A Guest post by Paul Roberts, Consultant at The Writing Coach
On Motivation for Writers
Thomas Mann said that “a writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” So why do we do it? Paul Roberts invites you to examine and share your reasons.
Edited Beyond All Recognition
Having recently had an article paid for and published in a well-known periodical, I eagerly dashed to Asda and stood in the aisle, paging through a copy to see what my hard work looked like in print. I found what I’d written, beautifully arranged with photographs and illustrations, all of which helped to bring the subject matter alive. I began to read what I thought would be the familiar passages I had honed to perfection during several previous weeks. It was at about this moment that my heart sank.
My article had been ebar’d – Edited Beyond All Recognition. Gone were my pithy summaries. Missing were the humorous asides. Appended was some context which seemed as ungainly as a hernia. And worst of all, my climactic final line – that oh-so-clever comic play-on-words over which I had spent hours – had been out-climaxed by an editor who thought that the best way to improve on a perfect conclusion was to add another.
This scurrilous hack of my original material was not carried out with the objective of reducing or increasing the wordcount, or of sensitively protecting me from a libel lawyer’s clutches. No, this was – in my very humble opinion – the case of an editor who thought they could write better than me. The audacity!
Every Cut Hurts
Of course, I’m a sensitive fellow who, like all of us, takes his writing seriously. I found it unforgiveable that someone might not only think that they could improve on perfection, but also commit it to print for the entire world to see (or those few-thousand who read this particular tome). At the back of my mind, a small voice whispered, “But you gave them your permission!” Indeed, I had signed a waiver that allowed the editor to do precisely what he had done. Dear God, I had sold my soul!
In mitigation, he was just doing his job. The editor is one of many who sit beside the conveyor belt that propels your work of perfection past tens of others who will poke and prod it on its way to the press. When we make our work public, we expose it to the honest, harsh, real attention of others. And if one of those others is in possession of a scalpel and a licence to use it, we can expect to see blood on the walls. Every cut hurts. Every excision begs the question, why?! Well, the quality of a piece of writing is in the eye of the reader. An editor will have their own expectations of what makes a piece of writing suitable for their publication because they know their market. If they hold the chequebook, why should the writer’s feelings matter? They’re getting paid, aren’t they?
So yes, I’d been paid, and I was in print. It’s happened before and I’m confident it’ll happen again. Why was I so upset? What motivates me to keep going back for more (as I know I will)?
Perhaps you can give some thought to your own reasons for writing. Yes, an answer may easily trip from your tongue… “Because I enjoy it!” “Because I’m driven!” “Because I’ve always done it!”. But set aside some time to properly reflect on the question and you may discover a complex blend of drivers.
I asked myself the same question and, having come back down from the mountain top, I have concluded that there are at least four. There may be more – if you can think of any, please share them with others who are reading this article. Don’t worry if they don’t begin with ‘P’… but it would be nice if they did!
Most of us know that if you want to make any money out of writing, you should become a publisher, not a writer. That said, a cheque or royalty statement is the living proof that someone considers there to be value in what you have written. So, yes, it matters. But is this why you write? How much does it matter? Does your livelihood depend on it? Would you continue to do it if you knew for sure that you would never be paid?
Publication and publicity
Somehow, publication authenticates and transforms what we have written into something, literally, authoritative. The fact of having sponsorship for our thoughts-turned-into-words renders them accepted and approved. As a writer of non-fiction, publication matters to me too because it enables me to communicate something which I consider important, to others. So, publication is a means of gaining publicity for ideas that would otherwise remain Blu Tak’d to my wall. Does publication matter to you? Why? Does it provide a sense of validation? Do you feel that you need to be validated as a writer, or is it the work for which you would like approval? Does it help you to be a part of a wider community? Or does it not matter at all?
Pride and Plaudits
Book-signings, adoring fans, a bursting inbox or Twitter feed. Then there are longlists… shortlists… awards! These may not be the reasons why many of us write in the first place, but such incentives can encourage some people to continue to do it. Have you ever entered or won a competition? Why does winning matter? Does it improve your writing? Does it make you feel better about what you do? What part does pride have to play in your writing? Do you perform better in a competitive environment?
My literary hero, George Orwell, explained his own motivation for writing in Why I Write (1946). At the age of about sixteen, he “suddenly discovered the joy of mere words.” Yes, for anyone who doesn’t write, it may be hard to understand how it is possible to be rendered blissful by a turn of phrase, or spine-shiveringly excited by the selection of the ideal word. But for many writers, this is what gets them up in the morning and keeps them at their desks for hours on end in spite of the urgent need to stretch, eat or urinate. Does this describe you? Do you approach writing as a craft? Why does finding the right way of saying something matter so much to you? Does a deadline matter less than delivering the perfect prose?
It was only when I wondered which three of these motivations mattered least to me, that I realised why being ebar’d had upset me so much. In future, having a stronger sense of why I write will give me greater insulation and resilience when I have to face the inevitable set-backs that are part of this thing we do.
I’m sure we all write for a combination of reasons, but if you had to pick one, which would it be, and why? Knowing the answer may just help you carry on doing it.