The Wrong Reasons to Write

I used to think writing was about stringing together smart sounding words to impress, and maybe confuse, the reader. I was wrong but not for the reasons you might expect.

Calvin and Hobbes Cartoon
Image courtesy of Bill Watterson. Pin this.

I wasn’t writing to express or communicate. I was doing it for all the wrong reasons.

Yes. Believe it or not, there are noble reasons and not-so-noble reasons to write. And I would encourage you to make the former your motivation for pursuing the craft.

So how can you tell which is which?

The wrong reasons to write

First, let’s look at the wrong reasons people write:

  • You want to be heard.
  • You want to be famous, to make a name for yourself.
  • You want to impress people with big words and sound smart.
  • You want to make a ton of money.

Why are those bad reasons to write?

Because sometimes, nobody will listen.

Because when you’re just getting started, you won’t have made a name for yourself. So what will sustain the work on those days when nobody shows up? It better not be the accolades and awards (you won’t have any of those yet).

Because you may never be considered an expert. So what will drive you then? If nobody approves, then why in the world will you face the blank page?

And because, well, don’t get me started on the money. Suffice it to say that most professional writers have to get creative about how they make a buck.

The question, then, is worth asking: is it still worth your time to write? You bet.

The right reasons to write

Now, let’s tackle some better reasons to put pen to paper:

  • You have something important to say.
  • You want to make others feel understood, like they’re not alone.
  • You want to make a difference with your words.
  • You want to teach the world something it wouldn’t otherwise know.

But, you might be wondering, do you really need a reason to write? Yes, I think you do. Which brings me to my final point:

Because you can’t not do it. That’s the only reason to do anything, especially writing. Because you’re called to do it.

Pardon the double negative, but this is what makes a writer: that compulsion, that drive to do what you can’t stop doing.

There’s a reason why many artists historically tend to be bipolar and often have a streak of crazy in them. That same thing that makes you obsess over an insignificant detail in life is what makes for a stroke of genius.

If you can’t quite explain it, this need to create, but just know that you have to do it, you feel compelled, then this just might be your calling.

And if you aren’t sure, that’s okay. Lots of people write for lots of different reasons. Maybe you happen to be one of the rare, sane ones. I just want to challenge you to think less in terms of what you get and more in terms of what you can give.

That’s what the work of an artist is about.

Three questions to consider

So as you tackle your work today, if you so endeavor to write, here are three questions to consider:

  1. What if instead of making it about you, you focused on others?
  2. What if you made the reader the hero, helping her feel understood in a way that she’s never felt before?
  3. What if instead of focusing on the bottom line, you paid attention to impact?

Well, then… you just might be a writer, after all.

What are some more wrong reasons to write? Share in the comments.

99 thoughts on “The Wrong Reasons to Write

  1. Great post, Jeff!
    I feel like to a true writer, writing isn’t a choice. It’s a compulsion. I don’t write so I can get published and earn money – in fact, I wonder if I ever want to be published at all. I write so that I can get my feelings and thoughts out on paper, so that I can understand myself better. 🙂

    1. That’s how I feel about performing. It’s hard to NOT do the thing you love. Maybe it’s a warped sense of addiction, but dangit, it’s something that compels me to be ME in every moment I get to do it.

  2. I have a question after reading this post, maybe you guys can help. I agree that writing is a compulsion, it certainly is for me. I tend to write fiction. But I keep seeing that nonfiction is where the ‘money’ is, which I can understand. Trouble is, I don’t feel like I’m an expert in anything. I didn’t really have a topic. Then, in the last few months, I stopped working at one of the big banks. They’re still going through a restructure. They are still in the news. It doesn’t matter which one it is. I figured that maybe I had a book in me talking about that bank, my former employer. I setup a blog, and started planning out some posts. Then they wrote to me and threatened to sue me. Great start, lots of exposure. But what would you do? My friends (in banking) say I should walk away, but the writer in me thinks this is just getting good. Nothing will sell my book better than a good court case. But do I really need the stress? Probably not. Interested in what people think.

