Want to be a Better Writer?
Get Your Ego Out of the Way

image of vain man

Raise your hand if you’re a writer.

Now, raise your hand if you have a nice-sized ego.

And now, raise your hand if you lied on that last one and kept your hand down.

The thing is, writing and a big ego kind of go hand in hand. And if you haven’t quit, gone crazy, or offed yourself yet — which I know you haven’t because you were just raising your hand — then like it or not, you have a big ego.

How do I know this? Well:

  • On some level (even if you moan and whine about how you aren’t a famous writer yet or how no one is paying for your brilliance yet or you don’t have your blog to book deal yet), you believe that your words are worth something and that other people should be reading them. It’s okay to admit this; it’s a good thing.
  • You want people to read your writing. Because you know it’s good and it makes an impact and it feels divine to share it.
  • Positive feedback doesn’t just feel good, it’s the ultimate validation of something that you already know: that you’re a writer (dammit).

The Talk

When it comes to writing copy for clients, however, you and your big ego are going to have to have “the talk.” It’s the same talk you had with your kid brother when you were 13.

Yes, you can walk with me to the park, but no, you can’t play basketball with me and my friends.

The fact is, we need our ego to walk us to the park. We need it there when we pitch a client, design a product, write our proposal, name our fee. It gives us confidence, makes us feel like there’s someone (albeit ourselves) on our side that thinks we’re the coolest. It holds our enemies (fear, insecurity and hopelessness) far away.

But when we get on the court — when the contract is signed, the marching orders are given, and we’re sitting down in front of the blank screen — it has to leave, vamoose, go away.

Because . . .

Because it isn’t for you or about you, this writing that you’re doing. It’s for your client. (Or if you’re building a business with your blog, it’s about your audience and prospective customers.)

It’s about them. Always. They really don’t care about you. They only care about what you can do for them.

If you want to be a better writer, you have to get the hell out of the way. Listen to them. Hear them. Make it about them.

We all know that you are wonderful. And it’s great to have creative outlets where we can let our writing personalities shine with enough watts to light up New York City.

Just don’t do it when you’re on the clock, or you won’t get the results you’re looking for. Your client will say your copy just didn’t hit the mark. Your audience will say that there was something missing.

And something was missing . . . they were. They couldn’t see their forest because of your trees.

Some people might rise up in protest at this point and say that each writer has a certain special, creative something . . . something that makes her work so successful.

I agree — it’s called skill. No one would deny the fact that we writers can wordsmith with the best of them, create concepts that defy gravity, know our way around a thesaurus, and can make it all look easy. That’s what makes us writers.

You still have to get out of the way and let your clients or audience shine through.

Yes, even shine all the way through your rock-hard ego. The one that we can’t live without, but sometimes need to put away.

About the Author: Lover of butter, wordplayer, marketing writer, ghostwriter, Julie Roads is the owner/founder of Writing Roads. Follow her on Twitter @writingroads.

Print Friendly

Smarter is Better Solutions for Smarter Content Marketing

Here’s what we’ve got for you:

  • 15 high-impact ebooks on content marketing, SEO, email marketing, landing pages, keyword research, and more.
  • A 20-part Internet marketing course that lays out a comprehensive path for your own online strategy.
  • An organized reference guide to the “best of the best” of Copyblogger.com, and how it all profitably fits together.
Free Registration

Take The Conversation Further ...

We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Meet us over on Google+ or Twitter to join the conversation right now!

Comments

  1. While I do agree with the majority of this post, sometimes it’s nice to leave the ego in there. If a writer has a big personality and it creates a lof of controversy, it can really increase readership.

    Even if half of the people are reading you, because they are angry with you, at least they are reading you. If you take away the ego too much and entirely focus on the customer, there is a concern that you could get into the land of “everyman syndrome,” where you try to please too many people at once, and end up pleasing/selling to no one.

    …just a thought.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire

  2. I think sometimes the hardest part is actually realizing that your ego *is* getting in the way.

  3. I want my audience to enjoy what I write. I want to give them something to think about; something to inspire them. Setting that intention shifts my attention away from my ego.

    I consider my readers’ time a gift. I try to write accordingly.

  4. Hey Julie,

    Use your ego – don’t let the ego use you.

