The following is an excerpt from my course The Wordshops hitting the virtual airwaves later this month, along with my FREE un-boring blog writing challenge. (Both launching September 2017).
If you want to get your hands on the DIY Wordshop course, and/or apply to join my 4-week copywriting Wordshop incubator, click here to drop me a line and let me know. I’ll put you on the short list.
Back in 2015, when my copywriting course the Wordshops was naught but a wee seed of an idea, I spent a few months interviewing dozens of entrepreneurs about what they wanted to learn most.
Unsurprisingly, the things people wanted to master ran the gambit.
They wanted to figure out how to get comfortable selling. (Check!)
Or how to write the About page of their dreams. (Check aaand check!)
Or how to figure out what their brand voice really is. (I got you!)
Or pin down how to pen a Home or Sales page that felt clear, but also oh-so-sexily presented them as an expert. (Heck yeah I have your back!)
Or they just needed help getting off their butts so they could start writing already. (Mm-hm, I can do that too.)
However, there was one request that was practically universal:
Interviewees requested, sometimes bluntly, sometimes shyly:
“I feel like your writing has so much style. I want to figure out how to write the way you do… for myself.”
And honestly? It gave me pause.
I’ve been writing since I could hold a pen. I scribbled down my first fantasy novel in second grade. I spent most of my teen years scrawling records of my days and crushes and “struggles” into journals and diaries every night and writing fanfiction instead of finishing my Algebra homework.
I’ve been using (read: abusing, with too many ALL CAPS STATEMENTS and photos of my cat) social media since I was a teenager. Then when I began writing copy in 2011, I averaged roughly 50 pages of content week in, week out.
There was never a formula I tried, or a book I read about the subject that offered me any particular kind of “My style is XYZ!” clarity. And I didn’t look for one.
Overall, I focused on writing the way I spoke, and with time my “vibe” and sense of pacing and pros came to fruition.
Tl;dr, I felt like I wrote so much, my style had kind of created itself.
Here’s where it gets tricky though:
Unfortunately, “Just keep writing for years and you’ll figure it out” wasn’t a good response to my hopeful students.
So I spent a few months looking closely at my writing process to figure out why I made the creative choices I made.
And the closer I looked, the clearer my path to style became:
- My subconscious mind is soaking in the inspiration I see day in, day out. The books and plays I love, the music, the art, the TV shows, movies, even the commercials I genuinely pay attention to influence me in small ways. (That’s why I include a whole section about “Reverse engineering what inspires you” in the first module of my course.)
- My editing process has become more about trimming the fat off ideas than actually reviewing for style and grammar, although I still do plenty of grammar/spell checking, with help from my brilliant editor Autumn Tompkins, a.k.a. The Grumpy Grammarian.
- I prioritize pacing over clever wordplay. If my brain stumbles over a sentence or feels “off” reading something, chances are it will feel the same for my audience. So if an “it-sounded-good-in-my-head” idea doesn’t work? I don’t play precious. I ditch it immediately.
- I strike “SAT words” from my writing vocabulary. I don’t need people running to the dictionary to make myself feel smarter. Complex ideas delivered in concise, accessible language are infinitely more powerful anyway.
- I create my best work when I suspend judgment. If something makes me laugh, or I have an idea that feels quirky, but I sense it would land with my audience? I keep it in, hold my breath, and hit “publish” anyway — even when I’m not 100% confident.
- I’ve stopped trying to be for everyone. I talk about this a fair amount, but it bears repeating: You can’t find your writing style if you’re trying to play it safe or squeeze into a tiny box you think you’re supposed to sit in. Dish your real talk. Swear if you want to. Be your weirdest, most wonderful, most whimsical self. That’s what people need — not another robot cranking out the same concepts day in, day out.
- Practice, practice, practice makes perfect. The more I write, the clearer my style becomes.
However! Just because it took me a decade to get to a clear style point doesn’t mean you have to follow the same timeline.
Your style is engrained in you already, whether you know it now or not.
The trick is to keep paying attention, and keep writing and creating, so your evolution can be allowed to happen.
