Honesty In Writing

Nat RussoHow-To, Voice, Writing 40 Comments

There are many bits of common writerly wisdom that I tweet on a regular basis using the #writetip hashtag. Some of these nuggets are mine and others are parroting the masters. Most are widely held to be axiomatic, but some are confusing or enigmatic. Such is the limitation of 140 characters.

One of the more confusing writetips deals with honesty in writing.

Above all else, be honest in your writing. Readers sense fakes a mile away. #writetip

Whenever this one comes up in the rotation, I get a flood of questions. I get some heated, sarcastic answers as well, but that’s to be expected from time to time. In general, there’s an overwhelming confusion among aspiring authors about just what it means to “be honest” in one’s writing. I understand this confusion. I once shared it.

It is at once the most simple and most elusive quality to attain. But attaining it is a must! For once you have it, you’ll write with a confidence you’ve never known before. Take this quote from Mark Twain:

Mark Twain on Telling the Truth

You’ve heard this before, I’m sure, in many contexts. But I’m betting you’ve never considered its application to writing.

Disclaimers And Caveats

This is a very complex topic. Make no mistake about it. I’m convinced that any attempt to address this head-on will come across as nothing more than a cartoon picture of the truth. In the realm of the subjective, one person’s truth is quite often another person’s bullshit. I believe the best we can hope to achieve is a set of concepts that, once synthesized, put us in the ballpark of what “honesty in writing” actually means.

Don’t take this as some sort of pontifical, exhaustive, canonical list of items. Instead, use each of these (or the whole) as a launching point to spark thoughts of what “truth in writing” means to you.

Ok, let’s give it a good, old-fashioned college try, shall we?

What Honesty Isn’t

There’s one thing I want to clear up right from the beginning. When I coach writers to be honest, I’m not talking about factual information. I’m not talking about getting your research correct. I’m not talking about making sure your dates are accurate, or your grammar is perfect. I’m not talking about selecting the proper usage of words.

So what am I talking about?

In my reflection on this topic, I’ve uncovered at least seven concepts that I think play into what being honest in your writing means.

Let’s start with you the writer.

Know Thyself

I believe to my core that you’ll never be capable of honesty…not really…until you know yourself. Everything else I say about honesty in writing from this point forward is going to need a heavy dose of self-knowledge. In fact, I want to go out on a limb here and say something I haven’t heard uttered on writing blogs or in the craft books I’ve read. At least not explicitly. If you’re not accustomed to periodic reflection, your writing isn’t as good as it could be. 

I don’t see a possibility for success in writing unless you cultivate the ability to turn within and evaluate yourself and your experiences. You must have the ability to process your inner life and place it in context if you’re going to successfully convey the inner lives of your fictional characters. Because, after all, your characters are nothing if not an extension of yourself. I strongly suspect this is why many writing teachers recommend journaling. I’m not saying you need to journal. I’m actually not much of a journaler, but I do spend an inordinate amount of time in my own head. I’m pretty sure I picked this up during my Philosophy degree, and it’s been both a blessing and a curse throughout my life. But I can say this with certainty: my writing would be a shadow of what it is now if I wasn’t a reflective person.

Embrace your inner philosopher. Remember the words of Socrates: “The life which is unexamined is not worth living.”

[*Update 6/16/2020: Since writing this article back in 2014, I’ve actually embraced the practice of personal journaling as well as journaling my reflections and meditations. I can now say I, too, strongly recommend the practice.]

Going Too Far

Like everything else on this topic (as you’ll see), going too far can take many forms. One form is something I like to call kitchen sink syndrome. Most writers starting out in genre fiction learn about something called the Try/Fail Cycle. [Aside: How have I NOT written an article about the Try/Fail Cycle Yet?!?] The Try/Fail cycle is pretty much what it sounds like. The short version: after you pull your lead character(s) through the first plot point (the point of no return), you set him/her on a series of tasks that they typically fail at, until they reach another turning point and start into the home stretch.

When new writers learn about the Try/Fail Cycle, they’re like a carpenter with a new hammer: every problem is a nail. Every minute goal of every minor character has a try/fail cycle. At this point, they’re no longer being true to the story. Instead, they’re often padding for word count.

But plot is just one area where there’s a danger of going too far. You can also go too far with characterization, profanity, sex, violence, you name it. No, literally. That’s not a cop-out. Name literally any element of the craft, and you can go too far with it if you don’t know yourself and your story well enough. And there’s no easy-cheesy graph I can show you that depicts the proper amount of any one of these elements! Too much sex for a Fantasy novel is probably not enough for Erotica. Not enough profanity for gritty, adult Fantasy is probably too much for YA.