    Great and simple advice here: let your ego get the big wins. But during the actual creation, focus on the recipient, not stroking your… ego. You’re creating for them, not yourself.

    Let your ego fuel your self-belief. Don’t let it fuel arrogance.

    Noel Gallagher of Oasis pointed out that there’s a huge difference between arrogance and self-belief. Self-belief is thinking you’re the greatest in the world, giving you confidence to go for the big win. Arrogance is making sure people know you’re the greatest, always putting it in front of their faces.

    Some people accused Oasis of being arrogant. But they never sang about themselves, and at their shows they focused 100% on the audience. On singing the songs the audience wanted (no artsy “we’re sick of our big hit” BS), no theatrics, and encouraging the crowd to sing along.

    Have self-belief. Don’t have arrogance.

    Nice reminder on getting our ego out of the way during creation,
    Oleg

  5. An ego is important to the extent that it creates confidence. The real key is being able to measure and control that ego so you know when it is helping and when it is destroying.

  6. While I don’t think you can let your ego completely take over, you have to realize that the client hired you because of your expertise. Sometimes you need to use some of that ego in order to give the client what they actually want.

    For instance, I’ve had clients want copy that will give them “X” result. So, I write great copy that will deliver that result. I get edits back that completely bog down the copy with features and nitty gritty in the weeds details that won’t get the message across that they hired me to convey.

    I believe, at that point, it’s my job to use my expertise to educate them on why the copy was written in that way. I usually try to compromise on one or two points since they are paying me. But, if I take a writing job and let the client walk all over my style and they don’t get the results they hired me to deliver, who looks bad?

  7. Look at Oleg with the Oasis reference.

    When will we see The Oasis Guide to Confident Copy from you? ;)

  8. Hi Julie:

    While it’s natural for professional writers to have an ego, here is a principle a mentor taught me 15 years ago that continues to guide my business: “Never let your ego get in the way of your wallet.”

  9. Alyson,
    You hit the nail on the head! Awhile ago, this gal and I were the best of friends. We both lived in Minnesota, which I still do. Well, she met a man from England and married him and moved to England with him. We tried to keep in contact via e-mail but it just wasn’t personal enough. So, now we write these looooong letters to each other and they are no match for e-mails. E-mailing is good for some things, but they will never replace a personal contact. So, write those letters to those people who are special in your life, or better yet, give them a call.

    Sincerely,
    Your artist buddy,
    Diane Donicht Vestin
    DDVestin@q.com
    DONICHTfineart.com

  10. Julie,

    Wonderful reminder of underlying intentions… If you write a blog to feel like a “somebody”, then you will never care about about anyone other than yourself. And that will shine through quite clearly in your writing…

    It’s not enough to write in order to be read by someone somewhere. The goal is to connect deeply and emotionally — and in so doing create a memorable experience. To change someone’s world for the better because they joined us for a chat.

    Life is to short to be about just “us”. It’s about the change we bring to those around us.

    Thanks, Julie…

    Dan
    DanWaldschmidt.com

  11. Thanks for the tip. Nearly all of my posts are inspired by conversations and questions I get from my clients. They’re always asking for help on something new and my blog is a great platform to share my answers with them and everyone else at the same time.

  12. Such great comments, everyone! Yes – this is the issue. Oleg really nailed it. Self-belief, confidence, self-esteem – these are critical factors in who we are as writers. Yes – that’s why we’re hired *because we are who we are* – but if someone hires you to write about sponges, you can’t go on and on about how you feel about sponges.

    My point is that you must step out of the way and write for your client. By no means does that suggest that you leave your mojo at the door!!!

    Again, remember it’s not about you. It’s about the client and/or the audience…you are the conduit for the words and information.

    Loving these comments!

  13. I think it’s an easy place to get lost when first starting out. But as long as we pay attention, then it’s also an immaturity that we shed. At least if we want for our clients to love us. The bottom line is, it doesn’t matter how well something reads if that’s not why the copy was bought.

    You may play the best jazz in the world, but if you’re a studio musician and you’re brought in for background, you need to play the notes they tell you to play, in the key they tell you to play ‘em.

