How to Write Authentically

I’m obsessed with the podcast Smartless right now. Hosted by Jason Bateman, Sean Hayes, and Will Arnett, the show features a “mystery guest” each week brought on by one of the three whom the others don’t know about ahead of time.

Because there’s no time to research or prepare, it generally winds up being an hour of four people casually chatting as if they were alone in one of their living rooms–and it often results in startlingly candid conversations about deeply personal issues, like Robert Downey Jr. discussing his time in jail, or Dax Shepherd talking about his addiction and recovery, or Julia Louis Dreyfus sharing hilariously inappropriate personal information. Because the hosts are clearly close friends and are all so quick-witted—as are most of their guests, often also friends of theirs—it also yields some of the best banter you’re likely to hear.

And all this is what makes me love the show so much–it’s just real.

Real is powerful. It’s the reason for the old showbiz adage never to do a scene with animals or children: Because against a completely natural, authentic being, “acting” looks artificial.

And it’s why the most memorable stories stay with us—not only do the characters become real to us, but the author lets her naked soul, with all its glory and gunk, onto the page, and we sense it; it creates an exceptional intimacy between us and the story.

We know the difference between a real connection with someone and the surface exchanges that make up so much of our daily lives, from casual encounters to social media posts to even the perfunctory habitual conversation with our closest loved ones that can result from years of putting up battlements around our tenderest and most vulnerable places.

In my work as an editor I frequently see authors skim quickly past some of the most potentially rich, impactful moments of their stories, or gloss over the depths of emotion they might mine out. Why would we as writers neglect to fully squeeze all the juice out of the characters and situations we’ve so painstakingly created?

My hypothesis is that, just as we may do with our personal relationships, we unconsciously keep protected those most naked parts of ourselves, the ones that can be windows into our most unguarded selves. The ones that may make us dive deep into uncomfortable or painful places.

Yet that, so often, is where you’ll dig out the most flawless diamonds.

We unconsciously keep protected those most naked parts of ourselves, the ones that can be windows into our most unguarded selves. The ones that may make us dive deep into uncomfortable or painful places. Yet that, so often, is where you’ll dig out the most flawless diamonds.

So how can you bring that kind of authenticity to your own writing?

This morning I wrote a fan letter to an author whose latest book I adored (I do this a lot), delineating exactly what I loved most about her book. As I wrote I noticed myself searching for the perfectly worded phrasing, the most powerful descriptors to convey my level of appreciation for her writing.

Each time I caught myself drifting away from what was simply authentic and real, I kept stopping to ask myself, What’s driving me to write this?

My most genuine intention wasn’t to impress or forge a connection with the author, or to write an expertly crafted review of her book, or entice her to let me feature her in a future “How Writers Revise” post—though all those would be side effects I’d be happy to achieve. My truest intention was simply to express my honest feelings and reactions to the story she created.

That kind of unvarnished sincerity might not be perfectly polished, but it’s real, and the reader senses that. We usually know when we’re being snowed (just check out the average social media post)—and we know how it feels when someone is open and honest and true with us.

The hard part is that being real requires letting go of a little bit of control…dropping that veneer of protection around our truest selves that keeps us from risking judgment on what’s most deeply personal and raw inside us. What if we’re genuine and it sucks? What if we’re utterly real and people hate it—not just our writing but our honest selves?

But that’s the risk. That’s what makes art both hard and sublime: the exhilaration and terror of tearing off the facades and showing the world what’s true.

How to Get Real in Your Writing

Every time you sit down to write—whether fiction, nonfiction, or even an email—try starting by reminding yourself not what you want to accomplish or what impression you want to give or how it might impact readers, but what’s actually motivating you to want to write this in the first place, what you want to convey or express. It may not come out finely polished, but that’s what editing is for—as they say in the film biz, you can fix it in post.

Or if it’s easier, do it the other way around: If you find yourself defaulting to tired clichés or emotional shortcuts in your early drafts, just go with it. I often shorthand this kind of empty or overused verbiage in brackets, my signal to myself to go back later in revisions and dig deeper, explore more authentic and original descriptions and emotions.

