Most people who write poetry or fiction do so because they want to express themselves. Self-expression takes many forms, but poetry and fiction are two of the purest forms. What you write will always be an expression of your inner self. Still, expression is not always a simple task. Anyone who has sat down to write knows how hard it is to find the words to say exactly what they want to say. What comes out is often close to a person’s feelings, but rarely seems to express them perfectly.

Below are the four barriers to self-expression that come up most frequently. If you want to write what you feel, you must learn to overcome them.

Poor Grammar Hurts Self Expression

Learning and practicing the basic rules of grammar and style is a key to self-expression. When you know and accept the rules of a language, those rules become tools instead of barriers. William Strunk’s excellent guide to grammar can be found free on the web at This is an older, public domain version of the book The Elements of Style. This book is about as concise and inexpensive a guide to grammar as you can find. Buy it, read it, learn it, live it. There are many more guides, most of them more detailed and explanatory. I have at least half a dozen different grammar guides, but as the occasional email points out, I still make mistakes.

Poor Vocabulary Hurts Self Expression

The second barrier to self-expression is vocabulary. I do not mean that you need to know hundreds of four-syllable words in order to express yourself, but knowing the right word to express your thought is an essential element of good writing. Most people think a thesaurus is a good way to build their vocabulary, but frequently a thesaurus can lead you down the wrong path. Just because two words have similar meanings does not mean they have identical meanings. It is far more important to read a dictionary than a thesaurus. Look up words, even words you think you know and pay attention to the definitions. An excellent dictionary to buy is The American Heritage Dictionary. I am not a big fan of Webster’s Dictionaries; most of their definitions seem incomplete to me. The king of all English language dictionaries is the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). It is the most in-depth and comprehensive dictionary in the history of man. The OED is almost as expensive as it is extensive, so visit your local library if you cannot afford a copy.

A Lack of Honesty Hurts Self Expression

While the first two barriers to self-expression are technical, the third is psychological. Self-expression requires a level of honesty and fearlessness that most people do not possess. To begin with, you need to know what your feelings are. This requires taking the time to look at yourself and to try to understand why you do things. Once you know what your feelings are, you need to be brave enough to put them on paper. Some people never achieve that level of honesty. One way to work on breaking down barriers is to try automatic writing. Sit down with a notebook or your computer and write whatever comes to mind, as quickly as possible. Do not edit yourself and do not try to control what goes onto the paper. You can do this for increments of five to ten minutes or longer. Personally, I find that I don’t get a good automatic flow going until I’ve been at it for over fifteen minutes.

A Lack of Effort Hurts Self Expression

Writing well requires hard work. There is no easy way around this. The more frequently you write and edit, the better you will get at it. Most professionals spend hours a day writing. If your goal is to become adept at expressing yourself, especially through poetry or fiction, you need to understand that you won’t automatically be perfect at it. Even after years of practice, not everything you write will be worth reading. The key is to keep writing. When you have significant writing experience, you can plow through the dry times and take greater advantage of inspiration when it comes.

One of the most inspirational books I have ever read about writing is If You Want to Write by the late Brenda Ueland. When I read her book, it usually takes only a couple of paragraphs before I feel like writing again.

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