I wondered why.
Why does editing take so much longer when I’m writing a personal story?
Some people seem to write about themselves effortlessly.
But I find it much easier to share writing tips than to tell a personal story.
Is it because I’m introverted or shy? Because I’m still nervous about sharing my vulnerabilities, my human flaws?
That no doubt plays a role, but I also find that a draft personal story is often disjointed and rambling on endlessly. Editing can feel like a daunting, even an impossible task.
How we can make writing our own stories easier? And how can we make such stories more engaging?
1. Find focus to write your story
I recently read Olivia Laing’s book The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, an extraordinary account of her loneliness when she moved from the UK to New York.
The biggest storytelling lesson from her book is perhaps its focus.
This is not a memoir in which she shares her whole life, from cradle to now. Instead, she focuses on one period of her life and on one theme: how she found herself being lonely and how she learned to cope with her loneliness.
Laing investigates what loneliness is. How do other people cope? What do experts say about the sources of loneliness and its cures? How does loneliness manifest itself? She recognizes her own loneliness in art:
I looked like a woman in a Hopper painting. The girl in Automat, maybe, in a cloche hat and green coat, gazing into a cup of coffee, the window behind her reflecting two rows of lights, swimming into blackness. Or the one in Morning Sun, who sits on her bed, hair twisted into a messy bun, gazing through her window at the city beyond. A pretty morning, light washing the walls, but nonetheless something desolate about her eyes and jaw, her slim wrists crossed over her legs. I often sat just like that, adrift in rumpled sheets, trying not to feel, trying simply to take consecutive breaths.
A blog post is relatively short, so even more than in a book, it’s important to find focus. What’s the problem you encountered? How did you learn to deal with that problem?
Often, when I write a blog post about myself, the purpose is initially fuzzy. In a first draft, the purpose is buried somewhere halfway. It’s as if the first paragraphs were only a warming up exercise, and when I cross out these paragraphs, I can reshape the article, cut the rambling and focus on one issue.
A good story has a clear purpose, so readers feel engaged and want to read on. If you’re clear on your purpose before you start writing, you can tell your story faster. However, if your purpose remains fuzzy, try writing a “discovery draft” to reveal it. The writing process can help you discover what you want to say, and to make sense of your story (and your life).
3 visual thinking tips to create focus in your writing
2. Make readers feel what you feel
Readers can only grasp the intensity of your story when you translate feelings into action and vivid imagery.
Laing starts her book with this visual description of feeling disconnected while being surrounded by people:
Imagine standing by a window at night, on the sixth or seventeenth or forty-third floor of a building. The city reveals itself as a set of cells, a hundred thousand windows, some darkened and some flooded with green or white or golden light. Inside, strangers swim to and fro, attending to the business of their private hours. You can see them, but you can’t reach them, and so this commonplace urban phenomenon, available in any city of the world on any night, conveys to even the most social a tremor of loneliness, its uneasy combination of separation and exposure. You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people.
Laing’s loneliness becomes more poignant when she describes how daily interactions reinforce the feeling of separateness. Here’s what happens when she tries ordering coffee in her local café:
I ordered the nearest thing to filter on the menu: a medium urn brew, which was written in large chalk letters on the board. Each time, without fail, the barista looked mystified and asked me to repeat myself. I might have found it funny in England, or irritating, or I might not have noticed it at all, but that autumn it worked under my skin, depositing little grains of anxiety and shame.
In your draft story, look for abstract feelings like I felt lonely, sad, or happy. Then think about painting a vivid scene that expresses that feeling. Help readers experience your feelings with you.
9 inspirational examples of “show, don’t tell”
3. The main point is the lesson
The point of a story is not so much what your problem is, but what the lesson is.
As a blogger, I like being a problem solver, to show you exactly how I solve this or that, so you can solve the same issues, too. But, of course, not every problem in life can be solved, and sometimes the main lesson in our writing is how we learn to cope.
Laing discusses how she gets through the worst moments of loneliness:
Sometimes, all you need is permission to feel. Sometimes, what causes the most pain is actually the attempt to resist feeling, or the shame that grows up like thorns around it. During my lowest period in New York, almost the only thing I found consoling was watching music videos on YouTube, curled on the sofa with my headphones on, listening again and again to the same voices finding the register for their distress.
As a reader, I find a how-to book or blog post rather boring. I want to get to know the author. I like learning what life is like for them. I want to find comfort in our common struggles, and I love to understand how an author navigated tricky situations, how they made decisions, how they learned to cope with whatever life has thrown at them.
It’s the human connection that makes a how-to more interesting.
How to write about yourself
4. Zoom out for the bigger picture
You know the adage “show, don’t tell?”
It’s actually not true that you always have to show, and never should tell.
“Telling” is useful to whiz through the less interesting parts of a story and to share the bigger picture, to explain how one story is connected to a trend or common experience.
In her book, Laing shares her personal story as well as the stories of lonely artists like Edward Hopper and Andy Warhol. She describes how each of them found ways to cope with their loneliness, and she zooms out to comment:
[Art has] some extraordinary functions, some odd negotiating ability between people, including people who never meet and yet who infiltrate and enrich each other’s lives. It does have a capacity to create intimacy; it does have a way of healing wounds, and better yet of making it apparent that not all wounds need healing and not all scars are ugly.
And she concludes:
Loneliness is collective; it is a city. As to how to inhabit it, there are no rules and nor is there any need to feel shame, only to remember that the pursuit of individual happiness does not trump or excuse our obligations to each another. We are in this together, this accumulation of scars, this world of objects, this physical and temporary heaven that so often takes on the countenance of hell. What matters is kindness; what matters is solidarity.
Zooming out is like summarizing a key lesson of your story. But this abstract lesson makes more sense if you’ve zoomed in to let readers experience one story first.
Write your story
In content marketing, we learn how to help our readers, to offer our advice so we can build our authority, get found in Google, and grow our business.
But the web is chockablock with useful tips, and, as a solo-blogger, it can feel hard to compete with the big blogs.
The way to stand out is by being more personal, by weaving a thread of your own story into your tapestry of tips.
That’s how you’ll make friends with your readers.