Look for where you’ve taken easy shortcuts. If you’ve used general descriptors, for instance, to simply label reactions—“devastated,” “heartbroken,” “shattered,” “furious,” etc.—see if you can go deeper, put yourself into that situation and imagine what it might feel like—viscerally, emotionally, in your most raw and real places. Put that on the page.

Consider the trite tropes you may unconsciously have parroted. How many times have you read of a single tear trailing poignantly down someone’s cheek? How often have you actually “swallowed back bile” or vomited from an upsetting experience? Admittedly I’m not Everyreader, but when I cry it’s rarely so poignant or pretty as a lone tear, and the only times I’ve had to fight throwing up are when I’m ill, in a turbulent flight, or cleaning up something horrific that came out one of my dogs’ orifices.

Maybe these phenomena truly happen, but even if they’re actually as common in life as they seem to be in fiction, overused phrases like these have become clichés, void of meaning—or any real emotional response in the reader.

Empty descriptions like these are shortcuts writers have seen so often in stories they become an automatic default setting for describing reactions, rather than taking the time to really sit and imagine experiencing what characters are going through: how that might feel, look.

If you’ve defaulted to letting external or physical responses stand in for the truer reactions that prompted them, see if you can keep pushing through to what’s behind those externalizations: If “tears fill his eyes” or “her fists clench” or “her brows draw downward,” what’s causing those physical reactions, exactly? What might actually, concretely be going on inside someone that could result in those responses? Put that on the page.

Maybe it really is swallowing back bile, but can you find a more authentic way of conveying that reaction? How do you see it? What do these emotions feel like when you experience them? How might it affect you to go through something like what your character is going through–and how can you convey that as straightforwardly and truthfully as possible?

This is what brings a story to life, sets it apart, gives it truth and power and voice. This is what turns readers into fans: that they can count on a favorite author to give them an authentic experience, to plunge them into a story and characters that are so genuine and true they feel real and stick with them long after they turn the final page.

Authors too often fixate on making their prose perfect or pretty. Don’t worry about that. Make it real, genuine, true. That’s what creativity is–and it’s what creates that most powerful effect of story: making your reader connect, believe, feel.

How about you, authors—in your own writing do you catch yourself shortcutting with easy descriptors or defaulting to phrases you may have read in other stories? Does it feel different when your writing is most naked and genuine and real? Does it scare you to go to those places or write without the fetters of worrying how it will come across to readers? What stories have affected you the most deeply and personally, and why?

14 Comments. Leave new

  • Susan Specht Oram
    July 8, 2021 2:40 pm

    This is so helpful. Thanks very much for this!

    Reply
  • So useful; thanks! My XDH once revised a manuscript whose author insisted on summarizing each event as “It was beautiful and poetic.” I’ve kept this memory to remind me of what not to do.

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      July 8, 2021 5:57 pm

      Okay, that’s funny. 🙂 We all default to unconscious shortcuts, though–it helps to really think through what we wanted to convey, granularly and specifically. Thanks for the comment, Anna.

      Reply
  • I laughed out loud at “cleaning up something horrific that came out one of my dogs’ orifices.” Don’t we all who own dogs know this so well!

    I am drawn to and love to write deeply flawed characters that can come across as unlikeable. But I shy away from it, as I am scared I am not good enough to write such complex characters and I am afraid of offending someone, somehow. This is what it boils down to when I write: is this going to offend someone in some way?

    The stories that affect me the most deeply are ones where I have admired the bravery of the author to write such a story. As in Alex Finn’s Breathing Underwater, where the protagonist is a teen boy who abuses his girlfriend. Talk about an unlikeable character – but it was so well done, and the author did such a good job illuminating all the facets of his character that by the end, I was rooting for him. I want to be brave, and unfettered, but it’s tough to get support sometimes when you dare to step outside of your comfort zone.