If you’re going too far, it’s because you either lack the confidence of subtlety, or it’s because you don’t know your story/genre well enough. Either way, it’s a form of being dishonest in your writing. In the former, you’re not being true to yourself. In the latter, you’re not being true to your audience.

Not Going Far Enough

I’m sure you’ve read books that just sort of fell flat, and it infuriated you because the underlying concept or story seed was so good. You feel as if the author squandered their own assets! I experienced this watching the first season of Dominion. First off, I want to be clear: I LOVE that show! I mean, come on! Metaphysical Fantasy is my jam! Archangels! Demons! Heroes with mystical tattoos! I’m feelin’ it!

But one question kept going through my mind: “You mean to tell me you have access to an archangel. In fact, some would say the archangel, and you never once think to ask a single theological question?” Not once in season one of the show does the main character think to ask Michael the Archangel something along the lines of “So…this God dude….um…yeah…WHAT’S HE LIKE?” I mean…give me SOMETHING, for Pete’s sake!

This is a trite example. Like I said, the show is great, and I think it’s incredibly well-written. But the concept is this: your story and your characters will compel certain directions, a certain depth, a certain tone. If you pull back because you’re afraid of what you’ll discover…perhaps about yourself…then you’re not being honest in your writing. If you pull back because you haven’t done your homework on the subject matter, the reader is going to know. And they’ll call you on it.

Avoiding Inconvenient Characterizations

What do I mean by inconvenient? Frankly, I mean avoiding certain characterizations for personal reasons. You may be a devoutly religious person, and writing a slimy character makes you feel slimy. Or, it may scare you because you know your character is a small extension of yourself, and that gives you some existential angst. Yet your story demands it, and you refuse to give.

In other words, your character, within the context of the story, demands to go a certain direction…a direction you’re entirely uncomfortable with for [insert whatever reason you can imagine here]. Your response is to change the story so that you simply don’t have to “go there”. Like it or not, this is a form of dishonesty in your writing.

For example: If you have a strong personal aversion to profanity, yet you insist on writing dialogue-heavy stories involving gang members doing drug deals, people familiar with the speech patterns of gangstas are going to see right through your facade. You’ll be out of your depth, and it will show. Until you wrestle with your own inhibitions, and convince yourself that it’s OK to write about a subject you consider dark…and do it justice in the process…any attempt to cover that subject is going to come across as shallow and ham-fisted.

Again, it’s not the specifics of profanity in fiction that are under examination here. It’s the idea of grappling with a subject you’re uncomfortable with and allowing your personal inhibitions to keep your work from being its best. If you tap dance around a subject that your story is screaming to be dealt with directly, your readers will call you on it.

Jumping On The Bandwagon

This one is fairly straightforward. If you truly have a “Twilight” or “Hunger Games” within, then please write that story! The world does, in fact, need to hear your take on the genre. The problem isn’t the existence of commercially successful novels! The problem is when we writers come along and think “hmmm…there’s a lot of money to be made on teenage vampires. Guess I need to write a book with teenage vampires.”

Nothing wrong on the surface of that…if you truly have a teenage vampire novel inside you. I’ve said before that I may be an artist, but I’m not allergic to money. However, if you don’t really have one of these novels in you, you’re going to be forcing tripe onto the page because you think (in a misguided way) that the mere presence of teenage vampires (or name your poison) is going to make it a commercial success.

There’s a difference between “writing something that’s trendy” and “chasing a trend”. If you’re being true to your story, the former is out of your control. The latter, however, is completely within your control. And, as I’ve said on Twitter from time to time, it’s misguided because by the time you recognize the trend, it’s too late to exploit anyway.

Honesty In Your Voice

This is a tricky one for most new writers, because it’s rare to find your voice right out of the gate. It takes time to develop, and it’s a living, breathing entity unto itself! A writer’s voice rarely stays the same, because the writer rarely stays the same. New writers often mimic what they’ve read, or what they think their writing should sound like. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing! We learn in large part through imitation. However, it’s often done poorly. Instead of assimilating the conceptual knowledge we glean from other writers, we often start by copying their choice of words, or their rhythm and patterns. The end result is that we create something that sounds writerly instead of something that truly represents our natural voice.

As I’ve mentioned above, if you’re not really being yourself, then you’re being dishonest in your writing. By being yourself, I’m not saying your narrative voice should sound like your speaking voice! But I am saying it should be your voice, and not your favorite author’s voice.

Emotional Dishonesty

I left this one for last, because I think it’s one of the most important notions to consider.

