The Things You Carry

Guest Post by Christina Kaake

Boundaries!

As therapists, here’s a concept you know and love, right?

Well for those of you who have stuff to write, and particularly if you have trouble with writing anxiety, boundaries are your BEST writing friend! Set yourself some keyboard-related boundaries because they give you an incredible edge in finishing what you start and, importantly, making sure you finish strong.

I’m sure some of you are excited about even the concept of a new boundary to set (amiright?) and some of you think this makes no sense at all, so let’s get down to hard rules. Maelisa recently asked a bunch of you who are currently working on writing projects what your writing weaknesses are.

Concerns that came up a lot were overthinking what you write and/or writing too much.

We also heard from people who are too personal or too vague, and from a few of you who love exclamation points (ahem, Maelisa). Over the next few weeks, we’re going to address all of those problems, and every single one has — you guessed it — a corresponding boundary!

Last week we talked about getting your writing off the ground. This week we’re addressing some of your specific concerns, what I’m calling The Things You Carry.

Punctuation

Some of you overuse exclamation points! You use them a lot!! They are your BEST!!! FRIENDS!!!! This one is simple. You now have a one-exclamation-point-per-piece rule. What constitutes a piece? A blog post, a short article, or a chapter in a book. In a longer article, limit yourself to one per section of your article, and *try* not to use them in consecutive sections. Let your passion and excitement show through your work, not through your punctuation.

When you’re just…vague.

We’ve all been there. You know you have a great point to make, but you can’t quite get to it. You’ve been writing in circles, coming close without ever getting into the details. The easiest way to go from vague to specific is by giving an example.

Here’s an example (see what I did there?): If you were a designer giving someone a color scheme, you wouldn’t say, “I recommend maybe a few shades in warm tones and one or two cooler options, along with one surprising neutral.” You’d say, “What I’m thinking is coral, mustard, and olive with navy accents, using a pale pink for your neutral.”

Do the same in your writing. There’s a reason we use the adage, “show, don’t tell.” It’s because it works! So if you want to talk about why HIPAA compliance is important, tell me a story about what happens when I’m not compliant. Worried about confidentiality? Make up a phony client and give them a real problem. And if you once overcame exactly the issue you’re talking about, give me an outline of how you did it and what your life/business looked like after you did. That leads me right into how personal is “too” personal.

Or when you go way beyond vague

Maelisa addressed this with some great encouragement. When you get personal, you connect with your readers in a special way, and they will absolutely love it. For some of us though, the boundaries between personal and professional are sacrosanct.

That’s okay! You can be personal and set yourself a few limits to keep your privacy intact. First, run your story past a trusted colleague, because they’ll have a better sense than you will of how personal it really is. When we have lived something, and then we write it, we feel vulnerable and exposed in ways we might not really be exposed, because we know all the background. Fresh eyes and ears will help.

Second, if you can remove specific details without hurting the story arc, do it. I know that tapping into anger was helpful to me in my divorce, and I use some quirky details to engage readers, like how I blistered my fingers mopping the floor while thinking about our marriage. I can refer to the imaginary conversations I had with my ex about exactly which actions hurt me, and how, and why I was angry. I spent hours having that imaginary conversation, racking up the charges I had been minimizing for years in an attempt to make my marriage work. I got MAD. That anger helped me reclaim my story by focusing on how my decisions made me feel strong and in control.

In that story I haven’t referred to the specific ways I was hurting, but I’ve still made my point. The details about blistering my hands (true!), and referring to the imaginary conversation, which so many people engage in, make the story personal and give it staying power without making me feel vulnerable.

Too vague and too personal are opposite sides of the same coin, but I promise you that with practice, it gets easier, and honestly most of us are our own worst critics (another one of those very true clichés). So get another set of eyes, and then listen to their evaluation.

I know some of you are saying, but what about my issue? Never fear! We’ll address more of the Things You Carry next week!