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      July 8, 2021 6:00 pm

      Be boldly offensive! 😀 Honestly, though, why not let loose in your drafting and see what happens if you create characters who may not be traditionally “likable”? No one ever has to see it if you decide it’s terrible. But meanwhile you might create a fascinating and original character readers root for, or love to hate, or cheer for their comeuppance or reform.

      I haven’t read Breathing Underwater, but adding it to my list. I’m always fascinated to analyze how storytellers create unlikable characters and draw readers into their stories. Thanks, Cate.

      Reply
  • When I shortcut something, it’s usually in a first draft, where I’m hurrying to get to something else. The most common symptom of my short-cutting is an adverb, especially one ending -ly or just -y. I’m suspicious of those words. They’re not bad in themselves, and they have their place, but for the most part, they’re intended to intensify— and instead they dilute. I scrutinize and test them in my subsequent drafts.

    Why did I use that -ly word? Does it do what I was trying to do? Is there a better way to do that? Does it need to be done?

    There is a lot of material I’m scared to touch; I don’t even like to read it. I don’t know how much effect that has on what I do write, but as best I can, I represent feelings truly and, I hope, in an articulate way —with impact. At least that’s what I’m trying to do. The closer the reader feels to my characters, and the more immediate, even urgent, the story feels, the more I feel like I’ve done what I set out to do.

    I can’t remember who said it, but he or she said words to the effect, If it feels like writin’ when I read it, I know I have to fix it.

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      July 8, 2021 6:03 pm

      I’m not of the anti-adverb school, but I do agree they can be shortcuts (like so many other “easy” defaults). I like that you use them as a placeholder and then go back and think harder about exactly what you wanted to convey; that’s what I do as well. (But, MAN, I love me a juicy adverb.) It’s interesting you say you’re scared to touch some of your writing–because you like what it’s doing and are worried you’ll overwork it, you mean?

      Good quote you referenced–I always felt that way about acting too, or really any art: When it feels self-conscious or draws attention to the creation of it, rather than the art itself, it’s defeated its own purpose. Thanks for the comment, Bob.

      Reply
  • Olga Oliver
    July 8, 2021 6:48 pm

    Such an important and needed Post Tiffany. Would love to dig deeper into this subject. I often am bothered with quiet thoughts like “are we as writers really pulling out and expressing our real and true representations. Good example – the recent news regarding the Oklahoma black massacre. I lived in Central Texas at the time, only a few hours from that city and had never heard or knew about this tragedy until this recent news. Oh, how I wanted to write about this horrible incident, but I didn’t. Why didn’t I? Is it too late? Maybe not.

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      July 8, 2021 9:19 pm

      I don’t think it’s ever too late. We have to write the things that move and matter to us, I think–don’t we? That to me is where the most meaningful, impactful, affecting stories come from. Without authenticity and real heart, it’s just words. Thanks for stopping by, Olga.

      Reply
  • Spot on post, Tiffany. Power and voice drive authentic writing, but sometimes a character’s reality can purposely be opaque. I’m working on a story where the characters surrounding my protagonist believe he’s filled with shame over his dishonorable discharge, but slowly the reader uncovers that Marcel was brave, patriotic and selfless. By the end of the novel, the reader uncovers the powerful reason behind Marcel’s refusal to fight. At least that’s what I working toward!

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      July 9, 2021 2:11 am

      Thanks, Bret. Love your premise–I think that kind of secret/subtext can be powerful in a story. Being “real” doesn’t necessarily mean sharing everything with the reader–otherwise there’d be no such thing as women’s fiction or suspense novels, among others. 😀 Thanks for stopping by!

      Reply
  • MS JOCOSA WADE
    July 10, 2021 6:56 pm

    This is a keeper, Tiffany. Cried while reading because you showed me how to go deep. And my fear at the moment is that I won’t be able to do it again. But dammit, if I did it once, why not again. Thanks for the reminder.

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      July 10, 2021 9:34 pm

      What a lovely note, Jocosa–thanks. You did some wonderfully real, vulnerable work in your story, and it was a privilege to see it deepen with every pass. <3

      Reply

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