  14. Figuring out how to balance ego … an interesting thought for the day.

  15. Thanks for reminding us that good writing is always a tension between competing things which we need to keep balanced. When our ego keeps us from listening (often for me this can mean spending too much time thinking about what brilliant thing I’m going to say next instead of really hearing my clients), it becomes a liability instead of an asset. Writing maturity is the thing to which we should aspire, regardless of our physical age.

  16. This is so very true. My ego tries to get in the way whenever I get a critique and it’s taken me a long time to learn to appreciate critcism. Now I see it as a great way to find out what is need and wanted from me as a writer and blogger.

  17. A very similar situation happened to me and illustrates how ego can work in the opposite direction. I was writing web content for a local economic development organization. I had signed a short-term contract and everything was going great (or so I thought). I had a particular slant I wanted to take (business-like, but witty and fun). At first, everyone on the committee seemed to like it. Then after the New Year a newly hired manager joined the review committee. It was pretty obvious she did not like this style and tried to incorporate her own ideas into the committee — it became very much a groupthink session where the committee was not only looking at the tone and style, but the use of individual words and phrases. I tried to accomodate their wishes, but there was no pleasing this one individual who seemed to take issue with everything I did. Eventually, I was called and told my services were no longer required and the rest of my contract would be paid out.

  18. Very provocative post, Julie. I would just add that you shouldn’t immediately give the client what they want if you’re convinced that they’re wrong. In that situation, you need to make your best effort to convince them that there’s a better way of achieving their goals. In doing this, your best odds of success will occur if–to your point–you don’t let your ego get in the way of making a compelling case. The key is to emphasize not that their idea is wrong, but that their objective is right–and that your proposal can be a better way of delivering on that objective.

  19. I love “don’t leave your mojo at the door.”

    This is one of those interesting eternal tensions. It’s always about them, but at the same time, you have to bring what you’ve got to the table or what’s the point. It’s a very Zen paradox, a copywriting koan. :)

  20. John! That’s a great addition, very important for us all to over-deliver and not just write but contribute to the success of the article, blog, book or whatever.

    Though I think I’d include that in pre-flight (the walking to the park when your ego is still front and center), not in the writing part. And I’m not sure I’d even call that ego. Perhaps that’s just keeping your strategic, brilliant brain turned on?

  21. Oops — hit submit too soon

    The question is — should I have used my ego (and expertise) to challenge this new committee member (and possibly risk future contracts), or did I do the right thing and let her win out?

    I like Oleg’s differentiation of self-belief and arrogance. Too many writers take on an arrogant persona when it comes to self-promotion. You see it at book signings, blogs, websites or interviews. Some writers are simply trying to fulfill their own need for attention, not because they have something valuable to contribute.

  22. A bit off-topic (maybe) CopyBlogger – thank you soooo much for re-formating your blog to be left-justified rather than centered. It is much easier to read. (Perhaps this is an example of being focused on the reader of your blog.)

  23. James – that is so unfortunate. I think it’s happened to so many of us. And yes, you nailed it. Sounds like this new person was trying to prove themselves and destroying you was her way? I say you were lucky to be paid out and allowed to go sprinkle your magic writing dust on greener pastures!

  24. I love to write. I love to speak in public. I am good at both. Look at the previous three sentences–obviously an “I” issue there. Because . . . it is not about me. It is about them. Thank you for a marvelous reminder.

  25. Linda, that was a bug that affected only a small number of email subscribers. We would never intentionally center our content! I was dismayed when I found out it was happening, because it took us a while to figure out why.

    Fixed now. So, ummm… you’re welcome (sorry it ever happened at all). ;)

  26. @ Julie… There is so much truth to your post… Good job…

    @ Oleg… Very well put. I always say be cocky, not arrogant… With cocky being you know you’re good while arrogance is when you tell the world you’re good…

    One other thing that goes right along with “ego” is “false pride”…

    Everyone needs to check their ego from time to time…

    A lot of people know they need to check their ego but don’t because they let their “pride” get in the way.

  27. You’re so right! The reader is only there because of what in it for him/her. The best writers are the ones that take this into account.

    Here’s another reason to move “Ego” out of the way: it hinders your ability to be totally open with your audience – you’ll tend to only write about things that flatter you and you’ll hide those things that highlight your flaws – which is a mistake, if you paint yourself “too perfectly” people will feel like you’re not a regular person and therefore your advice is not really attainable for “regular people.”

