Taking Emotional Risk in Your Writing

No matter what area of your life you’re looking at—your relationships, your career, or your art—taking emotional risk is incredibly hard.

It just is.

Sometimes it gets easier. Sometimes you meet that wonderful person who deserves your trust. Sometimes your willingness to be vulnerable pays off and you connect or grow in a way you never thought possible.

But even if you become a Jedi Warrior of Emotional Risk-Taking, each time holds its own new risk. And each time, fear will try to get in there in some way and stop you.

Fear sneaks into our writing when we try to qualify what we’re saying to the reader.

We can see it plainly in long, needlessly convoluted writing. If there’s a ton of irrelevant padding around the meat of the sentence, we are usually avoiding what we—or the characters—want to say by talking around it instead of facing it head on.

It also happens with loaded words. Certain words carry an emotional intensity that is complex, textured, and powerful. Writers have to handle words like these carefully, but that doesn’t mean we should ever back away from their power. The beauty of a word lies precisely in its charge.

Another way writers evade emotional risk is by distancing themselves from their narrative voice. This can be seen when descriptions read something like, “Those who were there that day might have said…” Or “All the evidence may have suggested…” If the reader is getting a necessary update on lore, or the point is for the story to be told by a shadowy observer, this works. But if these clunky prefixes are attached to sentences without good reason, it’s likely the writer has issues with artistic intimacy.

We avoid emotional risk in our writing for the same reasons that we avoid it in real life. We don’t want to be judged. We don’t want to make a mistake, or our words be misconstrued by others. We don’t want to write something that we’ll regret later. But all that stuff is going to happen anyway, no matter what we do.

Burying your meaning with too many words does not serve you as a writer.

Softening the power of uncomfortable language does not serve you as a writer.

Distancing yourself from the conviction of your writing voice does not serve you as a writer.

And it doesn’t serve your readers either.

Say what you mean to say. Really. Even if it’s uncomfortable, or gross, or you’re pretty sure some people are going to be offended and absolutely hate it.

If you’re serious about this whole writing thing, then commit to saying your piece.

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  • Reply Dan Pedersen 11 November, 2013 at 3:54 pm

    Thanks for the encouragement to be more bold.

  • Reply Karen Dowdall 11 November, 2013 at 6:14 pm

    This is so important to know. Thank you so much for encouraging writers to not be afraid to express their true meanings with clarity. Great blog

  • Reply Glynis Jolly 12 November, 2013 at 6:53 am

    I believe you have hit one of my major problems in my writing. I envy people who can let it all out so easily. Now seeing this problem in black and white (thank you), I may be able to deal with it and swish it down.

  • Reply Setsu 13 November, 2013 at 3:12 pm

    In the real world, we have to hold in in. I think that’s why so many people turn to writing and art — as a way to share private experience with others in a safe arena. Every time we have the bravery to speak honestly about something uncomfortable, we’re telling readers and onlookers “you’re not alone.”

  • Reply Micah 14 November, 2013 at 9:35 am

    So true. And thanks. Learning to let go is definitely an acquired skill for me.

  • Reply hilarycustancegreen 14 November, 2013 at 1:30 pm

    A really good post, thank you. I sometimes find the desire to please hard to resist. I have sometimes changed what a character says because a friend found it too strong, or off-putting though it was what I wanted that person to say.

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