What should you write about?

Today I continue to share snippets of a talk I gave at the She Speaks Conference two weeks ago. The talk was titled From Blog to Book: How I Got Published Without Being Famous. I’m not sharing it point by point because that’s just not how I roll.

“I write about all kinds of things, but I get the most visits when I write about running. Should I have a blog for runners?” She sat in the back and craned her neck to see the speakers up front.

From where I sat, I could barely see her. But I could hear the question behind the question. I turned my head back to the front of the room to the four women on barstools holding microphones. There were about 75 of us that day in October 2008. It was the first Blissdom Conference, an event for bloggers that has now grown to over 700. It’s been nearly 3 years, but I haven’t forgotten that woman.

She asked an important question, one writers have been asking for centuries, though not exactly in those terms. On some level, she was asking this: How can I make sure what I write matters? It didn’t seem like she really wanted to write about runners, but writing for runners seemed to mean she would at least be writing stuff that mattered to someone. And if what she said mattered to someone, then she would get visits. And it if she got visits, then she would keep writing whatever it was that got her visits. And so she wanted to know if she should have a blog for runners.

I don’t remember how the panel answered that question, exactly, but I will answer it now: no one can tell you what to write about. Don’t ask what’s selling. It kind of doesn’t matter. The market wants you, at your very best, showing up and doing what you do.

It doesn’t matter if you’re starting a blog to make money or writing a book proposal to submit to an editor or writing an ebook about how to write an ebook – the same rules apply for everyone. To be clear, these words are for those of us who want to write for an audience. If you just love to write because you love to write and it helps you live better, then by all means, write in whatever way you wish. But if you want us to care what you write about, then think about this:

Write about something. Anything. Just sit in a chair, set a timer, and make yourself write. There is only one guarantee in publishing, and that is you absolutely will not be published if you don’t write. Start somewhere. I recommend you do this privately. No one wants to read a blog post that starts out “I have no idea what to say, so I’m just gonna start writing.”

If you are a writer and you give yourself permission to just start writing, it is my  completely unscientific and undocumented opinion that seeds will come out all over your paper. You may not know what kind of plant they will be yet, but you know those seeds mean something to you. And they will sit there like tiny little shadows of things to come, and you will stare at them and think Now where did you come from? And somewhere inside, that voice will begin to speak.

Write from the voice.  You know the voice. It’s the one that begins to speak when you’re driving down the highway alone or just before you step out of the shower. It’s the one that speaks just as you lay your head down on the pillow, between the busy day and restful sleep. It is the voice that reminds you of your passion, your heart, your message. It may be the voice that tries to convince you to take some time and space to figure out what that passion actually is. You can’t put it in a sentence yet, but you know it’s there. You can’t ignore that voice.

Write what makes you come alive, not what you think will sell. You can spot the passionless artist from the first word that falls flat out of their mouth. You’re no fool. But neither are we. When you try to write things simply because you think it’s what people will want to read, we know. And we don’t want to read it. But if you are excited about something, chances are great that someone else will be excited about it too.

Write bad stuff. John Mayer said this last month to a group of students at Berklee College of Music: “I can’t stress how important it is to write bad songs.” Artists are afraid to write because they fear the writing will be awful. He says it may be awful now, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. Bad songs aren’t always bad songs, they’re just unfinished good songs. One good phrase is worth a thousand bad ones. But if you didn’t write the thousand, you wouldn’t have found the one. Finish. It.

Write with great faith, even if your idea is small. There is nothing more frustrating for a writer who knows she’s a writer to want to write but fears she has nothing to say. No message, no insight into the world, no direction. I felt this way for many, many, many years. I even stopped writing after I was married, thinking that part of my life was over. When I finally picked up a pen again, I did so in the form of this blog. It was January of 2006 and I had no idea what I was doing. I would only post when an idea showed up that seemed to have some redemptive quality. And even though it’s painful for me to go back and remember where I started from (the ridiculous ellipses! the tiny, tiny photos!), it’s necessary. Because even though I didn’t know exactly where I was headed five years ago, I wrote those little things that resonated with me.

Where are you in your writing journey? Are you still wrestling with calling yourself a writer? Are you a writer who doesn’t know her message? Do you have a story and a message but are afraid to share it?

Coming up next: But I want to write books, not blog posts!