What do you love to talk and share about? What lights you up to discuss or debate? What kind of wordplay, and pacing, and pop culture references do you dig most? How do you want to be understood?
And before you tell me “But Hillary! Aren’t I supposed to be writing what my audience wants, instead of what I want?”
Yes… and no.
While you should always focus on delivering value, YOU are a brand! Your audience wants you, baby — the fully realized, loud, proud, undeniable and clear-like-a-tide-pool-on-a-summer-afternoon experience of YOU and your brain and brilliance and braun.
The more pages you create and share, the more you blog and post on social media and talk truth about the work you do, for the people you do it for?
The more visible YOU, as a creator, an expert, and an authority become.
The more undeniable your style will be.
And the more right people will find you — and fall head over heels with every single thing you do.
It’s the best (and only) way there ever was.
Don’t worry: I have way more to teach you about this inside The Wordshops, including how to master your pacing and flow, how to write with flair and comedy, and more.
The Wordshops also dive into sales, content structure strategy, voice, and more, so you can craft the creative, converting About, Home, or Sales page of your dreams.
Click here to get on the list for the LIVE or DIY version of the course — and I’ll see you soon. ❤
Photo by Jeff Weller. Because of course.
This is a story for the kids who ached to be noticed and weren’t.
This is a story for the parents of those kids, who worry about their future.
This is a story for any human who’s known the frustration of being “just OK” at more or less everything.
This is a story for the clients and colleagues who assumed I came out of the womb a straight-A overachiever.
This is a story about what really happened.
I remember sitting across from the Dean of Students that steaming South Florida afternoon.
We were in her office, again, discussing the same thing we usually did: me, and my notorious academic blah.
As a little background: I hated these meetings. Partly because I had to sit down and confront my own self-disappointment, and partly because the office was somehow never warmer than 59 degrees Fahrenheit.
I was bombing something – maybe Algebra II or Physics, I don’t remember. But what I do recall distinctly was her bad poker face as she glanced at a manilla envelope in front of her.
The conversation was old, but the envelope was new.
I shifted uncomfortably in my chair, hoping this would be over quickly.
“Hill,” she said amiably, using the nickname only strangers called me “Do you remember in second grade, when you took that day-long assessment test?”
No. Not at all.
She named a number. For the story’s sake, let’s call it 20.
“A 20 on this score is smart. A 30 -” she raised her eyebrows at me intently “- is gifted.”
Like I said, terrible poker face.
My heart started to pound. A glimmer of excitement wicked it’s way up through my chest.
You see, my whole life, I wanted to be exceptional at something. Anything.
But my excruciating desire to be noticed was crippled by my utter middle-of-the-roadness; unquestionably due to a mix of lack of discipline, and trying to approach recognition through the wrong avenues.
I wanted to be the star of the soccer team, the lead in the school play, the top of my class, the heartthrob of my grade. Instead, I sat on the bench, high kicked in the chorus line, scraped by with B’s and C’s, and was labeled “average at best” in the looks department.
The worst part was, I was boisterous as hell, and a frequent disruptor – but had no redeeming brainpower to excuse my behavior. I was just… (sigh) annoying.
To further sour the pot, my siblings were both brilliant in their respective ways. My sister was a superstar academically and creatively, and my brother had a near-perfect SAT score without so much as a glance at his review materials.
But maybe now, that was about to change.
Maybe this was my moment – when I’d discover I was a misunderstood genius with magical smarts yet untapped. A violin prodigy who just hadn’t touched the strings yet, or a successful politician-in-waiting just not popular enough to make any headway in student council elections.
As she opened the envelope with a rustle, my hands turned to fists in my lap.
I leaned forward as she sifted through the papers inside, and pulled out a page.
Glancing over the results, her forehead furrowed slightly. Instantly, my small balloon of hope began deflating with a sad squeak.
Still, she flipped the paper around and circled the dot that represented my score.
There I was. Right on 20.
It was clear in her face: she really believed she had something better to show me.
