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?

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Photo credit: mugfaker (Creative Commons)

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.

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.

379 thoughts on “What You Write About Doesn’t Matter as Much as You Think

  1. Voice is everything in writing, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. It reminds me of college courses where I started out HATING the subject, but ending up loving the class. Why? Because the professors were so PASSIONATE about their subjects that it made me dig it, too.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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?

  9. 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.

  10. 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. 🙂

  11. 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 https://theinspiredcafe.com/2014/08/29/permission/ if you have a moment. Thanks for not giving up and creating the ninth blog!

    1. 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 https://www.kikiunhinged.com/fears-of-blogging-that-the-blogging-gurus-dont-understand/

  12. 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…

    1. 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.

  13. 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!

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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…

  17. 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.

  18. 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!

  19. 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!

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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!

  23. Wow great post. Like so many have said totally makes sense. I had run dry on my yoga blog- but I was writing it as a business blog, rather than really writing from my heart, and life. I was writing from a “what should I write,” kind of mindspace. But having always been told I’m opinionated-writing from a worldview makes so much sense. And it give folks a reason to read you- they resonate with your heart-view I’ll call it. You really may have given my 3rd or 4th iteration of a blog- NEW LIFE! THANKS.

  24. BOOOOOOM! Like a nuclear bomb just exploded inside of my brain 🙂

    Thanks for the fabulous insight here Jeff. I know i get caught in the web of what-do-i-write-about. A great reminder that the voice is ultimately what makes the difference between me or the next writer.


    *runs off to look for his voice*

  25. Really engaging article. It demonstrates a lot about how you need to be committed as a writer and give yourself a real purpose towards what it is you are going to write. It feels important to keep focussed on a particular idea that you have in mind and keep yourself going with confidence in those decisions. This will become an accomplished practise that means whatever form you have decided that your craft should take the purpose you reached for will be expressed through every word you put onto the page. These things will make the writing process a comfortable experience knowing that you have a definite goal set firmly in stone so that when you start writing the content of the text that you eventually put together will begin to flow until a work full of brilliant ideas is established. All writers need a drive that will help them lead themselves along the right path to success.

  26. Superb advice. It is the individual voice or the powerful voice print that is unique. This is the only things that makes the creation of art meaningful

  27. Like our parents used to say. “Leave the room better than you found it.” We apply this to our relationships. “Leave the people you meet better than you find them.”

  28. Genius! I’ve gone through my blog posts, and there’s a common theme. It’s the message I’m compelled to shout out above all else, and although the same thing has been said before, it’s my voice that will make it different from the rest. Did I get that right? Thanks Jeff for the reminder there is nothing new under the sun. Yes, I’ve tried to be so darn clever, and just gives me a headache. Thank you!

  29. This one was really important for me. I’ve felt stuck since starting out, but this provided me some much needed perspective on being free to express my worldview. Thanks, Jeff

  30. Thank you Jeff! I do tend to focus more on the technicality of the content, since I write about money. This has inspired me to focus more on the themes that resonate with my audience.

  31. Good advice! It reminds me of something I read once in an interview with Paul Hogan (yes, Crocodile Dundee) where he said something along the lines of “Don’t do what you think OTHER people will think is funny. Do what YOU think is funny. If it makes you laugh, chances are it will make someone else laugh.”

  32. I couldn’t agree with you more. I’ve have relatives and friends alike who’ve asked me throughout the years, “Kiki, how do you know what to write? How do you come up with things to write about?” I simply respond to them by saying, “I don’t think about what I’m writing. I just write. If one thinks too much, he or she worries about any and everything in life. It’s important to take everything in life in stride. I do so with my writing. Yes, I put forth my best effort. I always strive to make each new piece of writing I compose better than the previous ones. When I write, I’m in competition with myself. However, I always make the effort to stay focused in the moment when I write.

  33. Jeff, this is good stuff, as always. I try my darndest in my blog posts and other content to find at least one original idea or thought. That isn’t always the case, though. So I do try to be creative. I’m not reinventing the wheel. I’m simply presenting the wheel in a different way.

  34. Jeff you light the way, most of the things you talk about touch me on the heart. after following you, I started writing like a mad person and most of friends and relatives thought I was wasting my time. I had to pick up a few words and began picking words until my first book was completed and self published through amazon kindle as you pointed out. To date I have published four books. The fifth one is in the pipeline to be published in August 2015. Keep on educating me and others. My blog is samuelchaukeauthor.blogspot.com and my amazon page is amazon.com/author/samuechauke.

  35. Jeff this is indeed a wise advice. I have been wanting to share my IVF journey. These are painful memories that i needed to share , because i did not let the failure stop me from being a mother . With this i intend to encourage all who have or are going through this lane not to be discouraged

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