writing tips

Writing tip: Keep your ego out of it

English teachers usually equate competence in English with quality in writing. Yet even perfect English can still be bad writing.

One of the most common problems is ego. Ego means the sense of self.

Since writing is usually public, putting something out into the world attracts attention to the writer. Therefore some people do it specifically to gain that attention and inflate their own sense of self worth. The most common form of it goes like so: “look at me, note that I have value.” Over-achievers are particularly prone to this, as they usually have some psychological history of needing this affirmation.

Virtually everyone writes that way until they learn not to. As characters should have development-arcs, writers should too.

Attention-seeking motivation for writing invariably produces crap. Whereas bad English is its own form of crap, egoic writing is far worse. The problem is not with language, but with tone. Egoic writing has its own kind of stench. In its strongest forms, it’s always repellent and off-putting.

This alone may account for rejections, even if other aspects of the writing are acceptable. A publisher’s reader may have a bad visceral reaction to the submission and put it aside without knowing why. At least they recognise their intense feeling of dislike.

Egoic writing can be avoided with the following few tips. Much of the problem can be youthfulness or inexperience. Ego is hardly confined to youth, but does often weaken with age. This may partly explain why writers often bloom in middle years.

Above all, one must be aware of one’s own motivation. Why do you want to write? Be ruthlessly honest with yourself. If the reason is attention-seeking or personal affirmation (perhaps indirectly, via fame or monetary rewards), this doesn’t necessarily mean stop, but the writer does need to at least realise.

Once this realisation happens, and it may occur as a glimpsed insight, you can gradually learn to write with a different motivation. That might be simple enjoyment, or maybe to entertain or inform others. Any motivation that is not self-centred or status-seeking is okay. Changing the motivation alone can result in dramatic improvement.

A second tip is to keep yourself out of the story where possible. Sometimes you are the story. These stories are still valid, but require great skill to avoid egotism. Beginner and intermediate writers would probably not be skilful enough, therefore such writers should completely avoid autobiographical stories at first. The combination of inexperience and autobiography produces extremely egoic writing, as demonstrated by millions of pathologically narcissistic blogs.

Even when a story is not about the writer, inexpert writers often contrive ways to insert themselves into it. This is revealed via first-person narration (I, me, we). Often doing this has no storytelling purpose, and it’s usually just unconscious egoic attention-seeking. Keep yourself out of stories (this includes articles and essays). Every time you insert yourself into the story, ask yourself why you are there, and whether your presence improves it. Imagine a landscape photographer photobombing all their own pictures. Most of the time this will not be an improvement, and will detract from the actual subject of the piece.

If you find it difficult, uncomfortable or painful to remove yourself, you need to watch this feeling intensely. This is your motivation revealing itself to you. It needs scrutiny.

We live in a society that fosters and celebrates ego. This explains much of why the world is the way it is. We reward individuals for being that way, plus we offer no real alternative. Most people are unaware of and unable to imagine alternatives. They exist, but the general ignorance about them makes the topic very difficult to discuss.

In some extremely rare cases, the ego spontaneously implodes. In these people, the solid sense of separate self – that for most people filters perception and guides all motivation – totally and permanently vanishes. This is not psychopathy or dysfunction, but a higher form of being where the delusion is removed. Most other people, if they ever approach this state at all, do so in a gradual way. That takes a lifetime of introspection and inner awareness, but can still get to the same point. Meditation and specific kinds of study help.

Anyone committed to a creative life should consider exploring this path. Among other things, ego retards creativity. The more you can separate yourself from ego and de-emphasise it in your life and motivation for work, the more creative you will be.

You start by noticing when you are writing for an attention-seeking purpose. Earnestly observe whether this is true in your case. If so, stop. Then consider how you can write with a different intent that removes attention- or status-seeking, which properly emphasises the subject instead of putting the writer in the way.

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