Writing for the Wrong Reasons


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.

The other day–example number two–I ran into a friend I’ll call Melanie. A respected horticulturist, she has published three successful books and she also lectures widely; she’s not a supplicant begging for crumbs at the temple door. When I asked what she was working on, she said, “I’m writing one book for love and one book for money.” Another terrible sentence. She said she could only afford to write the book she has always wanted to write–a nontraditional book about edible plants–if she wrote the big-money book on how to grow orchids in the home.

“But there’s no joy in it,” she told me. “The publisher laid out the template in advance, and they’re always after me to add more words than I need to explain what the reader requires. They’ll call and say, ‘You only sent us 200 words and we need 600 to 800, so please send us at least another page.’” Melanie is a fierce enemy of avoidable sludge; her style is simple and strong. Now, lashed to her computer like a galley slave, she says, “I keep coming up with longer ways to say something–little clauses that don’t really mean anything.” That’s also not a good reason for writing a book. It’s a designer’s reason, nothing less than writer abuse. And reader abuse.

Of course I know that writers, like everyone else, have to pay the bills. But I believe that blind subservience to an imagined final product is harmful to body and soul and is also often unnecessary. A few weeks ago–example number three–a young woman from California came to see me. She, too, isn’t a novice; she has been a magazine editor and she writes a likable column in a local paper. She arrived in a state of high anxiety over an interview the next day and wanted advice on how to prepare for it.

Who was this mighty personage she was about to confront? It was an agent. She hoped to persuade him to take her on as a client. Would she be found worthy? To her it was obviously a boss-and-servant relationship. She was amazed when I told her that the agent was her servant and she was the person in charge. She was the creator of the product that he needed to pay his own bills. I gave her permission to believe in herself, and she left looking like what she was–a bright and confident woman ready to move the world.

Please! Try not to acquiesce too quickly in projects that you know aren’t right for who you are. Think about other financial solutions that will free you to focus on the primary task of becoming a writer. Give more thought to the longer trajectory of your life. Your most important work-in-progress is not the story you’re working on now. Your most important work-in-progress is you.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

William Zinsser, who died in 2015, was the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well, and a columnist for the Scholar website.


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