Comments

  1. says

    Thanks for sharing these little treasures and tidbits on writing today…got me thinking, inspired, and encouraged me!! Lovely :) I love that we are so FREE to just write from our heart and in that find purpose, meaning, and significance!!!

  2. says

    Last night I had dinner with my husband, celebrating our 24th wedding anniversary. It was a crappy meal, ending a fairly crappy day, but celebrating 24 years of a wonderful marriage. Every year, we re-negotiate certain facets of our arrangements (which in and of itself, is a blogworthy). But last night, the negotiations centered around me writing. He says I can do an ebook in 6 months. I was trying to wrangle a year’s worth of grace. I came down to 9 months: how long it takes to give birth to a child. He reduced his offer to 5 months.

    I think I’m verbally ovulating.

    And your post applies so beautifully to what I’m absolutely struggling to wrestle to the ground, like Jacob wrestling with the angel.

    Thanks for the encouragement.

  3. says

    THANKS THANKS THANKS for this post. It is inspiring, eye opening and full of wonderful things to ponder on. I have been floundering on my blog and not really finding my voice yet… thinking I am writing what people want, just like that runner….. but no more thanks to you. I am going to find my voice, find my purpose and just do what inspires ME. Thanks again

  4. says

    Oh Emily ~ such a great post.
    And I would add … don’t get pinned into thinking you must have a ‘brand’ to write.
    What is a brand but a reflection of passion? Passion that grows and changes as God teaches and molds us.
    I love listening to you think out loud. And hear the echoes of you ‘chatting at the sky.’
    Bravo!

  5. says

    this blogging thing has me all messed up.
    so much more is in me than what I typically post about…but I just can’t find my truest blogging voice or writing voice or whatever.
    you’ve found your voice and it’s beautiful, Emily.

    • says

      tara,
      you’re comment caught my eye. I feel the same way-there is more in me than the blog seems to hold, however, if you’re writing every day blog post or other stuff, eventually what’s “in you” will be the cream that rises. You can skim it, edit it, bundle it and praise God that it resembles a whole piece of writing. I’ve battled with this feeling too and the older gals at my writer’s group have encouraged me that it’s ok, I’m ok writing, writing, writing…for now. Our faith needs to grow to match the work ahead of the words.You probably have found your voice, it’s just difficult to hear it and really listen. Keep the faith and a pen in hand.
      Aly

  6. says

    I needed this post. I love that you are sharing this with us. The way you take us step by step, little by little, makes it seem impossible not to write! Thanks!

  7. says

    I’m throughly enjoying these SheSpeaks highlights. And “listening” to you about writing, encourages me to continue writing the way my heart is most passionate, even if it looks different than someone else. Especially, if it looks different. A couple of months ago I bought a little girl some pens, pencils, a journal, and some papers for her birthday. And I remembered something I’d long forgotten, how I used to LOVE these as a little girl myself and couldn’t wait to get away alone with my blank pages, thrilled to mark them with my new pink and purple pens. How did I forget that all these years?

  8. says

    I really loved and resonated with this in so many ways…

    “If you are a writer and you give yourself permission to just start writing, it is my completely unscientific and undocumented opinion that seeds will come out all over your paper. You may not know what kind of plant they will be yet, but you know those seeds mean something to you. And they will sit there like tiny little shadows of things to come, and you will stare at them and think Now where did you come from? And somewhere inside, that voice will begin to speak.”

    That’s where the ideas flow and grow. Just write. You’ll be amazed! And I always am. :) Thank you!

    • Jennifer says

      I completely agree with your comment Christin, and I was so excited to see this point in your post, Emily. The free writing stage is so vital in the writing process – regardless of the writing situation. And it is a step that can be returned to again and again in this recursive act that we call writing. As you note, Christin, it truly is where the “ideas flow and grow.”

      Loved the post, Emily. Thanks very much for sharing these thoughts.

  9. says

    I started my blog primarily because someone I know in real life had one and it looked like fun. I discovered a world of knitting blogs and added another! Mostly I posted only when I had something of knitterly interest to say. In June last year I began researching my English heritage and became totally absorbed. I stopped writing my blog. I stopped reading other people’s blogs. I was totally immersed (40+ hours per week) in the book I was writing for my mother’s Christmas present.

