Being a writer means frequently grappling with self-doubt, rejection, and if you’re lucky enough to get work, deadlines. It also means learning how to cope with those challenges. And in the process of coping, you can’t help but learn some transformative lessons. Lots of effective writing tips are also great life lessons.
For example, when you write about something that happens to you, it can make you feel insecure and vulnerable. But writing encourages you to look at the situation objectively, like a scientist looking under a microscope. As Elizabeth Gilbert put it: “My path as a writer became much more smooth when I learned, when things aren’t going well, to regard my struggles as curious, not tragic.”
Curiosity doesn’t just make your writing richer. It also creates distance from whatever struggle you face, making that struggle easier to process. It’s why writing is an effective tool to heal from trauma.
You don’t have to be a writer to appreciate this lesson. Looking at our challenges with curiosity, whether we’re writing about them or not, can go a long way toward healing from them. I’ve found that some of the most effective writing tips are often great life lessons. Below are a few I think about often.
You lose your voice by people-pleasing.
When I wrote short stories as a kid, I knew next to nothing about the writing process. And I didn’t care! I wrote because I enjoyed writing. Later, I decided I didn’t just want to write, I wanted to be a writer, and that meant I had to learn writing as an art and a skill. But the more I learned, the more I lost my own voice. I stopped writing for myself and started writing according to what other people said was acceptable. I grew self-conscious and tried to emulate other writers. After a while, I wasn’t even sure what my own voice sounded like. It wasn’t just writing — in so many other aspects of my life, I put the opinions of others before my own.
“We become so focused on pleasing others that being ourselves almost feels like a threat. We’re afraid to be who we really are because it might interfere with how we want to be seen.”
Recently, I came across some writing advice from Alexander Chee on how to find your voice once you’ve lost it. Chee writes:
“If you create an identity out of swiftly pleasing others and focusing on their desires more than your own, and you take a vicarious pleasure in fulfilling these desires, and you experience their gratitude as validation, even derive self-esteem from this role, it is easy to imagine that this is who you are, because who you are is never the subject of your thoughts.”
I suppose we all do this. As we get older, we learn to view ourselves through the eyes of others. And while that serves a purpose (I had to learn to write, after all), it can also make us forget who we are. We become so focused on pleasing others that being ourselves almost feels like a threat. We’re afraid to be who we really are because it might interfere with how we want to be seen.
The benefit of this behavior is that people like you. The downside is that you lose your voice. So how do you get it back? “Practice voicing your opinions,” Chee says. “Commit to spending time by yourself, when you just do whatever you want to do, and then time with others, where you try the same. Sing, also, alone or with others.” Find small ways to tap into your voice every day.
Your inner critic is not your enemy.
Like most writers, I have a pretty nasty inner critic. She says things like: You’ll never be a real writer! and Everyone is better than you! You never finish anything! She thinks I should just give up. Even if you’re not a writer, this probably sounds familiar.
“We usually push away our inner critic and tell it to shut up. This only makes it louder.”
I once took a writing class where the instructor led us through an interesting exercise. We had to describe our inner critics: what they look like, what they want, what they say to us. In my description, I noticed something: My inner critic was terrified. Was she a jerk? Absolutely. But she also was motivated by fear and wanted to protect me. She was trying to save me from embarrassment, failure, and stress. This, the instructor said, was the point of the exercise: to realize that our inner critic is simply a scared version of us trying to protect ourselves.
This phenomenon is not unique to writers. It’s the voice that pops up when you start a new job and feel like an imposter. Or when you’re insecure about your looks. Beating up on yourself is a weird way your brain tries to protect you and save you from failure or embarrassment. To remedy this, we usually push away the inner critic and tell it to shut up. But this only makes it louder. It‘s trying to sound an alarm, and like any alarm, you have to acknowledge it to make it stop.
The better approach, my instructor said, is to make friends with this critic. Tell her everything is going to be okay. Tell her you appreciate her concern, but you know there are risks in life, and you still want to take those risks. It’s one of the most effective writing tips I’ve used, even outside of my writing.
Perfectionism will drain you. The solution is awe.
Like all writers, I get blocked from time to time. I get stuck on a story and why it’s not working. Or I can’t think of any good ideas to write about. My brain feels like a maze, and I can’t seem to find my way out. Sometimes I try to take a walk, but I’m not really taking a walk — it’s just a thing for me to do so I can force myself to be creative. When I’m blocked, writing is no longer about asking questions or exploring an idea. It’s about forcing stuff out of my head and onto the page. This becomes such a frustrating experience that I often ask myself, “Why am I even doing this?”
“In writing and in life, we become so focused on perfectionism, productivity, and consumption that we forget to pay attention.”
Then I remember what it means to be a writer. In her book, Bird by Bird, writer Anne Lamott puts it this way:
“In order to be a writer, you have to learn to be reverent. If not, why are you writing? Why are you here? … Think of reverence as awe, as presence in and openness to the world. Think of those times when you’ve read prose or poetry that is presented in such a way that you have a fleeting sense of being startled by beauty or insight, by a glimpse into someone’s soul. All of a sudden everything seems to fit together or at least to have some meaning for a moment.”
Lamott seems to be talking about the concept of awe. In writing and in life, we become so focused on perfectionism, productivity, and consumption that we forget to pay attention. Awe is the solution to that kind of obsession. Researchers say awe can increase our happiness, boost our critical thinking skills, and even improve our health. It’s a reminder that life has meaning, and there is more to producing and consuming things. For me, awe is driving to the mountains or listening to music. For you, it might be gazing at the stars, catching up with an old friend, or, as Lamott suggests, reading poetry.
Approaching the world with a mindset of wonder rather than perfectionism requires a shift in perspective that doesn’t always come easy. But that shift isn’t just good for writing, it’s also good for living. As Yeats said, “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” It only requires that we pay attention — and you don’t have to be a writer to do that.