english culture essay

Standing Out in a Crowded World of Writers

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For the past nine months, my single largest freelance contract has been with a web development firm. I’m the acting Content Manager, meaning I am responsible for generating digital content for the firm’s various clients. Last week, I had the privilege of speaking with a new customer in the Deep South. As I listened to his sticky drawl and richly idiomatic speech crackle through my telephone speaker, I felt transported to another place and time, as if we were neighbors shooting the breeze on his front porch, sipping tall glasses of cloyingly sweet tea. From his rich southern wisdom (“the pig gets fat, but the hog gets slaughtered”) to his jovial manner, this client’s unique demeanor and personality certainly made for an enjoyable kickoff meeting.

One of the things he said to me, however, really struck a chord. I was explaining various articles our team could create for him, as a means of establishing himself as an expert in his particular industry.

“Well ya see,” he began to explain. “I just don’t know about that.”

Undeterred by my unconvinced client, I continued my spiel about building clout, attracting organic search traffic through long tail keywords, and sharing valuable content with his would-be visitors.

“Adam, let me be frank with you.” he responded, drawing out his syllables. “I’m afraid of being a ‘me too.'”

His words resonated with me, even though our particular circumstances are worlds apart. This aging entrepreneur struggling to wrap his head around the rapidly evolving business landscape of the 21st century is afraid his company will look exactly like every other firm. He explained that he’s seen many different sites for companies like his own, and several of them explore some of the points I was encouraging him to consider. He didn’t want to be just another number in the crowd. How many times do we fear the exact same thing as writers?

I think there are multiple factors at play in this particular equation. Firstly, it’s human nature to question ourselves and the work we produce. As the familiar adage goes, you are your own worst critic. The subject becomes even more complicated when we encounter mean-spirited criticism, a topic fellow writer Gina Horkey explored in a recent post. It’s difficult for all of us to get past the “me too” sentiment, this fear of not doing enough to stand out from the crowd or not having a unique perspective that contributes to the conversation in a meaningful way.

In giving myself pep talks (am I only one?), I’ve found the three simple keys to be important to keep in mind:

1. Your Voice Matters

Selling yourself as a writer isn’t about having all of the right answers, always using perfect grammar, or never making a mistake. Writing should provide a forum for expressing your own emotions and viewpoints. I think it’s particularly easy to become a chronic consumer of others’ work, retweeting countless blogs, videos, and podcasts from industry insiders and established personalities. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, but are you balancing your consumption with creation? Joanna Penn, a successful author and self-publishing expert, recently wrote a poignant post exploring some of the lessons she’s learned on the way to 40, and she encouraged her readers to be sensitive to this very idea. As Joanna wrote, “we NEED consumption as artists,” but neglecting our production in favor of consumption means you’ll never end up with a final product.

You have every right to be yourself and to stand proud of the product you have to offer. So what, you don’t have quite as many followers as someone else or you’re yet to land a life-changing contract. Two thoughts:

A) We all have to start somewhere.
B) Falling into the trap of comparing ourselves to others will never result in anything productive.

2. Your Experience Differs From Others

Like many other freelance writers searching for opportunities, my first work experiences on the web came through content mills and freelance platforms like oDesk. If you’ve spent any time in the freelancing community, you know those platforms are pretty vilified by most established writers—and yet, I still think they can provide real earning opportunities for dedicated workers who know how to channel their attention appropriately. For example, I earned $257 on a single job on Textbroker last year that took less than two hours to complete—can anyone honestly say $125/hour is a shabby rate?

I understand that such an experience is an anomaly, and I’m certainly not suggesting anybody go try to crank out $4.50 articles to put bread on the table (been there, done that). On the same page, however, I think it’s important to recognize that my experience differs from many of the so-called experts who likely have never earned that much from a single project on a “content mill.” Sure, maybe my opinion is unpopular, but it’s been shaped by MY experience. Does keeping my personal experience quiet ultimately benefit anybody?

3. Your Execution is Unique to You

I used to have a writing colleague who loved to use the expression, “there’s nothing new under the sun.” She used that proverbial wisdom as a means of defending her belief that writing on the same topic someone else has already covered isn’t a problem. And guess what? She was right.

No, I’m not condoning plagiarism or telling you to go mine all of your inspiration from successful writers, but ideas are just ideas. Say I decide to write a novel, and I want it to feature child wizards, broomsticks, and black cats. Assuming I had no exposure whatsoever to the Harry Potter series, will the novel I write mirror JK Rowling’s? Will my story unfold in the English countryside? Will I cleverly develop a sport for my young wizards to obsess over or divide my school into houses, with the names Hufflepuff and Slytherin? Of course not!

Every person’s creative process, business approach, and even goals are different. Choosing to blog about a topic you might be able to find elsewhere on the web doesn’t mean you’re wearing the “me too” label—the story you tell, content you share, and work you send out into the world is a one-of-a-kind product generated through the filter of your own creativity. Own that!

Are you familiar with the “me too” mentality or fear? How do you combat your own feelings of inadequacy?