I’ll let you into a secret: writing scares me. Even though I make my living as a copywriter, writing terrifies the bejesus out of me. Approaching a blank page is the hardest thing I do. It’s harder than crawling under barbed wire, face partially submerged in muddy slurry. Harder than conga-ing around Soho at 10 o’clock in the morning on a weekday wearing nothing but a pink sequined boob tube, a pair of shorts and a glamour wig (sober I might add). I have done both of those things so I know.
In fact, it scares me so much that I rarely do it. “But how?” you may ask. “You run a writing business.”
The truth is I’ve carefully constructed my business to avoid writing. I’ve recruited good writers and editors that can do it for me, created an elaborate avoidance strategy that now requires virtually all my time to manage. And gives me the perfect excuse not to EVER have to endure the cold sweats, the violent trembling and unpleasant queasiness that accompany any attempt to approach the dreaded BLANK PAGE.
Call it a mid-life crisis. Call it an altruistic desire to help others in writing crisis. Call it a brazen attempt to leverage mawkish oversharing for financial gain. Whatever you call it, I’m back and I’ve already managed over 200 words without reaching for the gin.
And here’s the thing. The reason I struggle so much is that I feel like an utter fraud.
Blowing my own trumpet
Forgive me. The next few sentences are going to sound like I’m blowing my own trumpet. Bail out if it’s too much. There is a point to it.
Let’s clear a couple of things up before I start. I’m not a rock star. I’m not a literary giant. I’m not a captain of industry. This much is obvious. I’m not deluded.
But I have done some pretty cool shit over the last 20 years. The kind of shit that many people would give their right arm to do. And people have paid me to do it, which may not be the ultimate measure of worth or talent but it’ll do for the purposes of this article.
I worked as a staff writer for a big record label during the Brit Pop years, interviewed loads of celebs, went to showbiz parties and got lorry loads of free CDs. As a freelance journalist, I wrote for well-known publications, got more free CDs, as well as free entry to films, free computer games and free meals at restaurants. I worked with a famous TV chef then helped to set up a cookery school, got paid to train in Thailand and then taught cookery.
I have spent the last 10 years or so running a fairly successful small marketing business specialising in content writing. We’ve worked with dozens of High St names, produced millions of words of content. More recently I’ve been paid to go Milan to work with a luxury fashion brand (although I haven’t got any free clobber yet).
The point is, that when I look at what I’ve done in my career I can see that I’m NOT an utter fraud. I mean, in an objective sense, I have some modicum of talent and expertise.
But knowing that doesn’t stop the fear.
Fear of being found out
My bet is a good proportion of you will be familiar with this situation. It may be that you find it difficult to do conferences, talk about your business to your peers, do cold calling or whatever challenge you face that means you have to big yourself up.
I have it on authority from a colleague that works as a business coach with CEOs of huge multinationals that even at the highest levels of business, people suffer from feeling like a fraud, scared that at any moment someone will “find them out”.
My problem is that I sell copywriting services so at some stage I need to big up my writing ability in order to make a living. And generally, that involves having to do some writing.
But every attempt to approach the page unleashes a cacophony of critical voices that say things like:
- “Why would anyone want to read what you’ve written?”
- “What the hell do you know about X subject?”,
- “There are millions of people out there who know more about this than you, how do you have the audacity to write this?”
- “If you’re not as good as [insert name of leading authority on particular subject] then there’s no point.”
A way out
The good news is: there are ways around it. Sneaky, back door kind of ways but ways nevertheless.
If I want to write – have to write – I have to use various tricks to silence the voices. Here are some of my techniques:
Big yourself up.
Do what I did above. List your achievements and qualifications for writing about your chosen subject. It could be time spent, money made, seminars attended, qualifications attained or just the expertise you have.
If you’re a scaredy cat writer like me and your anxiety levels are rocketing because you have no direct expertise in the subject you’re writing about then remember this – your expertise is in BEING A WRITER and that should enable you to write about ANY subject because your skill is in communicating ideas in words, not in being an expert in double glazing, double cream or double indemnity.
Even if you’re early in your career then there are always foundations to build on – at the very least a genuine passion and enthusiasm to learn more about the subject and develop skill.
Which brings me on to…
Answering critical voices with curiosity can be incredibly powerful.
