Why Writers Write

Some thoughts on what drives us.

I’ve been a writer since I was 13. I always had a story inside me trying to get out. I started with college-ruled notebooks, writing on just one side of the paper in my printed handwriting, just to keep it neat. As the computer age began, I moved to word processing.

Somewhere along the line, I went pro and began being paid for what I wrote. But it wasn’t the stories that earned me money. It was the technical non-fiction, the prose that explained how to perform tasks with computers. With no formal training in the computer field — after all, it was in its infancy when I graduated from college in 1982 — I had become a computer “expert” (whatever that is) and I churned out books at an alarming rate. Sixteen years after getting my first check for a writing assignment, I now have 70 books and literally hundreds of articles under my belt. (And no, I don’t I don’t think that explains my current weight problem.)

A number of conversations with people within the past few days has made me think about writing and why writers need to write. I thought I’d set my thoughts down here. And the timing couldn’t be better, with National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) starting today.

Kinds of Writers

The way I see it, there are different kinds of writers:

  • Born writers are people who just feel an overwhelming need to write. Obviously, no one is “born” to write. They’re born with the equipment to get the job done — a good brain, etc. — and are molded by experience and education in such a way that they enjoy writing. They may not be good at it, but they like it and they do it. Whether they can successfully turn it into a career depends on their personality, willingness to learn and improve, ability to meet editors’/publishers’ needs, and business sense.
  • Made writers are people who, through circumstance, find themselves writing a lot. Most of these people do it for a living or derive at least some part of their income from writing. This might be someone who steps into a management job that requires writing a lot of reports. Or someone in marketing who writes a lot of ad copy.

The Need to Write

Born writers often need to write. They have these ideas rolling around in their heads and they need to get them down on paper (or pixels). Sometimes just getting them out there is enough. Other times, they need to work the words, to fine tune them, to perfect them. Some people write prose, others write poetry. Some of it is very good, some of it is crap. It doesn’t matter to them. They write because they need to get those words out.

I’m pretty sure that I’m one of these people. I feel a need to write something every day. That’s why you’ll find a new blog entry here most (but not all) mornings. Throughout the day, I think about things going on in the world and in my life. During quiet times — while driving, flying, showering, or doing other “automatic” or mindless tasks — my brain shifts into high gear and really thinks things through. That’s when I get ideas. It’s also when I accumulate enough conclusions about something to begin writing about it, often for the next day’s blog entry.

If I go several days without writing, I get cranky. It’s like going through withdrawal.

Blogging — which I’ve been doing for four full years now — really helps me get those words out. From the very start, I looked at my blog as a journal of my life. It’s only within the past two or so years that I combined my personal blog with entries and information to support my books. My life is multi-dimensional; shouldn’t my blog be the same?

But the more I blog, the less I work on the fiction that got me started as a writer all those years ago. Earlier this year, when I lost the manuscript for a novel I was working on (read “Death of a Manuscript“), I simply stopped writing fiction. I don’t feel the need as much, if at all. I think the blogging I do fulfills my need to write.

Insight from a Professional Writer

Years ago, before I went pro, I was friends with a professional copywriter. He wrote mostly advertising copy — the kind of text you’d find describing products or services in a full-page magazine ad. He also did some technical writing. He made a very good living.

I was young and foolish then. I thought he’d be interested in critiquing my fiction. I sent him a story. He critiqued it. Like most wannabe writers, I wasn’t happy with his comments. (Have you ever met a wannabe writer who actually likes honest criticism?) I don’t recall all of his comments, but I do know that he had an issue with my use of the word pretty as a modifier, as in, “It’s pretty cold outside.” He claimed that it wasn’t professional. I think I used it in dialog, where it could be an indication of a character’s background, maturity, etc. But he didn’t know dialog. He was a copywriter. He was looking for high quality, polished prose. I didn’t deliver it.

He did tell me that I had some talent — that I knew how to write. This was enough praise and encouragement for me.

But the biggest thing I learned from him was that there was more to writing than writing fiction. While writing fiction could be enjoyable and a nice way to spend my evenings, writing non-fiction could earn a living and pay my bills. And while wannabe novelists could look down at a technical writer as a “hack” or someone who had “sold out” and no longer practiced the “art” of writing, professional writers know better.