    Yes, sometimes the truth does hurt, but your readers will benefit more from a candid style.

  28. Brian-

    Thanks for the clarification on the formatting.

    Thanks to all of you for a great discussion.

  29. You guys are awesome. Great comments and feedback on Julie’s post. Benefited greatly from it (see… it wasn’t just about Julie’s writing or Julie’s mind) :).

  30. Julie:

    This is a great post and your point is well-taken, but I am afraid your concern seems to be about commercial writing.

    Writing for money means the customer is king, as the saying goes, and hence you need to focus on your target audience.

    This is a demand-supply relationship (law of the market: it is a business transaction). Hence, put your ego aside and serve the needs of the customer. In general, it is true.

    However, if you are a writer just for the sake of creating art (artist), well, it is a different ball-game.

    Some of our greatest artists have been very egotistical and yet created music with their literary contributions.
    They wrote about their personal stories (and sojourns) and yet demonstrated eccentric personalities.

    I may not want to meet V.S.Naipaul over a cup of coffee, but I enjoy his peerless prose. Naipaul is a brilliant writer, but as a human being, well, less said the better, and let us leave it at that, shall we? I don’t want to get into trouble…

    Those writers who write for profit (in general) are a bit different from those who write just for the love of art.

    Let me put it another way: some of our finest writers (artists) have been very egotistical and no saints at all.
    Despite their limitations, they were able to translate their subjective experiences into timeless, universal truths.

    As a result, many people could relate to such books/novels. Naipaul won the Nobel Prize for Literature, by the way. I hope this makes sense. Thanks for your post.

  31. Archan. What a beautiful comment. Of course it makes sense. I will add one little thing (and I know I don’t speak for everyone): even when I’m writing sales copy about toasters, I’m still writing for the love of the art. I simply love to write – it makes me tingle. The fact that it often pays my bills and feeds my family? Well, that’s just the icing on this proverbial cake.

    Thank you for your comment.

  32. I think I have always suffered with big head syndrome. I mean my hats no matter how large I buy them never seem to fit after a few months.

    At this rate of head enlargement I may have to learn how to sew, so that I can make my own hats.

    Perhaps Instead of losing the ego I will just invest in some very stretchy elastic to accommodate my ever growing head.

  33. Laughing, @Five.

  34. Agreed, but it’s hard to do isn’t it? Whatever you write, whether it be for you or for a client, is a representation of you. I guess you just can’t confuse that with it having to be about you. You doing a good job for a client, WILL make you look good in turn.

    What if you find a situation where writing for a client as well as you can, will make you look bad. Maybe it goes against something else you’ve written…

    How can you set your ego aside when writing something for a client will hurt your “brand”?

    David
    Community Manager, Scribnia.com

  35. Ah, David. Great questions. I hope others will hop in here as well.

    1. Of course when you write well and can add it to your portfolio it will make you look good. But my point is that you listen to the client – their message, their tone, their philosophy and their voice – and write from there. Leave your message, tone, philosophy and voice out. But please bring your writing skills!

    2. Typically, when you write for a client, your name is not on it. And you bring up the point of ‘selling out’ which many of us do because we have to eat. That said, I will not take a job for a company that is hurting or hateful to people in any way. We all have to draw that moral line.

    My 2 cents!

  36. This is a great post and something clicked for me as I read it so thank you for writing it ;-)

  37. This is true to the fact that we’re all offering something to someone else. That’s the purpose of us writing in the first place. However, they may actually want us. To get to know us and why we’re writing this and how we can relate and how true we are. I don’t feel it’s JUST about our writing but also about us personally in order to go anywhere.

    You can be a great writer but if you don’t who you’re a real person to your readers and they have no one to connect with, what’s the point in the first place?

  38. “Listen to them. Hear them. Make it about them.”

    Ok, good advice, and well put. Let’s go for it.

    What do “them” want? It’s not always easy to listen, to hear, when the readers don’t really want to spill their beans.

    I’ve been asking copywriters what they want, when they are the reader, when they are the shopper, for over a decade. Not an easy job.

