As writers, we understand the impact of language. We pour over each syllable, agonize over a “but” versus a “yet,” and spend hours deciding the best way to communicate a specific idea or narrative.
We know that a single word can alter how an audience feels, create moods, encourage action, or inspire people to change their minds.
Yet when it comes to discussing our writing career — even to ourselves — we often don’t put the same consideration into our word choices. Even more problematically, we may unknowingly be self-sabotaging our careers with our language.
This is a trap that is especially easy to fall into when discussing our personal writing projects. We may use confident, positive language when talking about our day jobs that include writing, but not when it comes to our own writing.
Word choice has a profound impact on the way we are seen by others, as well as on our own self-perception. It can spark or kill our motivation, our confidence, and even our creativity.
To start harnessing the power of language, both in your writing and more broadly, begin by applying these six simple tips to your everyday conversations.
Writing is hard. It takes dedication, stamina, focus, and persistence.
In short, it’s work.
Fun, inspiring, engaging, creative work — but work nonetheless. You and your craft deserve to be taken seriously.
Yet it’s incredibly easy to be dismissive of our writing, making it sound like a frivolous hobby. How often have we all said something like:
“Sure, I can watch your kids Friday night. I was just going to play around with my novel.”
“I can watch a few more episodes. I was only going to do some research for my article.”
“I don’t have to get up early before work and write. I was just planning to brainstorm some poems — I can do that later.”
When we view our writing in this way, we begin to take it less seriously. It’s so much easier to skip a writing session, or to avoid carving out time in our busy schedule for our own projects, when we’ve already framed it in our mind as something unimportant.
Consider these alternative statements:
“I can’t watch your kids Friday night. I’m working that night.”
“I need to turn off Netflix. I have work to do.”
“I’ll get up early before I have to go in; that way, I’ll have time to finish all of my work.”
We’ve already trained ourselves to view work as a priority; when we start accepting our writing as the work that it is, it’s far easier to make it a priority in our lives.
It’s not a secret that many writers are fiercely independent. (It’s hard to even imagine Hemingway in a cubicle or working a nine-to-five.)
We may be drawn to a writing career because of the immense freedom and flexibility it brings. Or we may long to express our unique opinions and perspectives, to revel in seeing the world in the individual way that we do.
To motivate ourselves properly, we need to take advantage of this independence, not work against it.
So often, our language ties us down without us even realizing it, making us feel as though we are forced to do something we don’t want to do and that we have no control over our lives or our time.
A simple, seemingly innocent phrase that sneakily ties us down is “have to.”
“I can’t go to a movie. I have to work on my novel.”
“I have to finish this chapter. I keep putting it off.”
“I want to read a new book, but I have to edit my manuscript.”
This type of phrasing can instantly make us resistant to writing. It turns it into a chore, an obligation, and an order. Even if it the order comes from ourselves, we may end up rebelling — and as a consequence, neglecting or completely avoiding our writing.
There’s an easy way to combat this; when we substitute “have to” with “choose to,” the tone of the entire statement shifts.
“I won’t go to a movie. I’m choosing to work on my novel.”
“I’m choosing to finish this chapter. I want to stop putting it off.”
“I want to read a new book, but I’m choosing to edit my manuscript first.”
When we say “choose,” we are acknowledging our authority in our actions. The word reassures us that this is something we are doing because we want to be doing it, not because we are being forced.
Besides the additional motivation this perspective grants us, it also may improve our writing itself. Forced writing often reads as exactly that — forced, unnatural, and stiff.
When we approach our writing as a choice, and not as an obligation, our writing tends to become lighter, brighter, and more engaging, because we ourselves were fully engaged while creating it.
While our writing is work, it’s work that we want to do. It’s a challenge we take on because we are passionate about it and because we want to share our stories or thoughts with the world.
There’s a massive difference between a challenge we take on willingly and a challenge we are saddled with, and our word choice can be what sets one apart from the other.
Write because you want to write, and there’s a much better chance that people will want to read what you create.
In a similar vein, the word “should” may not only be burdening us with a feeling of obligation, but it may actually be reducing our creativity.
“Should” is a closed door. It’s a reluctant acceptance that we have to do one particular thing, often in a particular way. It immediately narrows our mind and limits possibilities, without us even noticing.
“I should finish that chapter.”
“I should make my hero more relatable.”
“I should try and make my poems a little longer.”
When we replace the word “should” with “could,” our creative side gets excited and possibilities open up.
Also, “could” is prone to inviting along the word “or,” which is one of the most exciting words a writer can encounter.
“I could finish that chapter (or I could rewrite it entirely/write a part I’m more excited about/end it abruptly and unexpectedly).”
“I could make my hero more relatable (or I could make him a satire of “perfect” heroes/turn him into a villain/have his sidekick call him out for being unrelatable and make that the theme).”
“I could try and make my poems a little longer (or I could write a collection of short poems/turn them into haikus/write a novel made of short poetic verses).”
Writing is all about possibility. We can’t allow word choice to box us in — it’s meant to set us free.
Words have the power to lift concepts up and make them sound strong, concrete, and persuasive.
Of course, they have the power to do just the opposite as well.
Many of us are prone to using minimizing language when we talk about our writing, and it immediately weakens the way our writing is seen. Dismissive adjectives or adverbs downplay the significance of whatever they are describing.
