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The Purpose of Writing

Writers, in general, exalt in self-aggrandizing nonsense. Every day a barrage of tweets, blogs, and articles go up about how lovely it is to be a writer, how terrible it is to be a writer, and how much we all suffer for The Craft. Here are a few excerpts from around the Interwebs.

"[The point of being a writer] is to write. To sit in the quiet hours of the day and have an entire world come to life in your head and flow, however imperfectly, onto the page. The point is to embrace your unique talents and experience and create something that no one else in the entire world could create."
"[You] write because you have to. Need is the best form of discipline. The page doesn't need us. It never has and never will. But need keeps coming. It's an engine that drives and drives and drives. It has its own will."
"[Living] the life of a writer is not for the faint of heart....What most people see is just the end result. They see the book signings and the accolades and the money and the fame....They don't see the struggle. And the truth is they probably don't want to. And even though writing and living a creative life is incredibly rewarding, the end reward isn't why writers write. Writers write because they have to."

And this, Dear Reader, is why most books suck.

I would estimate that 99% of the books in existence are flat-out terrible. (I'm including the unpublished ones and, unfortunately, I now count Bubbles Pop as one of them.) And it's because 99% of writers don't understand the purpose of writing.

The purpose of writing is not to bask in your own cleverness. The purpose of writing is not to feed The Muse or respond to The Calling. The purpose of writing is not to "create something from nothing" and pat yourself on the back because that once blank Word document is now a whole 500 KB of purple prose.

The purpose of writing is to communicate. Period.

You want to sit in the quiet hours of the day and have an entire world come to life? You want to escape reality and feel liberated and important? You don't have to write to do it. You can just lie in bed all morning sipping Earl Grey and daydreaming. Or play make-believe with your kids. Or go down to your local niche gaming store for a lively round of Dungeons and Dragons.

You write to communicate with other people. And as long as you cling to the rosy drivel that writers write for their own fulfillment, it is very difficult to communicate well.

I used to write whatever and however I wanted. I wrote what sounded good to me, what made me feel warm and fuzzy when I read it over again. I never thought about how people who aren't me would read it. If the question flitted across my mind, I would brush it away. Will people understand it? Will people feel the same way I do about it? Doesn't matter. It's their fault if they're too stupid to appreciate my brilliance. I'm a poor misunderstood genius. It's so lonely at the top.

But then I realized how pointless it is to write "brilliant" prose that no one will understand. If you spend months or years writing books that no one will read because they're abstruse and draggy, that time was essentially devoted to daydreaming. You might as well have spent it playing Dungeons and Dragons.

I'm not saying you have to chase commercial success to make your efforts worthwhile. You don't have to enslave yourself to the conventions of genre and churn out canned fluff to please the masses. Don't worry about whether people will like your work. But it is absolutely essential to think about how they will read your work.

Here are the sort of questions that go through my mind as I write these days:

"If I switch perspectives here, will it make readers stop to think? Will it break the flow? Do I want it to break the flow?"

"Will this simile illustrate my point effectively, or is it just poetic clutter?"

"Would most members of my audience be familiar with this reference to a brand/acronym/song/historical event? Is there a sneaky way to clarify for those who aren't?"

"If I use a pronoun here, is it clear which character I'm talking about?"

"Will this scene have the emotional impact I want? Should I slow or quicken the pace? Plant the seeds in an earlier chapter?"

And so on. Some writers might say that if they worry about readers, they'll get so wrapped up in minutiae that they'll never finish anything. They'll end up polishing Chapter One forever. Okay—so ignore your audience and write a horrible first draft. Get all of your ideas out of your head, where they seem so perfect and brilliant. Then wait a while and read the result, or ask strangers to read it and respond. This will quickly dispel any notions that you're the reincarnation of Leo Tolstoy.

Now start over. And this time, remember that you're not writing for yourself. You get manicures and massages for yourself. You write for other people—to communicate your ideas and your emotions by wielding all of the literary weapons at your disposal.

I blame English teachers for perpetuating the idea that writing is all about me-me-me. All of my English classes from sixth grade through college had one common course objective: to coo over how ingenious the Great Dead Writers were. My teachers rarely explained how they were ingenious—what approaches they took and why they worked—they just established that these Greats were ingenious and only illiterate fools would say otherwise. If we talked about books in depth, it was all about their content and the social context in which they were written, never technique.

So it's not surprising that budding writers grow up with the impression that the number one qualifier of good writing is "to be ingenious." And since, frankly, most of the classics K-12 students are forced to read confuse and bore them, they also internalize that the least important qualifiers of good writing are to be accessible and interesting. In fact, the fewer people who can understand a book, and the more people who complain about how tedious it is to read, the more ingenious that book must be.

Writers, cast off the ghosts of grumpy English teachers past. Writing without caring how your words will be read is like cooking without caring how the food will taste. Sure, you can do it just to gloat over your beautiful dishes and feel like Martha Stewart, but don't expect anyone to come to your dinner parties.


Tina (November 21, 2013, 5:22 pm)

OMG! You are brave!

Caroline (November 22, 2013, 10:02 am)

Why hasnt anyone else commented on this? It's REALLY IMPORTANT. And quite RIGHT. Thanks so much for saying it. (and I'm so happy to have stumbled on this blog).

Thanks for writing this!

Thanks for writing this!

Thanks for writing this!


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