    In February this year, having achieved my goal, I lost interest in family history. My living relatives, both long known and recently discovered, weren’t much interested in helping me find out what had happened to my great-grandparent’s descendants. I slowly found my way back to my blog. I began to write but this time it was different. I had lost most of my followers so this time I wrote for the one person I knew would be reading and I wrote to her in my own way, about the things (knitting and otherwise) that interested me. Quickly, I found myself blogging every day and it was never really difficult to find something interesting to say (to her and now others). I enjoy writing my blog but if it becomes a chore again I will back off because I want to continue to enjoy it!

    Thank you, my sister in Christ, for your thought-provoking posts. I’m so glad I found your blog.

  10. says

    I love those ridiculous ellipses and use them often. LOL!

    I think ellipses reflect how I think. Not so much in tidy, compact sentences but like pearls on a string; there’s no definitive beginning or end. One thought lends itself to another.

    So I think I’ll hang on to them a bit longer…

  11. says

    “There’s nothing more frustrating to a writer who knows she’s a writer to want to write but fears she has nothing to say.”
    This is where I am right at this moment. Just starting out, trying to learn and absorb as much as I can, but fear is keeping me right here. I have a blog but have struggled with my voice. I’m 37. I shouldn’t be struggling with defining who I am. But I am. This journey has demanded that of me. It’s exciting and horrifying at the same time.
    I just found your blog through Twitter and have enjoyed reading. Thank you for your hard work. It shows.

  12. says

    I love John Mayer’s advice (as well as all of yours here, Emily). Anne Lamott phrases it a bit more grittily when she says, “Write sh*tty first drafts.” I love that — it’s my writing mantra when I am afraid to put fingers to keyboard. I always tell my husband, “The key for me is to write crap…and then somewhere in there is the seed that blooms. ” It’s a technique that hardly ever fails. My hub takes the opposite approach — he outlines and takes copious notes and labors over the first sentence — but hey, that method works for him, mine works for me. You just have to find your way.

    Loving this series, Emily!

  13. says

    Well, I think I’ve been able to call myself a writer for a few months now – even if only to my husband and my closest pals. And I feel like the seeds of a message have been planted. The trick now is to get over the fear of the “bad songs” and learn to just write no matter what comes out. These are great thoughts, Emily. Thanks for using them to encourage gals like me.

  14. says

    Emily,
    Thank you for your encouraging words! They came at such a great time. I just recently started blogging after many months of the Lord’s leading and I think nearly everything you said resonated with me. It is hard to get noticed in this big blogosphere. It is easy to be tempted to pander to what brings in the best response. I feel called to write for the Lord, about the Lord. But often the style and fashion blogs are the most followed. I question, “Am I too serious?”, “Who wants to read about Scripture?”, “Does anyone care what I have to say?” I just need to remember that I’m writing for Him, and He alone is audience enough.

    Thank you for your perspective – it is so welcomed!

  15. says

    AHHH! The VOICE!
    I love how you talk about the voice, it makes me feel…um…slightly less crazy. I am loving this series. Seriously.
    Hey, do you ever wonder if writers are borderline crazy, what with all the voices and the sitting and staring at people and such? I think it’s ironic that people who write about people (or life)(or ellipses) often have to turn into hermits in order to create. You went to Panera to be alone, I envision myself in a cabin in the forrest, surrounded by calico cats. Perhaps that’s why I haven’t written a book, I’m not ready to deal with the cats.

  16. says

    Emily,

    This is a big encouragement to me. I have so many ideas and inspirations that come to me when I am not at the computer, then I go to type it out, and somehow can’t find the words. Now I know I need to just write, and write until the good can be found, and the gems start to sparkle. I struggle to find the time to write without interruption and need to find a solution that works for me.

    I so appreciate all that you are sharing here, and it lifts my spirit and gives me the needed nudge!

    Blessings

  17. says

    This is so good. You give me permission to write with confidence what I’d been writing with trepidation. Between your wise words here and Bonita’s advice a couple of weeks ago: “Write the words that you would want to read,” I feel more and more certainty.

  18. says

    Thank you so much for this series. I love how I can apply it to my art. When taking a watercolor class our instructor told us to just paint. It was just a piece of paper. She reminded us that for every hundred paintings we did one would be a masterpiece, so keep painting. This was a great reminder.

  19. says

    Emily,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I needed to reminded that I just need to write. Stop worrying about the process, stop worrying about whether what I write about “is good enough.” Stop worrying about the subject. Just sit down and write. Good writers write mediocre stuff all the time. Good writers write bad stuff, too. It’s ok. What makes you become a better and better writer and allows you to hone your craft is simply writing. I often forget that.

