The Goal of a Writer

Seth GodinI recently asked Seth Godin why he wrote Stop Stealing Dreams, an eBook on the problems with the educational system.

I wanted to know his intention — what drove him to write it — and why he decided to give the book away for free.

Here’s what he said:

One of the goals of the writer is to strike a chord. Usually, you guess. You have no idea if the topic is ripe, if the audience is ready.

This time, I didn’t have to guess, because my readers told me that this was a vitally important topic and they wanted to be provoked.

It was a privilege to provoke them.

The ease of publication makes it far more likely that more authors will get the same chance.

With the manifesto having been downloaded over 500,000 times, Seth clearly struck a chord with his audience. (For example, see this review or this one.)

This is why we love Seth — he provokes us. Compels us to think differently. Whether we agree with him or not, we keep coming back for more.

The nobility of being provocative

This is the mark of a great communicator — he makes you think. Causes you to doubt. It’s why we care about and spread important messages, even if we disagree with them.

Great writers know this. They understand the nobility of being provocative — they’re masters of it. They force us out of our comfort zones so we can see something old with new eyes.

And in the end, we’re better for it.

Take a stance (any stance)

I recently wrote a post about the future of writing. People either loved or hated it. Several bloggers posted strong reactions on their blogs — some in favor and others in vehement opposition. I’m elated with both.

Because my goal wasn’t to be right. It was to make you think. Mission accomplished.

The goal here isn’t to merely be contentious for the sake of being contentious. Rather, it’s to be bold. To take a stance. And if we’re wrong, to humbly admit it and learn from the failure.

What I’m trying to get you to do is avoid being safe. There’s no life in that kind of art.

So what’s your goal as a writer?

Is it to pander and placate? To not make anyone angry? Maintain the status quo and keep everyone happy?

That’s not enough (not to mention, impossible). We need you — and your words.

To upset us.
Incite us.
Provoke us.

(I hope you will.)

Don’t forget to grab Seth’s eBook Stop Stealing Dreams. It’s free here.

What do you think the goal of a writer is? Share in the comments.

73 thoughts on “The Goal of a Writer

  1. Great post Jeff! Really struck a chord! I’ve always felt why sharing my writing if it doesn’t provoke thought and I don’t mean it has to make people think deeply, or change their ideas, just simply think .  A thought can be in the realisation of written humour that provokes a laugh, it can be in the extreme of making someone think differently about something and completely change their ideas, or it could be simply the thought that “this writers just plain stupid or nuts!”

    That’s why I write but more importantly that’s why I read!

  2. Jeff, I started out provoking, but with a poor attitude. Then I backed off. Now I’m getting back to it, but I’m trying to do so with a “smile on my face”. Hopefully that will work out better.

    1. love your humility, Larry. this is what I call “being contentious for the sake of being contentious.” It doesn’t work and feels disingenuous. The best thing to do is be yourself and be okay with that.

  3. I loved the blog. My question is, “Is there a difference between provocation and challenge?” Provoke seems to have more of an nasty edge to it. I think it is easy to be controversial in an “I have the answers and you are stupid” kind of way. The trick is to come along side of people as a searcher and present new ideas that can actually be swallowed. Provocation may incite reaction, but if we actually want to make any kind of difference in the communication of our ideas, its more productive to bring more people on board. That’s a real trick. 

    1. I definitely think there’s a difference. You shouldn’t aim to be intentionally provocative (at least, not often); instead, you should seek to make a difference. However, sometimes the best way to do that is to offer a strong challenge.

  4. Jeff, I had another couple of thoughts on this. But the first is that writers need to be true to themselves as persons. If writing is an art of self-expression (is it?) then is being provocative really a great goal for someone who isn’t particularly provocative? What do you think?

    1.  Gharris, I believe if you’re being yourself, that will create friction (because not everyone is like you). The goal isn’t to be provocative; it’s to be true. But in doing that (and doing it boldly), you will provoke people. It’s inevitable. We shouldn’t avoid this, but embrace it.

  5. “My goal isn’t to be right.” That was good. But that mindset, also requires both confidence and humility. Good stuff!

  6. My husband has preached a few sermons, being a certified lay speaker in our church. He commented one day that he didn’t really like it when people complimented him on such a great sermon. He said, “If I didn’t make someone uncomfortable, I don’t think I’ve done my job.”

  7. This is also a message to the writer to take the restraints off. Stop holding back in fear that you might offend somebody – shedding the safety belt is the only way your voice will come through.

    It also helps if you read… a lot.

