One of the things I get asked about forty hundred times a day (besides whether or not I know there's a hair sprouting from my chin) is this:
“I'm not as boring as I seem on paper, but from all those years in corporate America / Catholic school / working as a mad scientist, my writing is feeling a little…constipated.”
You might even commit the crime of talking in the third person (“Jane Doe has extensive experience in creating high-level solutions…”), or the passive voice (“A decision was made to ramp up…”), or introducing your website like a museum greeter (“Thank you for visiting my website…”).
And, you know, it makes sense—we've been working our entire lives to “sound professional” and “get taken seriously” and “pretend we actually know what we're talking about,” which explains that hilarious high-pitched voice you use anytime you get on the phone with anyone from the bank.
MOST OF THE TIME WHEN YOU'RE IN A “PROFESSIONAL” SETTING, YOU PUT ON YOUR “PROFESSIONAL” VOICE, RIGHT?
In real life you don't feel bad about that, because you can mitigate the stuffy with your vocal inflection, your intonation, your pace, your volume.
However—the moment you sit down to write, all of those vocal tools go POOF and you've practically lost a femur.
So there you are, hobbling around on crutches trying to write something that doesn't sound like it was scribed by a waistcoated man from the 1800's, but the thing is this: You don't know how. Because four score and seven years ago is permanently etched into your writing muscle memory.
And so in wanting to lighten up / loosen up / remove awkward civil war waistcoat, you test the waters with few curse words. Start making forced “working while pantsless” jokes. LOLing at everything. And using ALL the exclamation points. (It’s okay, sometimes you gotta let your freak flag fly!!!!!!!!!!!!!)
Butttt, then you end up hating yourself even more…because now, you sound like a sixteen year old teenager at her quinceanera—and not professional enough. How is anyone suppose to take you seriously now?
HERE'S WHAT'S GOING ON: YOU MAY BE AIMING FOR “PERSONALITY” WHEN REALLY WHAT YOU WANT IS HUMAN.
Trevor Noah jokes aren't the missing quality in your writing—simply sounding like a human is. (Then again, if you want to bring Trevor Noah round here, BY ALL MEANS ?.)
This is even more important when it comes to the internet because the internet is basically like one giant Tinder app—people are swiping left and right through an overgrown garden full of websites trying to find a match. So if you say completely mechanical things like, “Thank you for visiting my website,” no one can make any judgments about whether or not you're a good fit, because you sound about as unique as a double-corrugated cardboard box.
But here's where the pen meets the Moleskine: You want people to judge you.
That, right there, is THE missing link: When we're writing in stick-up-arse mode, it's because we're terrified of being judged. We don't want to be labeled. We don't want anyone to have an opinion about our writing or us—we just hope they'll “get the message.” But messages cannot be sent via a pressurized tube into people's brains. We need YOU to deliver it. And your delivery is what makes the difference between average writing and brilliant writing.
The way to sound more human when you write has nothing to do with F-bombs—even though, based on things I've read about myself around the internet, this seems to be the most common hypothesis as to why my writing sounds human. ?
Rather, my favorite trick for sounding more human when you're writing?
Don't just share the facts. Share the experience.
Scroll back up to the top of the page. What did the first sentence reference?
GOOD OL’ CHIN HAIR.
You know why that's fun to read about? Because you've got chin hair, too! Okay, fine, you might not yet, but you will. That's a shared human experience—and likely one that we're having together. And, that bonds us. Because we like humans who aren’t afraid to pull back the curtain. (Just think about why TikTok took off—”real human” is a trend that’s getting stronger by the day.)
But when you do the opposite—when you talk as if you. are. a. buttoned. up. metro. nome. and you. are. just. stating. the. facts…we lose sight of your human and we feel alienated. We feel like we're talking to a brochure.
Who wants to have a chat with a brochure?!
This is not about self-deprecation, though I'm clearly a big fan. You could be writing about anything. The key lies in teasing out the universal commonalities between what we, as humans, experience when we do that thing…and let us see our thoughts in yours.
There's a big difference between these two opening lines:
Today I'd like to talk to you about how peanuts are actually legumes.
Legume: Hell of a word to pronounce, am I right?
The first one approaches the topic with facts. The second approaches the topic with an experience.
Take another example:
The key to any good photograph is the lighting.
You know when you take the perfect selfie, AKA the one where your skin looks flawless and your hair has that crazy ethereal glow?
Fact vs Experience.
Fact vs Experience.
Fact vs Experience.
You can see the difference. (It's ethereally glowing off the words.)
And now, you aren't just more human, but you're more approachable. More interesting. More real. And more likely to have a shot at breaking through the sea of 1800's waistcoats. (And, you know, not feeling like a boring boob forevermore—unless boobs are totally your thing.)
Turns out, personality is overrated.
What it's really about is being a person.
If this is you, DEF check out my creative writing newsletter, Meat & Hair! We have a blast getting more personality onto the page.