Why good people write bad copy (and what you can do about it)…

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Does this ever happen to you?

You’re feeling pretty good about something you’ve written. So you take a break to watch cat videos, stalk your ex on Facebook or whatever you do to ‘unwind’ on the web.

But when you come back to your work, you realise that what you thought was Pulitzer Prize winning copy is actually pretty shoddy. In fact, you’re pretty sure a nine-year-old could have made a better job of it (in fact – no word of a lie – my nine-year-old is reading this over my shoulder right now and telling me she could do better).

I’ve been a professional writer for 15 years, but I still have days when I can’t get started, find the right words or my copy is just plain awful.

So what makes good people write bad copy? Read on and find out…

Perfectionism

Perfectionism is the biggest barrier to good writing. It’s what makes you spend hours on a single word or sentence (and I’ve been there many times) and can even stop you getting started at all.

But when you overthink your writing, you’re in danger of:

  • Including everything you know about a topic (rather than what’s relevant)
  • Making things more complicated than they need to be (using too many big words, for example)
  • Burying the most important part of your story (generally by writing long, rambly introductions )

All things that can kill your writing.

Beating yourself up about being a perfectionist is a waste of energy. And having high standards and wanting to do your best are pretty good qualities.

So instead of trying to change yourself, how about changing the way you see the problem?

In my experience, people generally get stuck with writing for one reason: they don’t know what they want to say. They sit down at their computer with a vague idea of what they’re going to write about, then wonder why they’re still sitting there, hours later, staring at a blank screen.

I silence my inner critic (or at least turn down the volume) through mantras (‘don’t it right, get it written’ is my favourite) and rituals (writing in the morning, when I’m at my best).

And I use my perfectionism to plan what I’m going to write, in minute detail, paragraph by paragraph. Breaking it down in manageable chunks ensures my writing is well-structured, with each section moving logically to the next. And what perfectionist doesn’t love order and logic?

But here’s the surprising bit: rigorous planning puts me in a state of creative flow.

When I sit down to write, all I have to worry about is the words and the rhythm. I write, without stopping (even if it leads to a few clunky words and phrases) and go back and fix things later.

I’m not saying this exact strategy will work for you. Or that I get it right every time (I still have days when I procrastinate or don’t follow my own advice). But I am challenging you to think differently about how you can use your perfectionism to tackle your writing blocks.

And what I do know is this: when you see your perfectionism as a gift, it creates a subtle shift in perception that makes everything feel much easier.

Fear

Perfectionism has a partner in crime and it’s called in fear.

Fear of not being good enough.

Fear of making a mistake.

Fear of what people will think.

Fear of embarrassment or rejection.

And a million other fears I haven’t mentioned.

Fear of not being good enough is what makes me spend hours trawling the net for blog post ideas or inspiration for clickbaity titles. It’s also what made me spend twice as long as I should have writing this post.

Of course, not everything about fear is bad.

My fear of creating crappy content is what motivates me to make every post better – and more shareable – than the last one. And that’s a good thing.

But my fear of not being good enough sometimes holds me back: from taking risks or letting my true writing voice come through.

Yet I know that when I feel most fearful about sharing something, it means I’m at the edge of my comfort zone.  And getting uncomfortable usually helps me grow – both as a person and a writer.

Ego

Good writing is about service to your audience.

Often it’s about making complex ideas accessible. Other times it’s about thought leadership. Sometimes it’s about entertainment or escapism.

But never is it about you. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

I’m totally with Alexander Franzen when she says we should think less about writing and more about creating ‘little miracles’ for our readers.

But your ego – or how you see yourself in relation to the world – can have a big influence on  your writing.

Having an overinflated view of your ability make you self-important, which generally manifests itself in hyperbolic language and excessive description – both things that are a big turn off for readers. It can also make you resistant to feedback.

I’m yet to come across a single writer – and I’ve had the privilege of interviewing dozens at the top of their game – who thinks their writing is perfect. Although criticism can be hard to take – it’s absolutely necessary if you want to improve. And thinking you have nothing new to learn can stunt your growth as a writer.

Remember, also, that the ego can be your friend.

When you’re writing is motivated by the pursuit of fame and recognition – rather than because you have a genuine message to share – you’ll feel it in your writing. So when you feel like the words on the page don’t reflect your authentic voice, it’s usually a sign you’ve drifted away from your purpose. And just noticing this can be enough to get you back on track.

Boredom

When I published this post on how to write exciting copy about boring things, someone tweeted me to say I was wrong to write it. People just shouldn’t write copy about boring things, they said.

I disagreed for a multitude of reasons – not least because what I line the cat’s litter tray with might be riveting to you. But mainly because it’s just not practical. We all enjoy writing about some things more than others. And there are some things we just have to write – whether we like it or not (and with 15 years in journalism behind me, I say that on good authority).

I firmly believe you can make any subject interesting – simply by focusing on people.

And I deal with boredom by being playful.

I paint pictures with words rather than write articles or features

I write love letters rather than sales emails/press releases (thank you Gabrielle Bernstein for that).

I write little miracles rather than blog posts (thanks, again, to Alexandra Franzen for that)

All small shifts in perception that make the process of writing seem more magical and creative.

Which is exactly as it should be.

4 Comments

  • Awesome insights! I read somewhere that “done is better than perfect” and I try to remember that while striving for as close to perfect as possible within a deadline. Might need to save this as reminder for myself! Thanks again!

  • Wow, you made this post totally relatable. I made this sugar scrub and whipped body butter at Christmas time and did a post. Took kicking’ pictures for Pintrest and then saw basically the same thing on a PopSugar post about a week later. They made their’s simple, even a monkey could have followed it. I ‘hid’ the simplicity of the whole thing in a long winded post. Next post and next Christmas will be different.
    Thanks for all the great insight and tips. Look forward to seeing you back in the Daring Creative feed. Missed you.

  • I can totally relate to this post. When I’m writing for myself I have very few problems, but when I’m writing something for work it never sounds…right. It’s like I’m trying too hard to sound professional and second-guessing myself the whole time. I’m going to print this post to keep at my work desk next time I get into one of those writing funks.

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