  8. I think the goal of a writer may depend on his/her eternal perspective.

    My goal is to bring honor and glory to God.  Everything else is gravy.

  9. Not every writer will have the same goal. My goal is summed up best in my tag line “Refreshing Spirits, Nourishing Souls”. But I guess that even has a certain inciting and stirring up quality — I want readers to be moved in some way.

  10. I write to entertain, and to make people laugh.  I think humor is a great way to provoke or incite, without stirring up the anger that makes people defensive.  Good stuff Jeff, looking forward to meeting you at Killer Tribes.  

  11. I agree to a point. It seems to me that the ultimate goal of “provocative writing” (that which might go against reader’s presuppositions or assumptions) is actually to persuade. As persuasion is not possible without engaging thinking, making readers think is a means to a larger end. As Kipling said, “If you can think and not make thoughts your aim…”

  12. My goal is to make people think much more deeply about causes I am passionate about, about characteristics of the human race I am intrigued by, about THEMSELVES much more deeply than they have previously dared to do!  I sneak up on them with funny critters and fantasy situations–then BAM, I’ve got them thinking!

  13. I’ve become more open about my opinions and it has definitely helped my writing and my blog.  There’s something about sharing your truest feelings and intentions that resonates with readers even if they disagree.  My latest post is going to be a mixed bag I’m sure!
    Great advice as always Jeff!

  14. I’m a truth-teller. I tell it like I see it. Not everyone does or should agree with me, but I like to challenge the status-quo and make people examine why they think they way they do – and act on that change. Which, I’ve found, is a nice ideal but not an often rewarded one.

  15. I feel the goal of a writer can vary.

    It may be to challenge our thoughts and notions.  It can also be to encourage and uplift others. Or it could be to teach.

    I know I write to teach and challenge others to become better leaders and have better relationships.

  16. I see writing as just a subset of communication – whether it’s speaking, video, podcasts, etc. The goal, for me, is to change people. Not just entertain or educate – but really change from the inside out.

  17. Many of the books out there are written soley for escapism purposes, and therefore don’t provoke much thought. They’re comfort books. And sometimes, that’s all the reader wants. I think there are writers filling that niche.

    But books that CHANGE the way you think? I love those books. And I follow those blogs. Right now, I’m reading Agent 6 by Tom Rob Smith, and if you haven’t thought about Communism much, that’s a great place to start.

    Anyway, I find the best books to be engaging, even comforting in places, but thought-provoking as well.

    Good post! Tweeting this!

  18. The goal is to be heard, to make a difference.  

    Even the greatest writers and trend-setters out there have loads of critics and  negative feedback.  The only way to make sure no one ever says anything bad about you and your art is to do absolutely nothing and never put yourself out there.  Just gag yourself,  crawl in a hole, and die.Not an appealing option for me. 

  19. Thanks for reminding me again the importance of provoking questions, and sharpening me again. You have no idea how much you’ve potentially impacted my first e-book. Thanks Jeff.

  20.  While I can agree with what everyone else has said about why I write, I’m also going to quote your manifesto: I do it because I cannot NOT write.
    (printed out a part of the manifesto and its on my office wall)

    Today is my scheduled writing day – I take a whole day during my busy work week to write posts, research ones for my business blog, read other blog posts, connect with other bloggers and later this afternoon, I’ll go to my writing class.

    Some weeks, my writing day frustrates me and other times, its the best day of my week. Guess the feelings mean that some change is happening in me and my writing. (quoting Jeff again) “real writers wake up every morning with something to say, even if the words have yet to come.”

  21.  While I can agree with what everyone else has said about why I write, I’m also going to quote your manifesto: I do it because I cannot NOT write.
    (printed out a part of the manifesto and its on my office wall)

    Today is my scheduled writing day – I take a whole day during my busy work week to write posts, research ones for my business blog, read other blog posts, connect with other bloggers and later this afternoon, I’ll go to my writing class.

    Some weeks, my writing day frustrates me and other times, its the best day of my week. Guess the feelings mean that some change is happening in me and my writing. (quoting Jeff again) “real writers wake up every morning with something to say, even if the words have yet to come.”

  22. Well said. My goal has always been to express the ideas in my head and make people think, and to hopefully change some minds.

    Notice I used the word “ideas” and not opinions.

    Ideas transform and create things, opinions just feed your insecure ego. What I hope is that we transition into a culture that nurtures good ideas that benefit everyone, instead on a culture that wants to tell you how right one opinion is over another.

