Can bloggers write for an audience and stillbe authentic?
After reading a post on my travel blog, a friend remarked, “Your writing is so formal, very proper, very business-like”. I wasn’t sure if this was a compliment or a jab — I was leaning towards jab — but I knew what she meant and I had to agree with her.
I am a professional writer, so when I write, I feel like I’m performing for a large, intelligent and serious-minded audience who will be flashing score cards to let me know how well I’ve done. “Keep them entertained” is my topmost priority. So I must think about presentation, sentence structure, vocabulary, spelling, grammar, and style when I sit down to work.
But does being conscious of my audience make me a fraud? Not necessarily. Of course, a lot depends on the format and purpose of the content, because when producing advertorials or brand stories, my writing will involve some degree of psychological manipulation. But marketing and propaganda aside, I think being conscious of an audience keeps a writer accountable, and ensures they are writing considerately, so their esteemed readers won’t have to suffer jerky or long-winded prose. Being conscious of an audience is what makes the writer different from everyone else who writes.
When I write on Medium, I notice that my voice changes. I feel more myself and my tone becomes less formal, more conversational. But this relaxed voice isn’t one that speaks as often as my “professional writer voice”.
It’s been two months now since I published on Medium, so yesterday, I scrolled through a list I’d created some time back called “Ideas for Medium”. I picked a topic and gave it a whirl, but nothing happened. Well, nothing good anyway. What came out sounded phony, forced, as my friend put it “business-like”. So I gave up, sat back and thought about why some essays are good and some are just whatever. The answer that came to me was this — with good essays, you hear an honest voice.
Since I joined Medium in 2017, I’ve only published 35 posts. That’s an average of 8.75 posts a year, which is peanuts compared to what most prolific bloggers crank out. Of those 35 posts, 24 were featured in curated publications GEN, Human Parts, Better Marketing, Better Humans, and The Startup. But of those 24, I’m only really happy with three: “The Near-Death Encounter That Saved Me From Myself”, “What Chekov’s Dog Taught Me About Living a Purposeful, Creative Life” and “Why I Secretly Miss Being a Smoker”.
When I reread those three posts (yes, I am very vain and love grooving on my own work) I thought to myself, “Wow! Did I really write that?” Because that person sounds way more eloquent, wise, and likeable than me. Then it hits me, that person is me, it’s just me not trying so hard, me not worrying about making a good impression.
Writing can be frustrating business and often, pieces I start on end up being duds. But once in a blue moon, my word-processor enables me to outdo myself by making my thoughts livelier and shinier than they would have been had I simply blurted those thoughts out in conversation. That’s the magic of writing as a mode of interpersonal communication, it allows the communicator to move in slow motion so they can rehearse, react and minimize errors before sending their ideas out into the world. It allows them to distill and clarify thought. But this process doesn’t change who the communicator is, or the meaning behind their words, it only makes their message more succinct, more powerful.
As I contemplated why I liked those three posts better than the others, I revisited the state of mind I was in when I wrote them. This was what I discovered:
- I didn’t just pick a topic from a list. I only started writing about the topic because I was looking for answers.
- I didn’t have an “outline” and was willing to get lost and trash the piece if it didn’t come together.
- I wrote very slowly. I spent twice as much time thinking about the topic than actually writing about it.
- I wasn’t trying to make anyone adopt my opinion.
- I wasn’t giving advice.
- I wasn’t trying to get curated.
- I was unabashedly naval gazing, examining my own value system and the strengths and weaknesses in my own thinking.
- I wasn’t generalizing.
- I was re-experiencing a specific event, experience or obsession in my life.
- I wasn’t sure if I had any point to make, but a point eventually revealed itself once I neared the end of the writing.
- I was writing with fewer filters. To put it cheesily — I was writing less from my head and more from my heart.
After completing this little epistemological exercise, I concluded that I write better when I remove my psychic armor and use my real voice.
This then made me think about authenticity, which as a self-help concept seems to be going through a bit of a renaissance at the moment. Is authenticity really possible online? I wondered. Is authenticity actually attainable in the digital world, where that little voice we hear when we’re completely alone and unplugged is increasingly becoming subsumed by our cyber identities and personal brands?
Is it possible to write for an audience and be authentic? I think it is.
Honesty in writing is about closing narrative distance. It’s about how near the reader can get to the writer. When I’m trying to impress you, you will have to stand far away from me, and I’ll need the lighting to be just right so I look like a pin-up. But when I’m writing authentically, in my real voice, then we can stand nose to nose and I’ll let you check out the goods, warts and all.
In his 1985 short story collection “Skeleton Crew”, Stephen King closes narrative distance with this opening line: “Wait — just a few minutes. I want to talk to you…and then I am going to kiss you. Wait…” Read that and you immediately feel connected to King, as if he and you were sharing a dirty a secret. You let your guard down, because you sense you’re on a journey with someone who’s taken a real shine to you, and who isn’t out to dupe you.
I share less than nine posts a year because I’m not big on writing for the sake of writing. The world is noisy enough.
I only write for three reasons: The first is to earn a living, the second is to receive recognition as a writer, and the third is because I am in constant need of catharsis. When I publish on Medium, it’s often for the last reason and a little bit of the second.
There’s stuff I write that no one needs to read. Then there’s stuff I write that I just have to share. Why? Because I want connection and need you to be my therapist and friend. I need you to “get me”. If I decide to share an essay, it’s usually with the same urgency that King expresses when he writes about “talking to you” and “kissing you”. It’s a little desperate and a little needy, but hey, isn’t that what most of us are once we stop trying to look so good all the time?
And my point is? (As I mentioned, the point only reveals itself near the end). My point is — when I write in my real voice, this is the song I hear: “Screw what the public wants. Screw how many likes you get. Screw the trending topics. Give me movement, give me release, give me freedom from isolation. Allow me full disclosure and true intimacy with just one good reader. Give me, for a few moments, the attention of one human being who understands what it means to be alive, conscious, and trying”.
So is it possible to be on stage and still myself? I think it is, so long as I keep my eye not on a faceless, heartless crowd but on a single beautiful reader. If I do this, then there’s a chance I can be both entertaining and authentic.