“You do not have to be good.”
I have always loved that line from the famous Mary Oliver poem “Wild Geese,” because it illustrates an important struggle we humans have with our lives and with our art.
It is this question of goodness.
Am I good enough?
Am I smart enough?
And, doggonit, do people like me?
(That’s a Stuart Smalley reference for those of you who didn’t grow up on 90s SNL skits.)
The truth is we should never ask these questions in the first place.
Listen to the audio version of this essay here:
As children, we begin our lives attaching our identities to our parents. And depending on how you grew up, at some point, somebody probably disappointed you. It was a lot, maybe it was a little, but it happened. And when that happens, you question yourself.
Am I good?
Am I whole?
Or is something missing?
I like what my favorite priest and psychotherapist from India, Anthony de Mello, says about the idea of goodness in his bestseller Awareness:
“You are not okay, and you are not ‘not okay.' You're you.”
Learning how to be unapologetically ourselves in our writing and creative work is the first step to becoming effective at what we do.
[share-quote via=“JeffGoins”]Learning how to be unapologetically ourselves in our writing and creative work is the first step to becoming effective at what we do.
If we don’t do this, our art, especially our writing, will not resonate with an audience.
You should not be asking if you're a good writer or a bad writer, or a good artist or a bad artist, but rather questions like:
What kind of artist do I want to be?
What kind of writing do I want to do?
What kind of writer am I?
Who am I really and how can this work illustrate that?
When we approach our art, we have three questions to ask ourselves. And if we don't do this, our work will likely fall flat and miss the mark entirely. To put it a little less delicately, if you don't want your writing to suck, you have to ask some hard questions.
[share-quote via=“JeffGoins”]If you don't want your writing to suck, you have to ask some hard questions.
Your writing sucks because you don't know what it's about
The first question we must ask is: What is this about?
Now, in some ways this question is unanswerable, and you will spend the rest of your life attempting to answer it. But we need to at least start here, by asking the question, trusting that we will answer it not through words but through our creative work.
I agree with Steven Pressfield's assessment in his book The Artist's Journey that creation really is an act of self-discovery not of self-expression. You discover yourself—and therefore the subject of your work—through working. Practically, this means you pick a subject and work on it with the understanding that this is what the work is about it, but every so often zoom out and ask yourself the bigger question, “What is this really about?”
[share-quote via=“JeffGoins”]You discover yourself—and therefore the subject of your work—through working.
In my experience, you tend to have an overarching theme that ties all your work together (if you zoom out far enough) and then a more specific sub-theme that addresses a specific work.
For example, I tend to write a lot about identity; right now, that seems to be my overarching theme of almost everything I've created. But the sub-theme of my latest book Real Artists Don't Starve is about making a living as professional creative (and how to use creativity to succeed in work and life). Woven throughout that book is the idea of identity (in fact, the entire thing is about shifting your mindset from starving artist to thriving artist), but at first glance, you wouldn't think that's what the book is about.
Begin with the subject, with what you think this thing is about.
Your writing sucks because you don't know who your audience is
The second question we ought to ask ourselves as writers is the question of audience: Who is this for?
Recently, I’ve talked a bit about marketing on the blog and podcast, and one of the most important questions that you can ask yourself is “Who is this for?” or “Who is my work for?”
As I shared before, one of the best ways to know who your work is for us to first ask yourself who it is not for. Because the truth is your work is not for everyone and that's the entire point of it. If your work is for everyone, there would be no need to share it, because everyone would agree with it. There would be nothing interesting to say, and interesting work is always about saying something that people disagree with. Or as I've said before: you have to pick a fight.
Remember: If you don't say anything worth criticizing, you aren't saying something worth praising.
[share-quote via=“JeffGoins”]If you don't say anything worth criticizing, you aren't saying something worth praising.
Your writing sucks because you don't know what you want to say
The third question we need to ask is: What do I want to say?
Sometimes, we want to know exactly what the work is about or what's the point of it and I think those questions are valid but they tend to come much later on. When we are first sitting down to write, all we have is what we want to say. It's merely an intention at that point, which is fine, so long as we embrace it for what it is.
This is the place where good art comes from and where effective writing flows from: intention. What do you want to say? If you don't know that, you have nowhere to go and nothing to say.
Why your writing doesn't have to suck
So how do we know if it's connecting or not?
Well, if you’re not being intentional with your work then there is a good chance that it’s not. Here are three clues to determine if your writing sucks:
- You don't know what it's about.
- You don't know who it's for.
- You don't know what you want to say.
But it doesn't have to stay this way. Three simple questions can get you out of the land of not being “good enough” and start you down the path of becoming a more effective communicator. How?
First, ask what it's about, insofar as you understand that.
Then, ask who it's for. Identify the people you want to reach with this message because how you talk to your mother is not how you're going to talk to your boss. Understanding the audience changes the way we say what we say.
And finally, decide what you want to say. We have to know what we want to convey at the beginning before we start. And when we start writing it, that will likely change but every great writer starts out with an impulse, an idea of what they want to communicate to the reader.
[share-quote via=“JeffGoins”]Understanding the audience changes the way we say what we say.
This is effective writing. It is the process of knowing who you're writing for and not measuring yourself against some vague standard of goodness. Effective writing is about being clear and direct to the audience that you want to reach without worrying about everyone else.
Whether you're a marketer or a writer or an artist, effective communication is essential. Without it, you may say the right thing to the wrong person or do it in the wrong way. Or you may say the wrong thing to the right person. We've got to get all these things right.
We have to know what it's about, who the audience is, and what we want to say.
If we miss any of these, we miss the whole point of what we're trying to create.
For more help with this sort of thing, check out my course Effective Writer.