Allowing yourself to become curious about the topic you are approaching almost always results in a change to a more productive mindset. Think to yourself: what can I learn from this writing? What happens if I try something different? Is there new information on the topic that I can find out about? What’s interesting about this?
As the clowning teacher who made me run around Soho in a sequined boob tube used to say: “find the fun in it, man”
Get in touch with the infinite
Sometimes it feels like my knowledge or talents (such as they are) are going to dry up completely or even that they’re going to somehow empty out of my head never to return if I put it out there and I’ll be left as a hollow shell with nothing in my brain. Rather like I felt after my finals.
It’s important to free yourself from this “rarity” thinking. Your knowledge and experience on a subject is not going to disappear. The words you have are not a finite resource. Sometimes it may feel like your abilities and talents are slipping through your fingers. In reality, you have an abundance of resources at your disposal – not least because there is an incredible amount of information available at our fingertips on every subject.
Inspiration can be found at the click of a mouse so that’s one less worry.
You know nothing Jon Snow
Part of the fear of being found out is well-founded. There are always people out there willing to contradict, to gleefully point out mistakes or gaps in your knowledge, to revel in their own perceived superiority in the subject you’re writing about. We know they’re out there – haters gonna hate. There’s nothing you can do about that.
Coupled with this is that, if you care about what you do and genuinely want to excel, there’s a good chance that you compare yourself with the best in your field. The problem is that this can be crippling because you may feel like you can only give yourself permission to write if you know ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING THERE IS TO KNOW about a topic, that you’re only good enough if you’re as good as the very best.
One solution to this is to think about the audience for your writing. Specifically, it is to picture your reader as someone who knows NOTHING about the topic you’re talking about.
Compared to this person, you’re an expert. Even if you know literally only one thing more than they do. Now you’re in a position to share that one thing.
Getting perspective on why you’re writing and who you’re writing for is crucial and can really help overcome blocks.
It’s not about demonstrating how much you know to people who are BETTER informed than you. It’s about communicating ideas and information to people that are LESS well informed but who want to find out more.
Separate out writing and editing
Anything you write on a page can be deleted. You don’t have to keep it and you certainly don’t have to publish it if you don’t want to. Treat your writing as an experiment or a work in progress.
In practice, this often works best by separating out your writing process into two distinct sections: writing and then editing.
My daughter’s teacher captured this really well when he pointed out that she has two styles of writing: one is fast, messy and hugely creative with real excitement and energy but not great on punctuation and spelling, the other – where she is really concentrating on punctuation and spelling – is neat, steady and accurate but lacks sparkle.
If I knew more about neuroscience I could probably explain that there are two different areas of the brain involved or something. All I know is there are two processes going on: one is creative, immediate and spontaneous the other is more technical and precise.
Each requires its own space. Don’t let them overlap. By consciously separating these two processes you will get a better result in your writing.
Hijack your mind
One of the best ways to silence critical voices is to start writing before they have a chance to begin the chatter. The anxiety of writing is almost always just in the approach to the page – once you start writing and get into the flow of ideas that anxiety disappears.
Here I would recommend the book Accidental Genius by Mark Levy. Mark writes about the incredible power of what he terms “free writing”.
In a nutshell this a process by which you set a timer – let’s say 10 minutes – and you allow yourself to write whatever comes into your head about a particular topic. No stopping. No editing. No checking email or Google. You don’t worry about spelling or punctuation or clarity or any of those obstructive critical thinking type things and if you get stuck and can’t think of anything to say, you continue to write – even if it’s just something like “I’m stuck” or “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
This is precisely to overcome the critical, editing voices that stop the flow of ideas – they can come later when you’re in editing mode.
Speak your mind
Another great way of hijacking your critical voices is by recording yourself speaking rather than writing then using dictation software (or a transcription service if it’s a long piece and worth the cost).
Sometimes speaking the words can be easier, particularly if you’re not a confident writer. I find this is a particularly effective technique if you do it during another distracting activity like going for a walk, washing the dishes or even driving (provided you have hands free).
If you’ve got any suggestions or techniques for overcoming writing anxiety – or if you’re a neuroscientist that can furnish me with any interesting evidence to back up my theories – then please feel free to share here.