Don't Write For The Wrong Reasons

Don't Write For The Wrong Reasons

I can't even count the number of times I've heard folks talk about publishing a book like it was something to scratch off their list. Writing's end game is not a book on the shelf with your name on it. It's a lifelong endeavor that requires something of you. We may all differ in how we write, and what we write, and when we write it, but if you've created a blog so that you can gain a following so that you can get a book contract, you are not a writer. You're a marketer.

I tell all my clients to read On Writing Well by William Zinsser. In the article below he gives sound advice to writers. In his book, he coaches you into the art of writing well. 


Depressingly often I hear from people who are stalled on a piece of writing for reasons that have nothing to do with actual writing. They are snarled in the machinery of trying to market what they write. Here are three typical recent examples.

A woman I’ll call Ravi, now in her 30s, came from Ohio to see me in a state of paralyzing indecision. She had grown up in India and had been a journalist there. Now, settled in America with her husband and two children, she met and came to admire an older woman, Mrs. X, who founded various humanitarian projects abroad. Ravi wrote and sold articles about three of those projects, and it occurred to her, as it does to all free-lancers who have invested time in a subject, to write more pieces about Mrs. X and publish them all as a book.

But as she proceeded she began to feel a strong tug to write about her girlhood in India and thereby try to understand the despotic father who derided her own ambitions. Her agent told her to stick with Mrs. X, but after a few months she found herself immobilized. That’s when she came to see me.

When Ravi described Mrs. X’s projects she sounded like a journalist. But when she began talking about her complicated girlhood she sounded like a daughter. Hearing that shift in the emotional weight of her voice, I told her that India was her true subject. The book about Mrs. X was somebody else’s story; any competent journalist could write it.

Then she spoke the killer sentence: “My agent says that if I publish my book about Mrs. X, it will give me the credential I need to find a publisher for my book about India.”

That’s not a good reason for writing a book. It’s a marketing reason, not a writer’s reason. It’s also not necessarily true. Ravi’s book would take two years of her life to research and complete, and even then it might not have enough variety; the chapters could begin to sound alike. But agents can’t afford such thoughts; their eye is on the contract, not on the writer. Of course Ravi’s India memoir also might not get published, but she would be fully alive while writing it. She would grow as a writer and as a person.

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