“I love to write. But it has never gotten any easier to do and you can’t expect it to if you keep trying for something better than you can do.” — Ernest Hemingway.
It’s said that the better you write, the more you struggle. And the more you struggle, the better you become.
It’s a virtuous circle.
But the struggle never seems to make most writers better. In fact, we struggle to merely sustain what we do.
We stare at a blank sheet for hours because the ideas that sounded so good in our heads refuse to manifest on paper.
We imitate routines of writers who seem to create masterpieces with their eyes shut, but still feel we’ll have better luck trying to herd cats.
Yes, we manage to churn out the occasional work of brilliance. But most times, our work sinks into the back hole of oblivion.
A few friends might say nice things about our work (often to protect our feelings). But deep in our hearts, we just keep thinking…
“What is the point?”
If no one gives a damn about what we write, what’s the point? We might as well just quit.
But here’s why readers don’t care.
Many writers fall in love with their ideas and try to include everything they want to say. They know the full background and context of what they share, which makes the insights appear profound to them.
But for a reader who approaches the topic afresh, often with little knowledge, the work appears dry, conceptual and superficial.
Secondly, writers try to add a quick (superficial) spin on something interesting or share thoughts that have been beaten to death.
The outcome is often unfocused and scattered. No takeaways, no “Aha!” moments. The reader who feels cheated for having given her most precious asset: her attention.
I committed this blunder often in 2019.
I created overstuffed articles (maybe out of a subtle desire to show my erudition). In doing so, I repeatedly ignored the most essential factor that helps an article make an impact.
What is the point
“The key is to present just one idea — as thoroughly and completely as you can in the limited time period.” — Barry Schwartz
This one idea is the throughline — the single theme that holds the entire plot together. It’s what you build your blog post, video, book, or movie around.
Visualize your creative work like a tree.
The throughline forms the roots and trunk on which the branches, twigs and leaves (stories, details, reasons for your audience to care, and takeaways) hang.
Most articles that strike a chord with readers have a single throughline that either presents the reader with an “Aha!” moment or puts into words something the reader intuits but hasn’t articulated.
But that’s just half the part. The other half is to convince the reader to heed the throughline.
Your throughline doesn’t have to be an exotic one… just something that drives you, that you feel deeply about. Then fill every element you build around the idea with empathy.
Dig into your and others’ stories to guide your reader to the throughline.
Share your vulnerabilities to let readers relate to what you share.
Use brevity and simplicity to guide your reader build your idea in her head with ease.
Remove any point, regardless of how much you love it, that doesn’t fit with the narrative. It hurts. But if you really care about your readers, you must kill your darlings.
Here are some examples of remarkable articles woven around single throughlines:
- By Jessica Wildfire: Don’t try to fix everyone’s problems.
- By Tesia Blake: There’s no such thing as true love.
- By Ali Mese: The best way to sell boats is to sell time on the water.
- By Janessa Lantz: How to tell your company’s story.
- By me (ahem!): You will be forgotten when you leave.
A story needs to feel like it holds water. Like it’s not just a series of separate parts dry-humping each other with their clothes on. A throughline permeates. Maybe the audience realizes it — “Oh my god, the color burnt umber has been important this whole time!” — or maybe it’s something that the audience unconsciously processes. Either way, it makes the story feel whole, so that it all ties together.” — Chuck Wendig
But there’s one thing you cannot ignore.
Regardless of how much throughlines ooze of passion, many of them will not resonate with readers. It’s painful, but that’s how the world is.
Most of your work will still go unnoticed (by your standards). 20% of your work will gather 80% of visibility. You cannot choose the 20%. You can merely hunt for compelling throughlines, build your work around them, and let your audience decide what they want to take away.
Accept it, put your head down, and type.
Your mission as a writer is not to go viral (no pun intended).
It’s to take a thought that matters deeply to you and rebuild it inside your reader’s mind thoroughly enough for it to matter to her also. Your mission is to inspire, educate, and entertain.
When your work achieves this for even one person, you’ve done well. When your work achieves this for hundreds (or thousands), pat yourself on the back. Then do it again.
This is the struggle that improves writers, the struggle that expert artists rave about. I’m ready to embrace it. Are you?