    1. I’m just an eighteen-year-old kid, so I don’t know if my opinion can help you. But I’m the sort of person who plays it safe. Unless you think you can cope with the consequences, walk away.
      Otherwise, go for it! Sounds like you – and your thoughts – need to be heard. 🙂

      1. Thanks. I certainly wouldn’t ignore the thoughts of an 18 year-old woman. Hell, you’re an adult now! Be vocal 🙂

        My head tells me to walk away, and that is the easy option, but what better way to launch a writing career, and think of the possible earnings from a headline-grabbing book! These are not easy choices…

    2. Hi P.C. I encourage you to think more long-term. Were you to become known as a banking writer, then what? And unless you’re deeply experienced in lawsuits and publicity, there’s a high probability you would lose money as well as your credibility. Think of books as brochures. Very few writers make money from book sales (even bestselling writers). Many make their living speaking, teaching and/or consulting. So your book becomes a means to drive demand and value for you and your expertise. Books are means, not ends. Define your end, then align your books in harmony with that. I’m pulling for you!

      1. Keith, your reply hit its target. One reason for widening myself out to nonfiction is to make a new living at it. I’m so tired of the big corporates, and what to try something like Jeff, which in turn is a bit like David Scott, Brogan, Jonathan Fields, Guillebeau and so on. It seems like a nice life. Not an easy one, but a rewarding one. And Altucher too, he stands out for me. I had a similar thought to the one you put up, which is: if this book gets a publishing deal, I’m actually going to have to do interviews and so on about this company. Hell, the reason I left was I was sick of the place. The thought of writing in depth about it, and then appearing in public talking about them for a year or so, fills me with dread. So your post has helped. I’m going off to find a new nonfiction seam to mine, not in banking or finance!

    3. My opinion is that you need to find the reason you want to write this book.

      Questions you may like to ask , “Will it help other people for the better?”

      Is it something so critical and life-changing that if you the reader reads it, it will change and blow their mind away and give them a call-to-action?

      Good exposure is one thing, but how long will that effect on someone last, will it last to tell their story their co-workers, family, friends, children, or just get a good start and then fizzle out in a few days time?

      Maybe you can re look at angle you’re telling the story from the place you used to work at, and what life skills you may bring to help others? 🙂

      just some thoughts.

      1. Thanks for taking the time to post. I have learned a few things since the bank wrote to me last week. One thing is that there is a second book coming out (I already knew about one, a year or two back) in June, i.e. next month! So my book would be the third in a potentially long line of books. This is a huge story here, and these books are being written by ‘proper’ financial writers, which I’m not. Although, any journalist will tell you not to walk away from a strong story, and it seems my own account may be a stronger story than even I had realised, to get this reaction from a huge international bank. I am genuinely conflicted!

  3. Thought-provoking post. I know I certainly fall into “the wrong reasons to write” category often. I guess there’s something about being human that leads us down the wrong path often, and it usually takes a whole lot of work to stay on the “right” path. Thanks, again, for the reminder.

  4. This is a prime example why I enjoy your posts Jeff. You always make your readers think. My motivation for writing is to make a difference. Would I like to make money off my writing? Sure, but it’s not why I write.

    1. I think that’s healthy, Scott. Nothing wrong or evil with wanting to do it professionally or for compensation. It’s just not enough to sustain you when the money isn’t there (because sometimes, maybe often, it isn’t).

  5. I think a reason to write is to make connections. First, there is the obvious connection between writer and reader. Then the writing may be able to prompt the reader to connect with someone in their community for the help they need or to help someone else in need. For the Christian writer, the ultimate hoped for connection is between the reader and God.

    1. Beautifully said, Janice. You get it! Writing is an act of connection, not expression. What makes Jeff’s writing so powerful is not how well he expresses himself. It’s how well he connects ideas with people and people with ideas.