    It’s not just a casual academic interest. As example, I’m about to release a year’s worth of code that is intended to serve marketers. I’m giving it away for free. When I contact writers here, in direct response to invitations in their email series, to offer my work for free, I get silence as a reply.

    Clearly, I don’t know how to write to copywriters. The failure is mine. I need your help.

    On these pages, “them”, the reader, is us, writers. I want to listen to you the reader, and try to hear you.

    Wait, sorry, apologies, but please, not theories about “them”, “people”, “the reader”, “prospects” and other theoretical entities. I’m not writing to them.

    I’m writing to you.

    You, what do you personally want?

    What do you guys want, when you are the reader, when you are the shopper?

  39. Phil, I’m in the business of delivering products and services to these particular people. Here’s what I do.

    First, I deliver way more value than I ever ask in return.

    Next, I listen more than I ask. Social media makes it easy to listen and learn without saying a word.

    Finally, if I were you, I’d pay attention to how you come across when you do talk. Not exactly inviting, imho.

  40. @Brian, thanks for your reply, though honestly, you didn’t answer my question. Which is Ok, there is no obligation. And that’s completely normal, when I ask this question.

    And yes, I agree with what you did say. I really do.

    You see, here, in this environment, we’re not getting paid to write. We’re not even getting link juice. And I’m not complaining about that, again, there is no obligation.

    But, if we’re going to write here, instead of on our own sites, the process of writing here has to interest us. What interests me personally is exploring the boundaries of whatever group consensus I find myself in, which I agree, is often not inviting.

    So what would you have me do? You’ve already got 89 comments after each article saying, “Great post, I agree.” Do you want 90? Are you saying that’s what you want as a reader?

    If you have a suggestion of how any of us might do “explore the boundaries of the group consensus” writing, and make it more inviting, I’m up for that.

  41. @Eric, sometimes yes, sometimes no. If you’re writing for clients, then of course you’ll be trying to get your client’s personality in there.

    I do put a lot of myself into my blog writing, but I also try to do a lot of listening and respond to the interests, problems, concerns, and preoccupations of the folks who are reading me. So in that case, it becomes about both of us. And there are plenty of things about my life that I don’t share with my blog readers.

    I’m sure the Copyblogger audience is breathlessly awaiting my 27 Tips for Maintaining the Perfect Shade of Pink Hair, or 15 Ways my 4-Year-Old Got on My Nerves Today. But if I’m going to write one of those, I make damned sure there’s something in it for my readers. :)

  42. Phil – yesterday there was a horrible story on the news about a middle school girl who killed herself because she was being bullied. No one likes to be bullied. We like to be talked to with respect, with interest. We want to believe that you actually care what we want – not that you’re only asking so that you can get what you want.

    You’re asking for specifics. But all the specifics in the world won’t solve your problem until you can just be a nice, interested guy talking to nice, interested people. Funny, huh? This is essentially what my post is about. Get out of the way. Take yourself out of the equation.

    Best of luck…

  43. Julie, thanks for your frankness. That’s refreshing and welcomed, really. Keep it coming if you wish. Let’s get real.

    RESPECT: I’m trying to respect your article by taking it seriously, by putting it in to action immediately, and asking readers here what they want, right here and now. Some bits and pieces of an answer are starting to be offered in reply, which is appreciated.

    I’m trying to respect the conversation by offering myself as a writer who can be used as an example of doing it wrong.

    I’m respecting readers here by assuming, as I do, that writers and readers here are strong enough, confident enough, intellectually curious enough, to explore these topics both from within the group consensus, and from without. I sincerely believe this to be the case.

    BULLYING: If any reader here feels bullied by any other reader, could you please quote the exact text which illustrates this bullying? Honestly, I can’t recall a single instance of any poster here offering a personal attack on any other poster.

    DO I CARE?: Do I really care what copywriters want? Well, that’s a fair question. Honestly, I care that we writers seem to not welcome the question “what do we want”. I think we might be able to learn something about our reader’s resistance, by examining our own resistance.

    GET OUT OF THE WAY: Julie, I really do agree with the main point of your article. If we get hired to do a job, we should get out of the way, do the job, and do it well. But, of course, this comment section is not a job, there’s no paying client.