Her continued assurances I was “a smart girl” were muffled by my oppressive desire to melt into my chair and slip out her office door, never to be seen again.
There it was, in black and white. Proof I was doomed to be halfway decent the rest of my damn life. Smart, but not too smart. Kind of good at stuff, but not enough to stand in the spotlight.
Get comfortable with those participation trophies in the chorus line of life, kid. The assessment scores have spoken.
It was one of those odd first-world moments of heartbreak that stands out in the ocean of growing pains and awkward challenges of high school.
Coming face to face with your own mediocrity hurts like a bitch.
I can’t tell you what happened after I left that office that day, but what I do know is that I probably spent that night, or the night after that, ignoring my algebra or Physics homework, and sitting down for my self-comforting ritual: writing.
I wrote anything. Parodies of fairy tale stories, LiveJournal blog posts, fantasy novellas, fanfiction (no, not porn, come on guys), letters I never sent to friends or boys I was angry or in love with…
I’d submit work in online forums, and review the work of others as well.
I had always written. It was a habit; like biting my fingernails, or tapping the ceiling of my car for luck as I blew through a yellow light. I considered it a soothing mechanism more than anything else – a chance for me to rest in a world of my own creation, a world I felt I completely understood.
Please note, this is not the part of the story where I reveal: SURPRISE! I was a genius after all. Ha ha, take that Dean of Students.
The truth is, I was writing constantly at school as well; essays, creative pieces, etc. But beyond one really solid assessment of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and a “Hey, that was pretty funny!” comment on my college essay from one of my teachers, my writing clearly fell under the “decent” category too.
But somewhere between my senior year of high school and first year of university, I made a decision:
If I couldn’t be naturally really good at anything, maybe I could at least be known for working really, really hard.
Worn out by years of “smart but undisciplined” talk from essentially every teacher and school official I’d ever come into contact with, I figured it was time to give the discipline thing a shot.
So I taught myself… how to work.
I spent most of my first college semester at a top party school in the library, trying to get my shit together.
Spoiler alert: it’s harder to train yourself to listen in class, take notes, and create immaculate study guides at 18 than it is at 8.
It also turns out, I could still be undisciplined as hell in other non-school-related areas. (Lack of passion murders my motivation – but I couldn’t rest on that vain realization.)
So I just… tried. I tried really hard. Every day.
That discipline eventually lead to internships, which led to more internships, which lead to a job out of graduation, which led to a friend turning to me to remind me of something that had never occurred to me:
“Copywriting could be a great path for you. And hey, you’ve been writing since you could hold a pen…”
Had I? Oh yeah! That was actually kind of true.
This led to my start in an industry where hard work and a dedication to the deadline often superseded actual talent – at least in the initial stages.
Was I necessarily the best? Nah. But I got my damn work done, and I utterly devoted myself to giving my clients what they wanted.
I learned that my instincts were good, and if I could just keep pushing forward, working with more clients, honing my skills, and making things happen for myself – I could stand out.
But it wouldn’t be the sparkly, all-eyes-on-me standing out of playing the lead in that musical, or having the highest score on some assessment I’d taken when I was 7.
I could stand out for being a hard worker, a professional, and a fun person dedicated to the follow through.
And in the end – isn’t that all that really matters?
Honestly, I’m not sure how to end this. What can I possibly say to all my brothers and sisters who never slammed their SAT scores, played supporting roles, and were largely overlooked despite all their inner fire and furious desire to sparkle somehow?
Well, for one: we are so much more than our hopes for ourselves at 16 (thank God.)
And furthermore: dedicating yourself to your work, or even just finishing whatever’s in front of you to the best of your ability, means so much more in this life than getting the gold star. Besides, the gold star kids don’t always succeed anyway – and having a slightly smaller ego than some can only serve you.
Sometimes I wonder how long I would have waited for someone to turn around and call me “exceptional” the way I’d hoped for. To be honest, it may never have happened. And I’m glad it didn’t.
Because there are so many ways to shine in this world, and so many ways to add value and joy to the people you know and work alongside.
Hang in there. You’ll find yours.