  6. Hey Jeff! I’m sure you didn’t mean anything negative or disparaging by including the following comment in your article, “There’s a reason why many artists historically tend to be bipolar and often have a streak of crazy in them.” However, although there are many well-known artists, musicians, writers both past and present who are eccentric and may struggle with various forms of depression and/or mental illness etc., but there are also a lot of well-known artists, musicians and writers who do not fit that mold. I’m not sure that playing into that stereotype is a positive thing. You linked to a wikipedia article which also gives a pretty incomplete picture of the subject. I work with and teach hundreds of very talented and “artsy” kids every year. Some would fit your stereotype, but many others would not. All of them get weary of being pigeonholed into society’s image of an artist. Just like every other profession or calling, there are all sorts of personality types and individuals who are artististic. I often tell people that just because you are artistic doesn’t mean you have to be “weird” and just because you are “weird” doesn’t mean you are artistic.” At any rate, I think, like always, it is best not to paint broad stereotypical strokes about any group of people and to make sure we use good source material when sending our readers to read further on such an important topic. Again, I’m sure you didn’t mean anything negative by it…but because of what I do for a living, I felt I needed to say something.

      1. Thank you for the link to that article, it was so interesting and made me feel quite normal. I never admit to people why I love writing because I worry it sounds crazy. The more control I have over my characters and their world the less control I need over mine. This article echoes that. It seems my mental instabilities may have been a blessing. Then again if I were more sane then maybe I’d not have pursued writing in the first place and would be satisfied with a stable job and finances to suit. Thanks for the blog post too, it was refreshing and pulled my head from the clouds for a short while at least.

  7. I write because I want to share and connect and hopefully help someone realize that they are not the only ones who have been through “it” and there are people that understand. I started my blog to share stories of my life, but also to relate because I think peoples lives are so similar that we don’t even see the resemblance until it is written down. There are so many people who want to connect and don’t know how and writing has created a bridge for me to share and let people know that “hey, I went through that too,” and its not about me, its about sharing me so they can get comfort in knowing they are not walking through this life as the only person who has ever been there. I just simply love sharing my life, transparency makes all the difference.

  8. Because I can’t not do it. Absolutely true and my number one reason for writing.

    I have three blogs, the two more important being one for my freelance writing business and one for my personal essays. But what I hope for through both is to add value to someone’s life.

    Do people really start writing because they believe it will make them a ton of money? 😉

  9. Excellent. An added reason to write is that for some people, writing is like breathing. One clarifies and even formulates their thoughts through writing.

  10. Wanting to be heard and having something important to say… That’s a fine line. For me. Still finding my voice. Writing is truly an art.

  11. Great post Jeff. I think like most people mine is a mix of both good and bad reasons to write. In the end thankfully it is mostly the right reasons. Thanks for the reminder Jeff.

  12. Thanks for this! Well and much needed. I’ve been convicted of NOT writing…and now I see it’s been because of thinking of the wrong reasons to do so. I’ve been looking for my lost “creativity”, my savvy way of connecting words to creatively express a concept. But as you said…”I wasn’t writing to express or communicate”, which has been a sole challenge of mine lately. Duh, lol. I thought my right reason was to rhyme and express creativity. But I will begin just by expressing my thoughts, as if they weren’t creative and complex enough.

    A friend called me about a week ago, to “bless” me out about not writing. He said….”you Are a Writer”….and that should be (may be not ALL), but exactly WHAT you should be doing! And I will.

    Thanks for this forum.

  13. In truth, these are the reasons to do anything of substance, not just writing. If we all operated from a place of service (not servitude), if we focused on helping, rather than collecting points for some scorecard that exists only in our minds, we’d be part of an incredibly rich tapestry of life.

  14. Truly hits home! I’ve been very guilty of trying to decree my manifesto for single women and getting them to flock to me for my sage advice rather than reaching out and asking: What are you looking for? It boils down to which I consider more important: genuinely helping someone who is in pain or making myself feel important with my grand-standing and philosophies. The timing of reading this along with where I’ve been coming to in my mind….could not be MORE TELLING! You write from the heart and it SO SHOWS! Great points and you truly are a great example to anyone aspiring to making a difference with what they write for others. Thank you for your work!

    1. oh my word I could have written this….”I’ve been very guilty of trying to decree my manifesto for single women and getting them to flock to me for my sage advice rather than reaching out and asking: What are you looking for? It boils down to which I consider more important: genuinely helping someone who is in pain or making myself feel important with my grand-standing and philosophies. ” Man, does that sound like me. I’m looking for the flocking and the following rather than the reaching out. Thank you for writing this and being open and sharing from the heart yourself. I appreciate your words as they spoke right to me!