Writing is a scary activity to engage in. Always has been, and always will be. To be successful at this gig, you have to open yourself up, rip things out, and place them on display for the world to see. There’s no side-stepping it. And there are no short cuts.

You are going to have to face your emotional reality.

You are who you are, and there’s no way to avoid it. If you were abused as a child, it will come out in your writing whether you like it or not. If you were raped, it will come out in your writing. If you’re suffering from clinical depression, it will come out in your writing. If you’ve dealt with addiction, it will come out in your writing. If you have been a victim of abuse of authority (as I have), it will come out in your writing.

If you try to stop this, or artificially control it, you’ll never rise to the greatness you’re capable of.

You have to face the reality of your past. Like I said in Know Thyself above, you have to be able to reflect on your life and put things into perspective. Anything else is artificially limiting yourself.

You deserve better.

Your readers deserve better.

They deserve your emotional honesty.

As I said, this is a complex topic. There are so many ways in which we fail to be honest in our writing that it’s impossible to list all of them here. I think at the end of the day if you take “Know Thyself” to heart, your writing will be head and shoulders above other writers’ work.

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About Nat Russo

Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening and Necromancer Falling. Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun. Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do. He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.

Comments 40

  1. Hi Nat,

    Thank you for that insight. I’ve just finished my first novel (it’s with my beta readers now) and I’ve been agonising over what I wrote, ever since I sent it away. My agony has been more extremes, than just about honesty. It has been one question – is this crap or not?

    What your article reassured me was that whatever the reaction to my efforts, it is ok…because I wrote it honestly, from inside of me.

    My first novel has been like an affirmation of what I always wanted to do but were too scared to actually try, and many of your tips have helped me along the way.

    Where do you find the time do so much, on top of writing?

    Congratulations on your enormous success. I’ll be honest and admit that initially you used to piss me off with all your news about how well your novel was doing, and then it hit me…I would be absolutely the same if mine took off…WELL DONE THAT MAN!

    Cheers Nat.

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      Thank you so much, Grant! I’m glad you enjoyed the article. And sorry I pissed you off before. 🙂 Haha!

      It’s absolutely true that if you’ve written your work honestly, your story will eventually find its audience. It may take time, but it will. People are attracted to brutally honest writers like moths to flame.

  2. Loved the blog Nat, especially the point about self reflection, that really spoke to me as I had a similar revelation not too long ago. It’s something I do more and more the older I get and helps you get to the heart of any matter. And if you can get to the heart of your story (and this is where the honesty comes in as well), you’re well on your way to cracking it!
    Great stuff.

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      Thanks, Lee! The more time I spend writing, the more I’m convinced that reflection is one of the ingredients of the “secret sauce”.

  3. I agree in particular about you have to reflected on yourself to be a good writer. I struggle with that sometimes but the truth is you have to be vulnerable if you want to write stories that have an impact on people.

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      Exactly, Heather. You have to open yourself up and be vulnerable, or else you’ll always pull back right at the point where going forward would have created magic.

  4. This is an amazing post, and probably cuts to the heart of what distinguishes mediocre writing from the good.

    I’m really struggling with aspects of several of these right now. I’m writing historical fantasy based on a particularly awful conflict and find myself shying away from violence- not even anything very graphic.

    I’m also finding it difficult to put my favorite characters through any significant pain , or have them behave in any way that’s unsavory. It seems I’m trying to avoid going to any and all dark places.

    I know it’s because I’m afraid of what I’ll find, but there is no point in trying to tell this story if I insist on leaving out any ugliness.

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      So true, Christina! You have to dig down and find the strength to explore that darkness.

      I have a particularly gruesome scene in Necromancer Awakening, where I put my main character through…well…Hell, really. By the end of it, he’s literally asking for death. That was a difficult one to write. I found that the emotional darkness of my past allowed me to imbue the physical reality of the scene with all the pain I was feeling.

      The past can be a treasure trove of emotional expression, if we’re brave enough to go digging in the dirt and explore its depths.

    2. I agree wholeheartedly – but a curious thing happened to me. I decided to re-publish my first two (linked) historical novels from c1990, and began to reflect on that time. So many odd coincidences had occurred in connection with research, writing and publication of same, I thought it would make an interesting memoir. Oh boy! What a revelation to yours truly – that was when I was able to see where those novels had really come from. Yes – from me. As much from my experience of life as my research. They became bestsellers back in the day – and I guess its the emotional honesty as much as the story-line that appealed to people.
      It was scary though – so much so, I didn’t publish the memoir for fear I’d never write another novel!
      But like you, I’ve been saying the similar things to aspiring writers. That honesty in the writing is what lifts a story above the mundane.

