It sounded better in your head

It sounded better in your head

How often have you tried to write something only to be disappointed by your output? The most beautiful, brilliant, perfect words were right there in your mind, but somewhere between thinking them and writing them, they evaporated.

It doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. In fact, it’s normal.

Writing is an act of translation. Our minds are complex systems of chemicals and electricity, while language is a crude system of symbols. To write, we must somehow transfer our rich imaginings into a smattering of static characters – 26 letters that we can combine and sprinkle with even fewer punctuation marks.

It’s incredible that we’ve accomplished what we have with language.* But language fails us just as often, too.

“I can’t find the words for it,” we say. “It’s hard to describe.” “Words fail me.”

Every writer experiences this. Instances of inspired output and “magical” production are few and far between for most of us. Reaching a state of “flow” in writing, for me at least, comes only after a period of note-jotting, thinking, playing, forgetting, and at least one draft unfit for consumption. I accept and make room for my process.

Strategies to meet writing goals

If you frequently think, “it always sounds better in my head,” you simply need more practice at it, better tools, a different process, or new expectations. Often, a person becomes impatient with the wandering creative process: “This is so hard! I don’t have the time.”

Yet spending hours squeezing your mind, heart, or soul for the perfect words is counter-productive. Trying to impose linear thinking onto the creative process kills it. The real trick is to flow with it – which is what I mean when I say that I “make room” for it.

These strategies can help to meet writing goals:

  1. Have more than one writing project on the go at a time. With two or three projects swimming around, they’ll come up for food and air at different times, giving you the satisfaction of continual progress.
  2. Have a physical outlet. Forget about the writing and go for a walk. Go to the gym. Go skiing. Paddle. You’ll be amazed at what happens in the mind when it’s engaged with the body.
  3. Keep notes. Thoughts and ideas are fleeting and must be captured, no matter how crudely. Jot them down. I use the Notes app on my iPhone.
  4. Shift your expectations about what writing is and how it’s “supposed” to work. Great work rarely falls out of the sky perfectly formed. Embrace the shit draft.
  5. Stay curious about what DOES come out of you. Those “crazy” ideas, random thoughts, odd notes that you took last week – they’re easy to dismiss and diminish. But that’s your subconscious leaking – it wants to be heard.
  6. Be open to the shape the writing does finally take, follow its leads, let it surprise you. It’s not likely to look, feel, or sound the way it did in your head – but it’s useless in your head. The whole point is to produce something that others can access and connect with. Do the best you can do with the symbols you have.

Phrase Strategy’s Essential Voice Program guides leaders to learn and improve their writing process, improve their writing abilities, discover and hone their authentic voices.


*Noah Yuval Harari’s book Sapiens: A brief history of humankind – aside from being a most exceptional book for any Homosapien – provides great insights into the role of language and communication in our species’ dominance of the Earth. See Chapter 2, or his (free) online course version Lesson 2 segments 2, 3, and 4.

“Writing is the most demanding form of thinking.”

Jordan Peterson