply ran out of things to say. Not in a pity party way, but in an honest, it’s okay, I’m done talking now way! Reading this today makes such sense- as you said, there is NOTHING I could write about that hasn’t been written about before. And my husband has given me the same advice you are giving – I need to give MY perspective, spin, and worldview on one of the thousands of topics that have already been written about hundreds of times! This makes such sense to me, almost like a veil has been lifted off my writing eyes. I still need to write for ME, not to please anyone else, but I’ve recently been though a little something that I think has clicked into place what I would want to write my perspective on. So wish we could have coffee so I could run it by you lol!

  • http://wonderwriter.com Brian Song

    Clarity. Thanks, Jeff. Just had an “Aha” moment reading this post!

  • Kathryn C Lang

    Thanks for sharing this idea. I write across genres and when people ask me what I write I tell them “HOPE” – that I am a hopesmith. Everything I write, or teach, or share has an element of hope – because without hope, what’s the purpose.

    It is always a blessing to find confirmation for this journey from others.

  • http://josuemolina.com/ Josue Molina

    Again, another great piece you wrote here. Theme beats logic. Brian Mcdonald explains that well here too: http://goo.gl/bV7PJS

    But like he says, and I agree. It can be a man riding a horse, spaceship, or race car. We care about the rider.

  • http://www.lisarobertsbell.com Lisa Roberts Bell

    Jeff, I appreciate the fact that you said you failed at first. It helps me as a first time author and blogger to know a polished author made mistakes at first as well. I guess no one begins as the ‘best’. It takes practice and knowledge like what you share with us. Thank you.

  • http://kwanannlim.wordpress.com Kwan-Ann

    Love this!

  • http://www.abigailendsley.com Abigail Hope Endsley

    Thank you, Jeff! I was scrolling through your blog, looking for advice for picking a niche (I’m having trouble reconciling all the topics I want to write about into one cohesive message), when I stumbled across this post. Judging from the title, I didn’t think it would be directly applicable to my current predicament.

    Boy was I wrong.

    As soon as I finished reading, I picked up my pen and began scribbling on my legal pad. My voice, my tone, my message–it DOES encompass everything I want to write about. I just had to figure out how to communicate that. WHY I was communicating that.

    10 minutes later I had a whole page of ideas and topics and a clear idea of where I’ll be going next. Thank you so much for sharing!