A friend of mine (a poet at heart) recently told me he was trying to write a poem, but hadn’t drafted anything he considered worthwhile. Or anything at all, really.
His reason? He had his heart set on writing a 30-line sonnet. And he hadn’t been able to pull it off yet.
Uh… what? I was startled. I’d never deliberately started a work with the idea it had to fit into a certain number of lines. Sure, I wrestle with word limits every day for clients, but creative writing? Free bird! Let the thoughts spill everywhere like buckets of bright paint. Swirl something awesome together afterwards.
When it comes to the wordy world, I have a few quips to spare. So naturally, I hopped aboard my writerly soapbox. I explained that while I understood his reasons (sonnets are a noble enterprise), he’d surprised me. Why?
Because I’ve come to understand that when you’re writing or creating anything for your own ends, that’s YOU. 100% pure, unadulterated personal brain power. So why would you limit yourself, or try to cram yourself into a box? Yes, hammering out 30 lines worthy of Shakespeare is a great challenge… but you’re not being challenged if you’re too spooked to even put pen to paper.
You HAVE to give yourself space to grow, I told him, and spill over the edge of the box. What if 30 lines weren’t a fit for his creative flow? What if he was more of a 35 or 60-line guy (if there is such a thing)? How would he ever know?
And besides, I pointed out – creativity, on cue or otherwise, takes practice. You have to keep at it in order to find your strengths & passions. There are no short cuts or ‘magic formulas’, you’ve just gotta sit there and work at it until everything is finally out on the page, by golly.
Then it hit me: I fall into the same trap, over and over again.
Not with length (I’m far too comfortable with my verboseness for that), but style. There have been moments where I’ve had to put great books down because the work is so excellent, I need to take 5 and quietly despair at the abysmal quality of my own meager scribblings.
I’ve trashed innumerable drafts that didn’t sound ‘worthy’ to me – meaning they didn’t meet the expectations I’d outlined based on how I felt about a complete stranger and their work. How bizarre, to hate something we’ve made with our own hands just because it doesn’t resemble a vision that belonged to someone else’s to begin with.
I think every creative reaches a point where they’re so underwhelmed with themselves, they want to curl up in a ball and eat oreos on the couch for the rest of their days (guilty). Sometimes, we forget how heavy ideas can be. We have to haul them around with us everywhere we go, after all. And when we write, we’re basically asking our audience ‘Hey, this is mine, but will you carry it with you please?’
Of course you want to offer that idea in a beautiful package that proves you’re ‘good enough’, whatever that standard is for you. But if you’re consumed with concerns about your delivery, then you’re no longer focused on what’s in the box in the first place. Which is the truth you’re trying to convey.
Truth is the mighty engine that powers art. Not appearance.
Never forget that it’s the the statement, the honestly-formed idea, that fuels amazing creative work – not the way it’s “supposed” to sound or feel stylistically. Have you ever heard of a post going viral because ‘Omg, this sounds exactly like that awesome post so-and-so wrote.’? Didn’t think so. And besides, no truly great thoughts ever fit into the box set for them at the start.
Every artist needs to give themselves the freedom to evolve, and the chance to become the standard. And how do you do that? By proving your worth in the idea-fueled quality of the work you continually produce on your own – not disguised as someone else.
Art takes courage. Not the white knight riding in kind of courage, but the ‘Oh god, the spotlight is on me, I have only moments to get a point across and I can’t stop sweating in weird places’ kind. If you feel shy or unimpressed by yourself, it’s ok to feel that. But when your idea is a good one, when it’s true for you, when it’s something you need to say… you have permission from the muses to lean on that.
Let go of your expectations. Just start. Then keep going.
(Go ahead. I’ll wait.)
So without further ado, in the spirit of inching that proverbial blog curtain up just a liiittle bit higher:
IF YOU REALLY KNEW ME, you’d know…
Once, in a strange twist of fate, I answered a phone and befriended a painter living in Africa. I proudly received three of his original works from Equatorial Guinea a few months later:
I’m convinced Instagram blew up because it’s an easy way for people to showcase their private obsessions with beauty. This is something we need as a species.