  23. I think the blog is still new enough that it might not be equated with hard writing at this point.  When I was first introduced to it, I was told it was like an online diary that you write your entries in to share with friends and and family.  Personally, I very careful what I share with my family especially, so I have never found it to be a very useful genre for me. 

    Its going to become more useful as people take a chance and try things that are not daily diary entries now that its normal to find articles that were usually found in magazines to be found here, not just how the kids are doing, as this takes the place of things in print.

  24. My goal as a writer is to open people’s eyes about their work. My goal is to write about things that they are struggling with related to their work and help them through those things.

    As a writer in general our goal is to help people, to tell a story that needs to be told, to vent, to open others eyes, to encourage, to motivate, to make people laugh and cry, to make them scream and shout.

  25. To merely provoke is dangerous, Jeff. Would you be satisfied to provoke me to cowardice, injustice, folly, indifference, and hate?

    To provoke us to deeper insight about ourselves and ourselves in this world – that would be a better mission.

    To provoke us to love – now that would be something!

    Choose your words carefully, my friend. For provocations are powerful incantations, indeed.

  26. In the 1970’s, each person was exposed to an average of 350 messages per day. By the year 2000, that number jumped to 3,000 and has climbed significantly since then. In the midst of all that noise, your written word is refreshing, encouraging and yes, provocative. Thank you Jeff! You have a gift and I’m grateful you’re utilizing it to make a difference!

  27. Some one once said I was a ‘salve to their conscience’. Later I reflected that actually I want to be a ‘prick to their conscience’. 

    People have tried to form me into their moulds,  thanks for the invitation to not write safely. 

  28. Great thoughts Jeff. I agree that a big part of writing is getting people to engage in thinking. I wrote a post the other day about Christianity and capitalism that I knew some people might not like, but I wrote it to engage with people about a topic. So we can all examine how we think about a topic and why. You can read it here: 

  29. “…so we can see something old with new eyes” reminds me of a quote by Samuel Johnson: The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar, and familiar things new. (That may or may not be verbatim.)

  30. I’ve only been reading your blog for a little while. This is the best one yet. I’ve read all the posts for this entry so far. A number of valid points were raised and they all depend on the person’s point of view. My natural style is provocative in conversation, presentation and belief. Why? As you can imagine I’ve faced a lot of  challenges over my questioning attitude. I asked myself this a long time ago “Will we think if we aren’t challenged?” Unfortunately the answer I found was “No”.  To you and to Seth… Keep challenging the common thought, there is no challenge or message in being common. 

    Thank you for writing.

  31. Hi Jeff,

    Interesting thoughts here.  I heard Malcolm Gladwell say the other day, as a writer he considers himself a “conversation starter”.  His goal is to get people talking about things they may otherwise not.

    I was pondering exactly how a commoner like myself would go about doing the same.  Taking a stance sounds like a great place to start.

    Good piece – thanks.


  32. Writing is not only a beautiful artform for your soul and the greatest expression of absolute freedom…Thus, my goal is to allow my craft to be challenged paving its way to permeate one heart @ a time. And I treat reading like a given…as a  gift!

  33. My goal, as a writer, is to not go crazy with all the thoughts that are running through my head.  Dumping them on paper allows me to actually concentrate on the task at hand.  I often asked myself that question, in a different form:  “Why do I write?”  And the answer, most often, was, “Because I can’t NOT write.”

  34. Writing is a beautiful artform. For me, its beauty transcends the elements of prose & poetry and music. It permeates the heart to arduous inklings and be enamored into deep thinking ; then, that would be my goal—affect one soul @ a time. Reading other’s work of art is a privilege and a gift to learn their craft.

  35. My goal on my blog is to sow into the lives of the people who read it, to share that a Christ centered life can be a “real” life and to focus on things that glorify God. I have a very small following….lol. It is what I am passionate about and I cannot disobey by stopping. So I don’t know if my readers )all 100 of them, will be challenged, but I am. 😀 

  36. Well said. I started writing by accident and it’s turned into a labor of love for me. My journey so far hasn’t always been a “bowl of cheerios”, but it is still fun nonetheless. I write for me and my position on what drives me and what gets on my nerves. When a writer gives it to me straight I get to see the real person behind the post and what drives them. To me, that’s priceless and that’s writing at its core. Raw, real and honest. It don’t get better than that. 

  37. Almost sounds like a person would get more readers and more attention writing about what they feel is important, instead of writing what they think will sell.  Strike the hot iron!

  38. My writing is to educate the public.  Ignorance, lack of knowledge, and the refusal to accept change.

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