      1. You’re welcome. You’re sweet to say it. Jeff is so on point with what he is saying here and the more I get off my high horse and get more genuine with others, the more doors seem to be opening. Not only with opportunities but just in my thinking in general which ultimately turns on the creativity….I don’t feel like the well is quite as dry any more! 🙂

  15. Calling is the key word here! I haven’t understood my desire to write until hearing it put that way. I get embarrassed when people read my work, and in the end it is possible it will be shoved in a box under the bed. But, the reason for the longing in my fingers and the words swirling in my head is because I’m called to write. Thank you for your inspiration.

  16. For me its not about sounding smart but more about not sounding stupid. My grammer isn’t the strongest, so i obsess. I don’t want my work to be unreadable.

    1. I’m an editor at heart- I LOVE to edit, and have a good grasp of English and grammar. If you ever want a proofreader so that you will feel encouraged to put your stuff “out there” for others to read, I’m your gal. Interested? Email me at bcoulton (at) msn (dot) com.

  17. Have you been inside my head, listening to my internal (aka “eternal”) conversation, and that’s why you decided to write this…to help me feel understood and not so alone? Why, I thought so! Thanks – you’re the best!

  18. I remember vividly my lecturer in school who believed in art for art sake. He also refused to accept that his novels were about a particular set of people. I bear this point in mind when writing. Writers should write first for the love it while fame and fortune will only be a bonus

  19. Hi Jeff thank you for sharing this! i literally released my first e-book yesterday and i was already paying way too much attention to the “end result other then the impact”. This has def. made me refocus. Once again, thank you.

  20. I am trying to get back into writing again yet worrying about money is a big obstacle. My
    creativity is blocked with the question of “What can I get out of this?” I know I should not be thinking about money because A) I haven’t even started writing anything yet and B) Focusing on that will not get me anywhere near money. I guess I focus on money because I want to make a living as a writer. I think most writers want to just do that—write—and be rich beyond their wildest dreams. This idyllic fantasy only happens in novels and movies. When I write, I should be thinking more about what the reader is going to get out of it. My question needs to be, “What can I offer my readers?” I like sites such as yours because they slap reality into writers who dream the impossible dream instead of achieving the possible reality that is much more rewarding. I am realizing being selfish will only make me miserable. I would rather be generous and giving in my writing knowing I will reap so much more out of it. I like this piece you have written; it is very inspirational and provides a fresh perspective for all writers to consider. Thank You!

    1. If you HAVE to answer the “what’s in it for me?” question, then maybe this is your answer: satisfaction. You will be satisfied. Your restlessness will be tamed — at least until you need to write again. 😉

  21. This is a great post! We recently changed our blog to be more focused on one topic (family issues), instead of just writing about “whatever.” The reason was simple: we have a passion for helping families and felt like we could help people more that way. Our blog numbers suffered at first, but we are now seeing that the readers we have are more loyal, because they know we are trying to help and add value in this area of life.

    1. “Narrow your focus to broaden your audience.” Jeff Goins, Becoming a Better Blogger course. (LOVE that advice!)

      1. We have a fairly small readership, but the temptation is there to go back to “just blogging” to get the numbers we had again. I’m really working hard to fight that temptation and just focus on family issues, even if it means we grow very slowly.

  22. What about writing to understand? My thoughts tend to cul-de-sac and stagnate unless I get them out of my head. As they come out, I see new connections.

  23. I really like your reasons on why you should be writing. These are a great reminder that I think can get lost in the “daydreaming” about being famous, or envied. I think writing mostly comes down to who you are as a person. If you let that shine through than your writing will reflect it.
    For my own site I am trying to create a space where writers who are just like me can read about and share their own stories or struggles. Your post has reminded me of why I started my blog in the first place and it is a good reminder to keep going with the right frame of mind.

  24. Great focus on making it about others. The more I write, the more I use the word “you.” (Wish I could say this earlier. There is a lot more “I” than “you” in what I’ve written in the past.)

    1. I think that’s part of the process, Kent. We begin thinking it’s about us, but when people show up, we realize how much we are merely a vessel for the message.