Every word I write — whether it’s a how-to article for using Microsoft Word or the opening paragraphs of a novel — makes me a better writer. So isn’t it better to have someone pay me for all that practice?

Writing for Money

The other day, I had a conversation with my friend, Pete. We were talking about the writing I do and he wanted to know how advances and royalties — he called them residuals — worked. I explained it. (I also explained it on this blog in “Royalty Statements.”) Pete said something like, “That sounds like a good deal. I’d like to write a book.”

I explained to him that it wasn’t such a sweet deal if your books were about timely topics and had short shelf lives — like mine. It isn’t as if every author can write Gone with the Wind and collect royalties for the rest of his or her life. But we did agree that it was nice to get quarterly checks.

I reported this conversation to my husband by saying something like this: “Pete wants to write a book. He likes the idea of royalty checks.”

“That’s stupid,” my husband replied. “That’s not the right reason to write a book.”


That, of course, almost started an argument. I asked him why he thinks I write books. I reminded him that writing about computers isn’t exactly the most engaging or creative thing a person could do. I asked him if he thought I’d keep writing computer books if no one would pay me to do it. At first, he didn’t get it. But then he did. And he wisely backed off.

A Conversation with a NaNoWriMo Participant

And that brings to me to a “conversation” I had with a fellow Twitter user yesterday. She was pushing NaNoWriMo, which I wrote about in “NaNoWriMo ‘€˜05” and “NaNoWriMo Expanded.” (If you follow those links, be sure to follow both of them for both sides of my opinion.) I followed a few of the links in her posts and was pretty turned off by what I found. Maybe it’s because I’m cynical and hard-minded about writing, probably because I’ve seen too many wannabes waste their time. So I tweeted:

Dare I ask it? Do any of the novels actually completed each November ever get published? Or am I missing the point?

The response came back immediately:

Yes, there is a whole list of published authors from NaNoWriMo on the site — €”will go fetch URL. I’m talking w/several agents now.:-)

Ok, the list of published NaNoWriMo authors is at: http://urltea.com/1y4e Scroll down on media kit page.

I looked at the list and found 17 novelists listed with their NaNoWriMo books. One of them was Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, which was hot last year. It was good to see something published, but I admit I wasn’t convinced that these were NaNoWriMo works. (I really am a cynic.) And, frankly, with hundreds of thousands of writers participating since 1999, 17 published works wasn’t a very impressive result.

Now you can rightly argue that publication isn’t everyone’s goal. To which I can argue that any idiot can type 50,000 words in a month. Publication is one of the true measures of the value of those words when taken as a whole. That’s the way I look at it, anyway.

But I tweeted back:

Thanks for this. I’ve written 70 books since 1990 but still don’t have a novel out there. One of these days…

Was I bragging? Probably. (I can be such a jerk sometimes.) But I’m proud of that number, proud to be a published and paid professional writer. And I want to make sure that people don’t confuse me with the wannabes. I’ve got my medals and war stories to prove I’m beyond that.

The response:

You’ve written SEVENTY BOOKS since 1990? :-O OMG, you could teach the rest of us! It sounds like your year to write that novel!

No, I couldn’t teach the rest of them. I’ve realized that I have a knack for what I do and that a “born writer” couldn’t learn it from me. And although I’d like to write that novel, I’m pretty busy this month.

I replied:

It sounds a lot more impressive than it is. I think NEXT year will be my novel year. Hold me to that, will you?

I was hoping she’d agree and remind me a few times next year. But instead, she replied:

Everyone says “next year will be my novel year.” That’s why THIS year is when we encourage you to Just Do It, ala Nike.;-)

And I think that’s what separates me from the NaNoWriMo crowd. “Just do it” isn’t a battle cry I apply to something as important as writing a novel. I know I can write 50,000 words in a month. I don’t need to prove it to myself. I’ve already proved it. I wrote my third book, which was 300 pages, in ten days. I routinely plow through revisions of 400+ page books in less than a month.

