You’ve probably heard or read all about ‘authenticity’ and how important it is for a writer to be ‘genuinely authentic’, but perhaps that term and its implications need to be explored a little more. Why? Because a failure to understand and apply the concept correctly is leading many writers to miss the most basic opportunities to succeed.
The word itself comes from the Greek authentikos ‘principal, genuine’. Authentic for our purposes can be defined as being true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character, or, for writers, to a particular voice or message.
Authenticity isn’t necessarily to be equated with honesty: writers have many aspects to their personalities and spirits, some of which may be detrimental to their causes. And that’s the crux of the thing: what is a writer’s ‘cause’ and how does one remain authentic to it?
‘Causes’ come on two levels: there’s the ‘cause’ or voice or message which the writer is trying to convey through their work, and there’s the much more mundane and pragmatic cause of getting established, becoming successful and viable. You don’t want to be displaying your worst personal traits all over the place for the sake of being ‘authentic’ — that will serve neither the first nor the second kind of cause. In fact, to do so would confuse your message, hinder the communication potential of your voice, and in the longer term hurt your career.
We see an unbridled form of this false ‘authenticity’ on social media — people who write comments and engage in long, negative conversations on ranges of topics which end up tarnishing their own names, either quickly or slowly, for the sake of ‘being true to themselves’. The throwaway nature of social media commenting leads people to believe that what they say there ‘doesn’t really matter’ and so that kind of authenticity — asserting opinions, ignoring common manners and so on — runs riot and tramples credibility and likability into the dust in the minds of readers.
So what should a writer do to establish genuine authenticity and then remain true to it?
Writers should focus on what they do best, and then become the persona best associated with that while continuing to communicate about every aspect of what they do best.
It starts with finding out and then owning whatever it is you do best.
That might sound somewhat limiting. I can already hear protests from some: ‘But I don’t want to limit myself to just one genre or field — I want to be able to write widely in a variety of styles and on a range of topics.’ So please let me clarify: doing what you do best does not have to carry this kind of limitation. What you do best may be exactly that: writing widely in a variety of styles and on a range of topics. You may indeed be a multi-genre, multi-skilled author. But within the essence of whatever it is you write will be something, or several things, that you nevertheless do best.
Perhaps you are known for having a certain turn of phrase, or a way of providing insight, or a skill with dialogue or surprise endings or dark moods, or perhaps you’re particularly able in world-building or with character or structure. Or perhaps any number or combination of these. More likely, however, you will have a narrower range of particular things that you are especially good at.
Running through all these things, whether they are skills or preoccupations or facets of your writing, will be two unique strands: your voice and your message, which combine to form the ‘youness’ that marks your writing out from everyone else’s. Isolating those and then strengthening, magnifying and developing them gives you something to be authentic about.
Without that consistent voice and message, you create a dissonance, a misalignment or a kind of ‘off key’ note that potential readers can sense—and that will likely turn them away.
You might say ‘But my writing appeals to everyone, and so needs to be aimed at everyone in the marketplace’. And you may well believe it, and head out into the marketplace to waste thousands in your local currency or hundreds of hours of time (or both) trying to market your work to ‘everyone’ only to meet crushing disappointment.
You will find that you cannot do your job effectively as a writer if you don’t have a specific target market. And if you yourself don’t know what it is you are saying through your writing, how can you possibly succeed in reaching those readers who want to hear it?
Many writers fail to market themselves in a targeted way. Many fail to develop their own voice or message. And so they have little following or engagement on social media or anywhere.
Knowing what you are saying and being consistent in that is authenticity in the minds of your readers. Your readers — as opposed to the general idea of ‘readers’ — love what you write and want more of it. But it's possible that you’re not finding them because you don’t exactly know what it is you’re saying yourself.
If you were in a foreign country and wanted to speak to the natives, the first thing to do, even before you opened your mouth, would be to work out exactly what you wanted to say. Then you would learn the words; then you would practice the words again and again until they were comprehensible to a native; then you would speak the message where the right people might hear it. But many writers are today in effect talking gibberish to no one because they a) haven’t figured out what they are saying, b) haven’t practised saying it enough using the right forms and c) haven’t aimed it at the right people.
No wonder that they don’t sell any books.
Authenticity opens the door to huge opportunity, as we will see in Part Two.