  25. Another WRONG reason to write: because someone else thinks you should do it. You said what I’ve always thought in my head (as grammatically correct as it might be). I. CAN’T. NOT. WRITE. It’s who I am…

    1. Along that same reasoning, another wrong reason is to prove people wrong. Writing because you are bitter at a person for telling you what you can and can’t do does not produce positive fruit. In the end, you hurt yourself as a person, and whatever you set out to do will fail most of the time.

  26. I love your reasons for why one should write and I love that you make it all about the reader, because it truly is. One of the reasons I write is to introduce people to each other, in a way. Life is hectic and it is easy to pass people by without a second glance. My personal passion is to tell the stories of the unheard so that we can all begin to understand each other a little bit better.

  27. This is so helpful for writers who are developing their tribe and their voice! Thanks for sharing in such an understandable and effective manner!

  28. We need a little reminder of why we got into this “business.” It’s because we love to do what we do: write. I have to remind myself that the odds of me bring a best-seller are very slim and that no one will read my novel, short story, whatever. At the same time, it would be a waste of talent not to tell my stories. I feel empty when I don’t write. So even if what I write is garbage, all that matters is that I’m writing.

  29. Thank you! This is a good reminder. 🙂 It’s not the hits, the views, the likes that matter most. It’s the content, the very soul of your piece, and how it affects others.

  30. Jeff, I know this comment is totally buried beneath all the others, but I want to say thank you for providing me with the inspiration and encouragement I need to try to start writing.

  31. Writing just to get another blog post out there comes to mind. A lot of bloggers may post regularly but sometimes the content suffers or is down right uninspiring. People’s attention spans are shorter these days. Instant gratification trumps investing in a longer read where the rewards are sometimes richer. The trick is to keep blog posts reasonably short but also absorbing or interesting- two things you do well Jeff.

  32. The ton of money is definitely the wrong reason. I thought I would be rich when I self-published my first book, boy was that a wake up call. Now that I’ve been writing and serving an audience I’ve seen what writing really is 🙂

  33. Good points Jeff, it’s all about writing for the right reasons. I started writing to give a voice to the voiceless, I always remind myself of that. It can get tough and we all have our down days but it’s important to remember why we are writing.

  34. I write because there are words inside of me that MUST be released. And through this process I’m learning that as long as there is food, clothing and shelter, write, write and write. And don’t worry.

  35. Totally agree! Would be great to earn a living at it but if that was my only motivation I would have quit a long time ago. As a blogger I sometimes don’t write or post intentionally because I am more interested in the content than hooking people with daily doses of feel good stuff just for the sake of putting out a post. If I don’t believe in what I have written, it’s not getting posted.

  36. Oh god, please not one again. “You shall only write if you have something important to say.” Yeah. Sure.
    I agree. You shouldn’t write for the money nor for the success nor something alike. Because you don’t get rich or famous from writing, those are exceptions.
    But why do you need to have something to say? Or because you “can’t escape it”?
    What about the simple reason: Entertain people. Let them spent a good time. Let them escape reality for a bit and dream. Just that.
    Writing can be about simple things. I want to write well. Well plotted fiction, well written, lively characters – but I don’t want to write for “a greater good”. I can go without writing for weeks. I could live without writing. I don’t have anything important to say. That would limit my creativity pretty much.
    I write because I want to write. Because I think that maybe some people are out there who will enjoy what I write. That’s it.

  37. Everyone has/have their own reason why they write. Writing is my way of expressing my feelings towards something or someone. If I can’t do something about it, I write it and it makes me feel better. When you write, you connect with others because what you’re having been through, others might have it also. I write because I want it and I’m enjoying it, not because I want to earn tons of money. And maybe yes, I write because I want others to hear me, and that because I want them to understand me. Is writing makes me a coward Jeff?

  38. This is really good, Jeff. I printed it off and have it posted above my computer…

  39. I’m late to this party, but I wanted to say that this is such a great post. At first I thought the idea of being other-focused didn’t apply to us fiction writers, but the more I thought about, the more I realized it does. I posted about it on my blog how it’s changed my romance fiction writing. Anyway, just wanted to say thank you for yet again writing such a thoughtful post!

  40. Thanks, for the article. It reaffirms why I write, not that I even consider myself a writer. Like I told a friend of mine, I write because I have to write.

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