    Love your blog and I look forward to your next one. I think you should do a 31 days series on writing! I personally would love to read it! :) Have a wonderful day writing! :)

    Jenny

  20. says

    “Write what makes you come alive” is the foundation. When we write from our passion, our heart, the voice will shine through. The more I write about nurturing spirituality the more I am fed also.

  21. says

    I am already in love with this series, Emily. I have struggled so much with the “whether to write what people want” or the “write what you want” pull. Last year, I got 2,000 hits in one day from one post about decor. I didn’t want to write about decor (it’s really just fun– I don’t want to be a decorator or a decor blog writer) But that crazy day made me confused for months. Now, I’m currently in the midst of writing a novel and ignoring the purpose and readership my blog–and have never been happier.;)

  22. says

    I needed to read this. It is so tempting to try to “people-please” rather than write honestly.
    The thoughts you’ve shared this week have helped me see that I’m not the only one struggling with these issues and asking these questions.

  23. says

    Emily, I so appreciate the time you took in the hallway at She Speaks last year to tell me these very things when I asked about the direction of my blog. That advice gave me the courage to write from my passion. Thanks for the reminder today!

  24. says

    Hello Emily,
    Thank you for sharing these wise words. They are so encouraging but also very challenging. I have so much fear that no one will read what I write on my blog AND I am afraid that someone MIGHT actually read what I write!! How silly is that?? I need to get out of my own way.

    It helps to be reminded to “be still” now and then and just listen, observe, dream, imagine, pray. And then write, write, write, write………….

  25. says

    I love where you say ‘write from the voice’ because that’s pretty much the only way I know how to write. :) And it doesn’t always bring in tons of readers – but it’s the best way for me to write. I don’t do as well when I write something requested or to fit a mold because it doesn’t have heart and feeling all over it.

  26. says

    Thank you so much for this post! I am a vocalist as well (I’m not really ready to call myself a writer…it took me a long time to call myself a vocalist! lol!) and that bit about writing bad songs really opened my eyes in terms of not only writing, but also when I’m writing lyrics! I also have to say thank you…thanks to this post, I think I am going to start writing some poetry again. I used to write it all the time when I was still in school, but when I graduated and then got married, I guess I just thought, why bother. I didn’t think it would go anywhere professionally (I mean really, how many new books of poetry do you see coming out these days?) I love it though, and I love singing, and writing songs, and writing my blog, and I’m going to keep doing all the things I love, whether they lead somewhere or not. What a waste of a life to only fill it with things you don’t enjoy! Thank you again, and I can’t wait to see your next post!

  27. says

    I so appreciate the encouragement to write bad stuff. (Really was not expecting to come and find encouragement from John Mayer. :))

    I get SO uptight about what I write and what is blog worthy. How stifling that is. I just need to relax and write from my heart.

    Blessings, sweet Emily,
    K

  28. says

    I write everyday in a journal, but only about once a month do I write for my blog. I don’t like to publish unless I have a Fresh Word to share. Maybe I should reconsider that idea.

    I found this quote and thought it spoke to the heart of a writer, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” ~Maya Angelou

    I know that I feel this agony at times and will have to stop, sit, and write.

  29. says

    If this were the case, I’d be a fashion blogger. And it would be great for a while, but it would not be me all the way. Just the part that loves to read inStyle and shop with the girls. Which of course, I do, but not all the time.

    :) :) :)

  30. says

    Am I a writer? Still not sure but one thing I do know is if I don’t write when “the voice” is speaking, I just might explode. It has to come out. Do I do it correctly? who knows. I’m wordy and write too long of posts, but I can’t stop until the storm of inspiration is over. Two years I have been writing on a blog. Hundreds of times I have been tempted to write what will get me noticed most in blogland, and hundreds of times I have had to ride herd on those thoughts, bring them back to the corral, and continue following that still, small voice leading true. I don’t know why I keep blogging. Readership is minute. I guess it could be likened unto feeding my family. Three times each day I feed eight people. There are thousands starving to death across the world, but I feed only eight. Do I cease to care for the eight people in my home because thousands of others aren’t eating? Never. Neither do I quit writing on a blog that only has three followers and nine subscribers. Who am I to decide whether the words He speaks through me are to feed a few or many? All I have to do is write. It’s a humbling honor. Thank you for shedding light on the confusion in my mind. Not only will I write, but I’ll write some more while I’m at it. Thank you again.