I wrote about 20 chapters of my first fantasy novel in the second grade. They’re still floating around somewhere… physically and mentally.
I can whistle through my teeth, and even louder through my fingers.
I believe in the power of red lipstick and pencil skirts.
My first favorite color was red. Then yellow. Then blue. But now; blue, blue, blue everything in my life. All shades and shadows. Blue hair is next on the list. Stand by.
I once had two badass whiskered friends, Simon and TS Eliot. They went to new, loving homes when I moved to NYC.
As a wee Weiss, I was the first of my class to be allowed to check out chapter books from the library. I remember solemnly walking down the ‘Kid’s Chapter Fiction’ aisle feeling like I’d been given the keys to the universe. (I had.)
I just can’t get into Hemingway, no matter how hard I try. Sigh. I suspect this makes me less of a literary snaffoo.
I was born with a blocked left tear duct, which used to make my eye fog up. While the problem cleared itself, my mom gave me the nickname Misty, and has called me that ever since.
I’m a compulsive nicknamer. The names tend to stick, for better or for worse. I get it from my Mom.
I love Paris, and I’ve been to the top of the Eiffel tower twice. But I love New York City more.
In 2009, I did a field study course at The Lemur Conservation Foundation in Myakka City, Florida. I studied 8 different species of lemur in their free-range habitat; common brown, mongoose, ring-tailed, red ruff, and sanfords. It. Was. Awesome.
I don’t dig strawberry ice cream, or mint chocolate. No, you cannot introduce me to a brand that will suddenly make me love it.
I need music. Music, music, music at all times, in all the nooks and crannies of my life & mind.
I danced for 8 years in my childhood, but was always kind of terrible at it. I’m alright with that – and continue to dance with wildly ridiculous abandon pretty much anywhere.
I play piano and can read music, but my extra petite hands are too small for more complex pieces.
I spent a night at the Hostel in the Forest three years ago, and have been dying to go back ever since.
I have a laugh that can be heard up to 100+ yards away. I find this to be a somewhat dubious talent.
I adore music festivals & the wardrobe required for them. I’ve got a drawer full of neon & metallic wear, and I’ve owned at least half a dozen full-face masks in my time.
I have no tattoos or piercings aside from my ears. This may be subject to change.
I’ve waitressed/hosted at 7 restaurants in my lifetime.
I’m not a natural redhead. My hair is actually a light blondish-brown. (Did I just blow your mind?)
I have a bizarrely long memory for rhymes. I still remember the first poem I ever memorized in my fifth grade English class.
My favorite artist is Salvador Dali (who shares a birthday with my terribly talented partner. Coincidence?). His work stretches my imagination. My favorite masterpiece is Columbus Discovering America.
Sometimes, I paint. Shyly. Mostly stuff for my friends, like this one:
My proudest work to date is an interpretation of Dali’s Rose Meditative for a friend Leigh Rose – called Leigh Rose meditative.
My favorite creature is the octopus. Big brains, and the ability to slip into almost any space and adapt to any background, unencumbered by troublesome bones and tendons. Most definitely the grooviest of all invertebrates.
I’ve been a passionate thrifter since I was 16. As a result, my closet resembles something like a supernova.
I was published for the first time this year – I wrote an essay for the End Sex Trafficking Day book called ‘Small Fish Sydnrome: a Narrative for the Comparative’.
I’m a proud member of the Literati writer’s group.
I’m a citizen of Switzerland as well as the US. My family has some very groovy little apartments there.
I’m proficient in conversational French, but I’m painfully out of practice.
I once lived next door to a meditation instructor who turned my views on reality inside out. Since then, I’ve been practicing visualization techniques to help me walk around inside my own imagination like a room.
My entire family has dimples. It makes us all look very related.
My life is incredibly joyful, and I’m very blessed to be here, with you.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
You didn’t think I’d really let you off that easy, did you?
So now, tell me: what are some awesomely weird/wonderful things I should know about YOU?