    AM WE NICE AND INTERESTING? If you wish, show we writing students how to write safely from within the middle of the group consensus, be lovable at all times to all people, say the things readers have already heard a hundred times, and are already saying themselves, and still be interesting.

    A Theory: If the things we want to hear, would get us where we want to go, we’d already be there.

    Are we being nice to readers, if we focus on making ourselves popular, by always saying what the readers want to hear? There’s a word for that. Condescending.

    Anyway, all these too many words aside, what do you want when you are the reader, when you are shopper?

  44. Ouch! But I get it. I was engaged to write an article for a magazine at one point. When the customer read it, he said, “I like the article. It’s very interesting. But there’s too much YOU in it. I don’t think this will do.”

    Lesson learned. Thanks for the reminder.

  45. Bryan – this is a great post. I completely agree. I work for an ad agency and although I sometimes think I’m god’s gift to writing, sometimes it’s necessary to do what the client wants. It’s really a tough lesson to learn because even if you know you’re right – if they’re not happy, then it’s not worth it.

  46. I think the important thing is to remember your audience. If you’re writing a blog post on your personal blog, hell yeah, put your ego in there it may be the part that people like reading. However, if you’re writing marketing copy for a client you MUST remember who the audience is, speak to them and lose the ego. It all comes down to knowing who your audience is.

  47. I agree 100%. I strive to be a “copy chameleon,” find each client’s unique voice, and use it to speak to their audience in a way that’s THEM, but better.

  48. I think there is a fine line between ego and personality. You’ve hit the right point, that intent is what matters. One can write from an egocentric position or one of service. If the intent is service to your audience, all of the confidence, expertise and personality will channel through to a place that serves the audience.

    I paraphrase but I think it was Rumi who said, “Look at the moon, not my pointing finger.” Is that not our job, to point the way?

  49. Bert – that is beautiful…thank you for chiming in.

  50. @Bert, that’s a great distinction, thanks!

  51. Ego is one of the reasons for someone to achieve something, but also the ego that makes us falls. I agree with your writing, that’s good!

  52. Ego can have its place in some types of writing but for the most part it should remain a separate and controlled entity.

  53. The real test for copywriters? Having your work edited and seeing your favorite phrase or ideas lopped off. If you can brush that off and say “Hey, it’s his/her dime, let them do what they want”, you’ve done well in controlling your ego.

  54. Get over yourself, and don’t over write your prose, is the best advice out there.

    Thanks for another great article.

  55. Actually, get your ego out of the way to become a better anything.

  56. I think it’s also important to tak eon writing work that you know you can get behind and get passionate about. That way although it is for the client, you also feel like it’s fueling your passions (and not the ego) also. If you constantly take on jobs that you can’t really involve yourself with on any other level than a monetary one, you’re going to end up resenting your customer’s requirements.

  57. Frank Green--The Bard Society :

    It takes ego to write but getting your ego out of your writing to rewrite.

    You must have ego to know who you are but the true Self, the individuated Self is able to look back at the work and see opportunities to bring out the best of what the subconscious offered.

    The ego can be the devilish shadow that blocks the truth, light of sight with a fresh imagination.

  58. Frank Green--The Bard Society :

    Julie, great article on ego, the shadow part of our self that blocks us from seeing what is plain to others. Great last line, too. It takes ego to write but getting your ego out of your writing to rewrite.
    Good use of a cliche that you give freshness to: the old trees and forest and vision.
    I do hate to see “rise up” instead of just “rise.”

  59. I think sometimes ego is important. especially for win the argumentation.

  60. Excellent, their goes my ego flying out of my writing but flown back in when confidence is getting low and need to be refueled.

  61. My ego was killing my writing. This has been a hard lesson to learn and hasn’t been easy. As a art and culture writer, you get bombarded with people asking you to write for them, invites to VIP events, hot tickets to premiere events, all “stuff” that keeps the ego fat and happy. Making the decision to stop getting swept up in all the hype allowed me to focus on what’s important, the client. It is still a process.

    I have been a random reader of your blog, skimming thru content trying to discover the magic bean. I never got the message. Monster ego’s not only make your writing unworthy of reading, it blocks you from learning valuable lessons that allow you to grow as a writer. Thank you for reminding me to keep mine in check.