And yes, I realize that a novel is different. But how different is it? Start with an outline (like I do for all my books) and character notes and write the damn story. I was 100 pages into the novel I lost when my hard disk ground to a halt. I’d done all that in less than a week. But that wasn’t what was holding me back from taking the NanoWriMo challenge…

I replied:

It’s a lot easier to write a book when you know there’s a check (and an impatient editor) waiting for you when it’s done.

And that says all. I finish writing projects because I’m paid to.

Her reply:

Deadlines and a check are motivation to be sure. What I love about NaNo is rediscovering my inner motivation to just love writing.

I don’t think that being forced to write 50,000 words in a month is a good “inner motivation to just love writing.” But I didn’t say this. Instead, I said:

I think that’s what my blog does for me. Since losing a novel manuscript to a hard disk crash, it’s hard to get started again.

She replied:

Ooh, that’s every writer’s nightmare, a reminder to all of us to keep backing up our novels. I can understand why it’s hard then.

On the other hand, it might be fun for you to start a completely different novel and see where that goes.

Fun? Hmm. I’m not sure about that. Another thing holding me back is what I do at my desk all day: I write. Do you think I want to spend my evenings doing the same thing?

I will write that novel. But not not this month. Sometime when I have a clear head and no work stacked up on my plate. If that day ever comes.

Why Do You Write?

Are you a writer? Why do you write? What motivates you? Inspires you? I’m always looking for input from readers (and writers) as food for thought. Use the Comments link or form for this post.

And if you’ve ever participated in NaNoWriMo, I’d love to hear your honest feedback about it. Did you achieve your goal? Did it provide “inner motivation”? Would you do it again? My Twitter friend showed me another side of the NaNoWriMo scene. What do you have to add? Comments are always welcome.

4 thoughts on “Why Writers Write

  1. I agree, very much with what you’ve written. I have not written a single novel. I have usually been paid to write though. As you say, being paid to write is relatively common to various professions and as there’s a limited market for theatre reviews, it is usually on the duller topics that people are rewarded with actual money.

    At the same time, I also think that having a writing bug, that is, an urge to write for artistic reasons, isn’t precluded by also for example, writing on the financial markets.

    I think it’s about finding a balance between the two so that one has still sufficient energy and perspective after the day-job, to focus on the creative side of writing. I agree that the tools and discipline are fundamentally the same but I think there is a different mental and emotional position that pressures of time constrains, retards, is more difficult to reach at 11pm as opposed to 11am. I don’t think this is a personal excuse but just a practical observation; there is no such thing as permanently switched on writing ability and personally I don’t want to labour for three hours at night writing poorly when I know that in three hours in the morning I’ll write better quality text and so get more pleasure from it. That after all, is why writers write, not just because they feel impelled but because it gives them a kick nothing else matches.

  2. I don’t know why I write, and I’m afraid to analyse it. Too many times I’ve taken aspects of my life apart and each time it worked out badly. So I leave well alone this essential bit of myself. Best that way. A cure isn’t necessary.

    I’m the born writer type, I guess. Time has proven that. Been writing forever. It fatigues and worries me to think about it.

    I’ve always been too idle to be a pro. I realise that now. Though it took me a while. I’m too idle to revise, you see. And revision is what makes a pro writer. Revision is writing. In fact all pros should be renamed ‘revisers’. That would be closer to the truth of them.

    For me, writing is a must, and no amateur cliché present. My thoughts must be put to paper else they stay inside my head and I become neurotic and sleep sporadically. I’m sensitive that way.

    I’ve left the wannabe stage years past and I couldn’t be arsed any more. If I want to write well, I can. Or possibly I know how to. The need to justify myself is gone.

    I concern myself though about these young beginner writers, wannabes. Clearly most of them have no talent and they’re too dumb or blinded to see this and life is tough enough already without having to fight yourself too. They need guidance and to be told this.

    Writing is writing is writing. That’s what it is to me. And that’s why I do it. Good or bad. And that suits me just fine.

  3. Though I don’t consider my self a good writer but I use to write on different topics, that come into my mind throgh my observation and circumentences. what I known with my self observation is that, writers are able to articulate ideas with incomparable eloquence while those around them struggle to utter a single word. However, people simply assume that these writers come by these words easily. Truly, this statement could hardly be further from the truth. If anything, communication is an even more complex task for writers than it is for anyone else.

What do you think?