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      Ann, thank you so much for sharing that!

      When I read over old stories I’ve written, the content I find never ceases to amaze me. Even though we research topics that are story related, we tend to do so with a focus that comes from our life experiences. And when we later inject that research into our story, it’s done so in a way that channels whatever we’ve got going on at the time. 🙂

      I’ve noticed even in works-in-progress that my subconscious mind is alive and well. As much of a craft as writing is (and I’m a firm believer we can learn and improve), there is still so much mystery. But I suppose that’s part of what keeps us coming back to the keyboard.

      At least I can say it sure isn’t the money… 🙂 Haha!

  5. A wonderful post, managing the impossible: breaking down what honesty means to professional liars! 😀

    As you say, it all starts with us being true to ourselves. Whenever we start censoring ourselves, we weaken our voice and betray our readers and our story.

    Thank you for another great post!

    1. Post

      Haha! We are definitely professional liars! 🙂

      I struggled with this one for a while, because “honesty in writing” is one of those ephemeral things that we just sort of know when we see it. I worried over trying to define it, but so many aspiring authors were asking about it, that I had to give it a shot!

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  7. Great, great, post. I hear you.

    I’ve been yanked to the woodshed and had my ass set straight. Not much else I can say except thanks for taking time to put your thoughts and experience on the page here.

    Spot-on, my man.

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  8. NAILED IT! This is the single best blog post on writing I’ve ever read. I’ve felt so often that a lot of published books fell shy of the mark because the author was holding back. Thank you for writing this, Nat! Definitely sharing.

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  9. There are doors I don’t feel comfortable (yet) in opening with my writing. My journal even scares me off occasionally.
    I’m working on it.
    Good to know I’m not alone.

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  10. Hi Nat, we met on twitter. I’m a fellow writer, and I found this article to be very helpful. I agree a reader can tell if the author is not being honest with their writing. It’s something that I will make sure to keep in mind as I am writing my first novel. I’ve also linked this article to my facebook author page, and given you credit for it 🙂 hope it helps other writers out there!

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  11. Hi Nat,

    I completely agree with you here. I’ve only recently tried my hand at the ‘writing for money’ thing, but even I like those stories less than my true stories. I have always written just for me, after I was inspired by a performance or just stories that came from within me. Over the last year I’ve read a lot about how other people make money writing and selling erotica. So I tried it as well. To me, these stories just don’t work. They’re not true, the characters are too flat and they don’t make me any money. The only stories that I do sell are those that were true from within, even though they’re not about billionaires or bikers or fairy tales.
    It is funny to read stories that I have written a long time ago. It makes me wonder what I was writing or doing at the time, because my language is so different.
    And even though I am aware of it, even I need to remember to make life harder for my characters. They do not need to be in bed by midnight. Instead of something happening the next day around lunch time, it can happen at 3 am in the morning, no matter how inconvenient and tiresome that would be. It is something I need to be aware of and I need to take distance from now and then.
    Thank you for your article.

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    Thanks for stopping by, Liz!

    You hit the nail on the head. If you’re writing something you’re not passionate about, the readers will know. Everything you write will feel lifeless because there’s no part of you in it.

  13. Just to add a note to Jumping on the Bandwagon… I think it’s important to respect the genre you’re writing in. If you don’t read and enjoy YA/SF/romance/etc. then DON’T try to write it. You will be wasting your time.

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      Good point, Nicole. I think a writer has a responsibility to do some due diligence when it comes to research. Without at least some knowledge of the genre, you’ll never know which tropes work, which are overused, etc.

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      It can be a difficult thing to achieve for many, but I think it’s because the subject can be so hard to nail down. I’m glad you enjoyed the article!

  14. Hey Nat…I came upon this post while researching how to be more honest in my songwriting. I’ve attempted to write longer and do very well with short stories, anything more than that though I just loose steam. I’ve been writing songs for about 20 years or so. I write a lot so can put together a pretty good story when I’ve finished one. People like the story aspect to it, the narrative, but I find that most of my songs have a hint of cheese to them. A guy like Tom Waits for instance, his writing rings true. It sounds like it comes from a place full of broken glass and lopped off fingers, real pain. He does it though without leaving you feel like you want to actually kill yourself, there is a certain optimism to it. Its like even though there’s all this crap out there, he’s going to machine right through because he doesn’t give a shit and thats whats cool about it. HST wrote like that too. Dylan writes like that. I’d like to write like that but when I make that attempt to speak that kind of truth it comes out as bad cheese. Like you said its about finding your truth and not trying to emulate some else’s. I journal just about every day and thats where its all truth, but you can’t put that down into a song… isn’t it too personal and really does anyone give a shit about my issues? Isn’t that what FB is for? Tripe indeed. Anyway i’m sure i’ll find my truth and get down to the depths of my being and bring something up that doesn’t stink, but I haven’t gotten there yet. Thanks for the thoughts though, they all apply to writing lyrics as well. Cheers.