  31. says

    I really love that you’re writing about this this week. I’ve been struggling with what I think about my blog. In some ways I feel like I’m selling out, because I want to write books, and fiction at that. But in other ways, I know I’m cultivating the regular discipline to write. But like you said, I fear the bad posts. I somehow think they will define who I am, what my writing style is, how far my range can extend, etc…
    It can’t be true, because we are a work in progress. But I find myself being so very afraid of the publish button. Thanks for the insight, the encouragement, and the help with keeping it all in focus. At the risk of sounding like a stalker, (and I promise I’m not!), I love your blog and I’d love to meet you someday :)

  32. says

    A few days ago I was in a really rough spot with my writing (I’ve been writing avidly since I learned how at 4 or 5) and a dear friend of mine without knowing that I was having a bad day, posted your blog on my facebook page. The blog, “Are you a Writer?” I read it with as tears filled my eyes. My hands trembled as I typed her a thank you email. She had stepped in at just the right time. I am so thankful to have had your website delivered to me, I would almost dare to call it fate. I love your inspirational method and honesty in your words. You have a new fan, follower, and guess what… writer. :)

  33. says

    Write with great faith!! I love that. I believe that there is a problem that lies within that simple statement. As much as we fear calling ourselves writers, we fear that we’re not writing in great faith. Maybe we aren’t. Maybe it’s in the writing process that God grows our faith, our faith in Him, our faith in His willingness to work through people like us. When I crossed the line and began to live in the writerly paradigm that God intended for me it was after 1) many years of floundering and writing bad stuff, 2) tremendous heartbreak that broke down and restructured my relationships, 3) going to Africa where I learned more about faith and myself and God in two weeks than I paid for the plane ticket! The faith building has increased through the daily discipline of writing. God loves the harmony of many voices praising Him — yes, I can be one of them.

  34. says

    Yes, I’m on a writing journey, and you know what? I used to squirm when people referred to me as a writer, but I’m starting to embrace the idea. Yep, I’m a writer.

  35. says

    Emily, thank you for this post. I have read your blog several times, but have never commented. The blogspere can be so intimidating! There are so many amazing, creative, funny, artsy blogs out there, it is sometimes hard to find my voice in the mix. I am constantly telling myself to celebrate these other writers, not compare myself… and write what God has entrusted to me! Even if I think its junk…He’s all about making something beautiful out of ash. Thank you for this encouragement.

  36. says

    Emily,

    I have loved reading your last several posts on the process of writing. I love your comment about just writing, something, and trusting that your voice will naturally flow out of that. I think I have learned that the MORE I write, the MORE FOCUSED and STRONGER my voice becomes. It’s like I find myself, more, when I write, more.

    For me, with blogging, there is a natural tension because I know that what I most enjoy writing about is inspirational, journal-kind of posts. But, I know that other people reading can get naturally tired of those kinds of writings all. the. time. For me, I am learning that it is important to throw in practical, unique, creative, or funny posts quite often– just to not bore everyone to tears with my dramatic self-discovery stuff 24-7. Because, logically, who wants to read only THAT? :)

  37. says

    It’s funny, but I only considered myself a writer once two things happened. 1) God told me to write and speak. I was blogging all the time, so writing was not a problem to continue doing. Speaking however, is quite a different story. 2) My church is allowing another woman and I to write the curriculum for our women’s retreat this winter. Once I felt I had that authority, then I felt I was a writer. It was amazing just to give myself permission to call myself a writer. And maybe a year ago, I was still struggling with my writing voice, what my message and story are, but I’ve starting finding my niche and being comfortable with that. I am becoming more confident, and that is a blessed thing to say. As a woman of faith, our God as created us with such talents and abilities to use and glorify Him. I’ve learned more about grace this year, and I definitely feel understanding your created purpose is part of that grace. Thanks for the blog series, Emily.

  38. says

    Thank you Emily, love this series! I am looking forward to the next installment, hanging on every word – hanging like a hang glider looking at the ground two thousand feet below me, wondering how in the world I will land this thing without crashing. So appreciate your wise words piloting me in safely.

  39. says

    I started my blog as an online journal; an overflow of my life. Therapeutic release. I still cannot call myself a writer; but, I sure do appreciate your posts, Emily.

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