I’ve seen it happen time and time again.
Along comes a new writer who wants to make a splash online. They pick a domain where they have some level of expertise and begin writing. To compete with other writers in said domain, they adopt an air of authority even if their imposter syndrome says otherwise.
They write and write, never wavering from their bloated level of expertise, hoping to keep up the ruse long enough to grow their writing into something bigger (like an online course or a $99 eBook!).
And then it happens. It’s a slow realization but it happens to all of them: They’ve written themselves into a prison.
This happens when the relationship guru gets a divorce and admits she’s been duping her readers all along.
This happens when the social media influencer is exposed as a fake and goes dark online for almost four years.
This happens when the career advice guy ends up $26,000 in debt and isn’t the entrepreneur the thought he was (that one is me, I’ll elaborate more in a bit).
If you want to be a better writer, don’t fall for the authority trap. There will come a day when you realize your writing is being influenced more by your brand and image.
And when that day comes, you’ve failed as a writer.
My experience as an authoritative writer
In the early spring of 2017, right before I left my full-time job, I was at the hight of my writing days. My online audience was quickly growing, people reached out to me for advice on how to chase after their goals. I had clicks, subscribers, and shares.
I was known as the guy who railed against the shackles of cubicle work and I loved it.
In June 2017 I did leave my full-time job and set out on my “entrepreneurial” journey. It didn’t take long to realize I was inadequately prepared.
I flopped and stopped writing.
I couldn’t write because all the success and freedom and passive revenue that I thought would come easily never did. I was left trapped in my own prison, unable to admit I wasn’t the same person online as in real life.
I couldn’t live up to the fact that I was not some special cubicle jettisoning expert but rather a regular dude struggling to figure things out.
It took me almost two and a half years to shed my authority persona and accept that I was just a guy who failed and learned some hard lessons along the way.
In December 2019, I took up writing again, but this time I was going to share my authentic self, the one full of hope and fear, of success and failure.
I shared my shortcomings. I stripped down the “glamourless” self-employed lifestyle. I admitted all I really wanted in life is to be a stay-at-home dad and write.
I receive less recognition now than before, but when I sit down to write — I am free.
What does authenticity look like in practice?
To demonstrate authenticity, let’s take a look at one of my favorite subject matter experts: Stephen Hawking.
Hawking possessed a brilliant mind. He was able to theorize models of the universe he had never personally witnessed, he discovered black holes can emit radiation (aptly named Hawking radiation). If I have a question about black holes, he is most likely the guy I’ll turn to for answers.
And yet, you wouldn’t know it by reading any of his books on cosmology. He is a humble authority figure, one who downplays his own genius so that it’s you, the reader, who feels like they are making the discovery for themselves. And, he’s actually kind of funny.
“I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road. “— Stephen Hawking
In other words, Hawking has the unique ability to pass on knowledge without any ego attached to it. He writes from a seat of authenticity and truth. He writes prose, not proclamations.
And therein lies the key for all writers: Remove your significance from your writing.
It doesn’t mean to remove yourself completely (I’m not asking you to write academic papers), but instead, don’t prop up your findings because it is you who are writing about them.
Don’t try to impress your readers. Help them learn something.
Avoid the failure p*rn
There’s a trend in online writing I’ve noticed around what some are calling failure p*rn.
Failure p*rn happens when new writers think they need to unwrap their bandages and show us the oozing and festering wounds of their past. It’s clickbait for Schadenfreude enthusiasts.
There’s nothing wrong with sharing past failures so long as the failure played a significant part in your personal growth. If you’re chasing pity from online strangers, then you’re doing it all wrong.
Authenticity doesn't need to only come from our failures. Authenticity can come from sharing your real desires — not what you think your audience wants you to want.
It can come from acknowledging your limited knowledge or experiences. It even comes from saying what you want to say without fear of online trolls.
Authentic writing doesn't need to be painful, only truthful.
Your writing is about them, even if it’s about you
Authority will boost your numbers, grow your subscribers, and puff up your ego, but it’ll also build a prison that is difficult to escape.
Authenticity is the key to creative freedom.
It opens up more avenues of expression. It allows readers to connect with your work on a much deeper level. It is more fulfilling, honest, and real.
However, remember that even if you’re writing about your experiences and your learnings, it’s always about the reader.
What are you trying to say? Why does your reader need to hear it?
Find the right balance. Write with humble confidence.
If you can manage that, you have a long and prosperous writing career ahead of you.