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      Thanks, Joe!

      The way I look at is that I represent a statistically significant portion of the population. So, *I* am my target audience. Turning this around on your songwriting, *you* are your target audience. The best advice I ever received was “be vulnerable”. I imagine that’s even more true for songwriters, because music touches the soul in a way that few other art forms do.

  15. Hey Nat!

    Thank you for an important piece in this big puzzle I’m trying to solve! 😉

    While I was reading your post, I was clinging for that last point about emotions! I totally get why you saved it for the end. A couple of weeks ago I had an insight that gave me the creeps. I realized that the process of feeling (actively! consciously!), and to explore one’s own world of feelings might belong to the most underestimated aspects in the lives of so many human beings. I also spent years in my head trying to figure out so many things – and yes, it can be a blessing today, and a curse tomorrow. But there’s a lot more to it. Many people spend way too much time thinking, pondering, instead of trying to establish a stronger connection between their perception/actions/behavior and their feelings! It’s as if the mind is trapped in between, always trying to make sense of the world as an intermediary, with us being trapped in it! Besides, feelings are never constant, there’s always ups and downs, but compared with thoughts, which can be thought and communicated, feelings can be felt and expressed!

    Greetings from Germany, keep up the good work!

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      Thanks so much for stopping by, Stevie! I lived in Germany (Viernheim) from 2003 – 2006 working as a contractor for the US Army in Heidelberg. I miss it so much! I’d move back in a heartbeat. Such a beautiful country!

      It is so true about the power of reflection being underestimated. I was fortunate to pick up the regular practice while in the seminary. The Benedictine monks were definitely a reflective group of individuals!

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article!

  16. Nat, I attended the first session of a memoir writing workshop the other day and when I read a short piece I wrote about an incident in my childhood where I got caught making mischief. It was not particularly traumatic, just a memory of one of the first times I recall feeling guilty. The workshop leader said “Your writing is brilliant. It’s the kind of writing that sells. But it’s not honest. You have to make yourself vulnerable.” A few others in the group nodded, so I asked, “What do you mean by ‘not honest’?” Nobody spoke up except the leader, who said, “You need to put yourself in a dark room and light candles. Meditate.” Which was insulting since I’ve done that for years, and I keep a journal, and I blog. I’m not a dunce when it comes to self-reflection and I felt belittled. Now I’m not sure if I belong in the workshop. Your article is great but I don’t see myself in it, so now what? And how can my writing be “brilliant” or “the kind…that sells” if it’s “not honest”? Help!

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      The truth is only you can be the final arbiter of whether or not you’re being honest in your work. Workshops can be tricky to navigate sometimes, because you’ll often find the leader feels obligated to find something…anything…critically wrong with the work they’re presented with. The inherent power differential between “leader” and “attendee” often further compounds the issue. I would share your work with other objective third parties and get their take on it. But, I probably wouldn’t do that with other people at the same workshop. The well may have already been poisoned, so to speak.

      It sounds to me like you’re a person given to reflection. That’s 90% of the battle right there. It could be that the leader read something that in her subjective estimation came across as if you were holding something back. But, truly, only you can know if that’s the case. So, my advice would be to take all advice with a grain of salt. 😀

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  18. Hi Nat. I had read somewhere that to be a writer you must be honest about yourself to an extent that is excruciating for you to see on the page. I have just sent my first novel off to my editor. The substance abuse was easy to describe. The aspects of myself that were really hard were; I lived with a fear of being overwhelmed and believed if anyone found out, I would become a committed patient in the hospital where I worked; my moral cowardice when I was bullied at school for being a minister’s son; my constant attempts to wind Mum up about things she felt strongly about; my teenage belief that I had a genius philosopher within me ready to spring forth and surprise the world. I don’t know if the novel is good enough to be published. I may simply print a few copies and give them to friends who will be kind about it. Right now I feel drained and can’t imagine putting myself through such an ordeal again. But then again, I suspect I will not be able to stop myself if another idea surfaces.
    Your blog about honesty certainly resonates with me. Very inspiring. I will be reading other blogs you put out.
    David Shapcott

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      I’m so glad this article spoke to you, David. As far as your novel being good enough, barring any technical editing that needs to take place, you can rest assured that someone out there needs to read that story!

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