“I’m just working on my novel.”
“It’s only something I threw together, but you can read it if you want.”
“I’m proud of my story, but I’m probably just attached to it.”
Just. But. Only.
These words can drain your confidence, pride, and conviction. They trivialize your work, and may even mask a passive apology for writing or for asking others to respect our work.
Strong, positive declarations encourage a much more respectful attitude towards our own writing.
“I’m working on my novel.”
“I’m working on a new idea, and I’d appreciate you reading it.”
“I’m proud of my story; I’ve put a lot of myself into it.”
We put endless amounts of effort, love, and dedication into our writing. We need to acknowledge that, instead of downplaying what we create. Using positive, declarative language encourages us to highlight our writing’s importance rather than trivialize it.
Sometimes we don’t bother to hide our apologies in passive language. We outright say we’re sorry for our perceived quality of our writing, our experience level, or even the act of writing itself.
We may feel guilty for writing, afraid that we’re being naive in pursuing our dreams, or that we’re being selfish to work on something personal.
“I’m sorry for bothering you, but would you mind giving my latest edit a read?”
“I know my story probably isn’t that great. I’m not an expert yet, I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry, I’m not free that night. I really want to finish my last chapter.”
Apologizing only encourages the feeling that we’re doing something wrong. We’re wasting our time. We’re wasting our friends’ or family’s time. We’re not cut out to write anyway, so why are we bothering?
Dropping the apologies can help us get rid of those nagging self-doubts. It’s simpler said than done, but the reward is absolutely worth the effort.
“I’d love it if you gave my latest edit a read.”
“I’m proud of what I’ve written so far, and of how much this story has grown. I’m learning a lot while working on it.”
“I’m not free that night; I’m working on finishing my last chapter. How about brunch this weekend instead?”
There’s no need to apologize. We shouldn’t feel guilty for going after our passions, for improving ourselves, or for asking for feedback.
As writers, we’re familiar with the way language can amplify an emotion. When our word choices continually stimulate our guilt, we constantly trigger and encourage ourselves to feel even more guilty.
Instead, we can be proud of our ambition, our talents, and our work ethic. If we let our language reflect that pride, rather than our internal guilt, we’ll find our pride increasing and that pesky guilt fading away.
This is possibly one of the most common issues amongst writers, and one of the hardest ones to shake. It’s also one of the most necessary issues to break free from.
We need to call ourselves writers.
Self-doubt, fear of rejection, and worry that we’re being impractical by chasing our dreams can cause us to hide our true selves in an act of self-protection.
“I’m not really a writer. I’m just starting out and playing around.”
“I’ve finished a lot of manuscripts. I don’t have anything published, though — I’m not actually a writer.”
“I’ve written a few novels, but they’re all self-published and haven’t done that well. I’m not a ‘real’ writer.”
How we refer to ourselves greatly alters who we perceive ourselves to be. In fact, word choice has such a significant impact on self-perception that it can even affect how well someone overcomes drug addiction: when you call yourself an addict, you feel tied down by the stigma of addiction, and then you alter your behaviors to match your self-perception.
If language can have such an impact on how we see ourselves — and consequently, on how we behave — we can utilize it to motivate ourselves and be the person we’re striving to be.
“I’m a writer. I’m so excited to be learning more and becoming a better one.”
“I’m a writer. I’m looking for a publisher for my completed manuscripts.”
“I’m a writer. I self-publish my own creative work.”
Many things may keep us from referring to ourselves as writers: self-doubt, guilt, shame, a lack of confidence, perfectionism. We can almost always find an excuse to avoid calling ourselves what we really are.
We may feel unworthy, or frivolous, or even like a fraud. We may feel that it’s safer to downplay our dreams or talents so they won’t get shot down or critiqued.
But the more we give in to these feelings and doubts, the stronger they become. It’s vital we stand up to those negative thoughts and allow ourselves to be called what we actually are.
We don’t have to reach some idolized goal before we’re worthy of calling ourselves a writer.
If you’re starting out, you’re a beginning writer — which makes you a writer.
If you’re unpublished or unpaid, you’re an amatuer writer — which makes you a writer.
If you self-publish, or post to your blog, or share your fanfiction online, you’re a self-published writer — which makes you a writer.
The beautiful thing about writing is that it’s not reliant on external sources or validation.
To be a writer, we only have to do one thing:
The right word or phrase can change everything.
We need to consider the magic and impact of word choice not only when we are creating, but when we are speaking about ourselves and our writing.
Once we do that, our creativity opens up, our confidence rises, our guilt disappears, and our motivation increases.
What’s more, the quality of our writing itself improves. We’ll write more often, more creatively, more engaged, and more honestly.
Even more importantly, we’ll know who we are, and we’ll behave in a way that’s true to ourselves. Everyone deserves happiness, self-respect, and confidence; our words help give us that. We’re all worth it, even when we have a hard time seeing it.
Language is power — you know that, you’re a writer — don’t be afraid to use it.
Amanda Kaye Stein graduated from the Academy of Art University with an A.A. in Fashion Design (focus on Fashion Illustration and Creative Writing). She’s worked as a freelance writer, editor, social media manager, graphic designer, artist, and comedy improv performer. She’s an aspiring novelist, YouTube creator, and ukulele rock star.