If you’ve read On Being a Writer, you know my coauthor Charity Singleton Craig and I start with identity—claiming we are writers. I told the story of the university publication that accepted my first poetry submissions. They asked for a bio. I looked at examples from a previous issue I’d purchased. The poets talked about why they write.
“Without overthinking it, I scribbled out, ‘I write, because no one listens to me.’”1
Until I wrote it out, I don’t think I realized why I was penning poems and pursuing the life of a writer. But when forced to express it in writing, there it was. At that nascent stage of my writing career, I simply wanted to be heard.
Your reason for writing can be as simple as that—to have a voice. That may always be what drives you to the keyboard. But it can change over time. It’s been a few years—a few decades, if I’m honest—since I first identified my reason for writing. Over time, my purpose, my motivation—my reason—has changed, and changed again.
It pays to revisit this question of why you write and see if your reasons have morphed. Because when you know why you write, you can stay focused and motivated. You can run decisions through the filter of your primary purpose.
How to discover it? Through writing.
Why Do You Write?
Most of this exploratory work can happen in our private writing, like journals, rather than in public forums, like a blog or an essay. But you may find that an essay or poem intended for publication ends up effectively verbalizing your purpose.
Writing invites us to grapple with unspoken desires and tap into our driving forces. When we write, we not only unearth our purpose, but we articulate it.
I’m going to give you a couple of prompts to help you find your reason for writing—for being a writer.
You might answer them in a single sentence without a pause because you know exactly why you’ve turned to writing.
Or you might look at these and realize you’re not at all sure why you write.
Or you might end up writing paragraphs in search of the answer. You might unearth multiple reasons that suggest more than one motivation.
Get them down on paper. Write them out.
Write to Discover Your Reason for Writing
You’ll understand yourself better. You’ll realize why you’re drawn more to one project than another. You’ll have a way to decide where to focus your resources.
And keep in mind that your purpose doesn’t have to be noble or big. Let’s say you decided to try writing a thriller on a dare from your best friend and it’s fun. That’s a reason for writing. You might want to see your name in a publication, to make money, or to be known as a subject matter expert. Those are all reasons for writing.
You could work your discoveries into some sort of personal mission or vision statement, or a manifesto. Or going through this process may simply make you more aware of what’s driving you to write. It will ground you.
You can play around with this. Jot out ridiculous answers and see how they look on paper. Make yourself laugh. Maybe, well, maybe that’s why you write—to entertain first yourself and then, others.
Write to discover your reason for writing.
Now here are the simple prompts to get you started:
I write because __________.
I write to _____________.
Your response can be honed down to a few phrases. For example:
- I write because I can’t not write.
- I write because I love words.
- I write because I have important observations to share.
- I write to become famous.
Maybe you write in response to this and discover a specific reason based on curiosity, industry knowledge, or some personal experience—joyful or tragic—that ignites a passion, like:
- I write to explore the deepest reasons people lie.
- I write to bring underreported historical events to light.
- I write to explain creative organizational solutions.
- I write because I love sharing my frugal travel discoveries.
- I write because I want others to care about the health of our oceans as much as I do.
- I write because I want to share my insights about mental health and offer hope.
Write everything that comes to mind. If you write for your own pleasure, to play with words, to express your thoughts clearly, or to tell riveting stories, get that down. Write to discover your reason for writing.
I write because…
I write to…
Our Reason for Writing Helps Us Plan for the Future
If we can land on our reason for writing, we’re set up for long-term success. Joanna Penn said in a Problogger podcast episode:
[M]y number one tip for new bloggers, I would say that you can think big, and you need to decide what you want to be known as in 5-10 years [sic] time. What can you create that will lead to that outcome, because you have to know where you want to end up, and that will really help guide you and keep you going in the nitty gritty bits because there are nitty gritty bits when you are blogging.2
When we discover our reason for writing, we can make better long-term decisions like what she’s describing—what we want to be in five to ten years’ time.
And the nitty-gritty bits gain meaning.
Of course we’ll concede the possibility that our reason may shift and what we want to be known for may evolve. But it’s a good way to start out with intention today in order to build something for the future.
Our Reason for Writing Helps Us Express Our Truth
Brenda Ueland, in If You Want to Write, says:
But at least I understood from William Blake and Van Gogh and other great men, and from myself—from the truth that is in me (and which I have at least learned to declare and stand up for, as I am trying to persuade you to stand up for your inner truth)—at least I understood that writing was this: an impulse to share with other people a feeling or truth that I myself had. Not to preach to them, but to give it to them if they cared to hear it.3
That was her reason for writing. She wrote to share with other people a feeling or truth that she herself had, and to give it to them if they cared to hear it. She encouraged her readers to do the same.
This can be a reason for writing that changes as our feelings shift and we grasp deeper truths.
Write Toward Your Reason
Our reason for writing isn’t always clear and obvious, even when we devote time to pondering the answer to why we write.
Don’t let that stop you from making progress—you don’t have to know your reason in order to write. In fact, by writing whatever it is you feel the impulse to write, to borrow Brenda Ueland’s term, you’ll learn a little something more about yourself.
Julia Cameron, in The Right to Write, says:
Writing is a lot like driving a country blacktop highway on a hot summer day. There is a wavery magical spot that shimmers on the horizon. You aim toward it. You speed to get there, and when you do, the ‘there’ vanishes. You look up to see it again, shimmering in the distance. You write toward that.4
If you can’t immediately discover your reason for writing, head off in the direction that seems right for now. Write toward that wavery, magical spot that shimmers on the horizon. That seems reason enough to put pen to paper. Aim toward that. Write toward that.
Cameron adds, “Kabir tells us, ‘Wherever you are is the entry point,’ and this is always true with writing. Wherever you are is always the right place…Start right where you are.”5
Write, even if your reason is elusive or keeps changing.
Ask Why at the Start of a New Project
In his book Smarter, Faster, Better, Charles Duhigg writes, “When we start a new task, or confront an unpleasant chore, we should take a moment to ask ourselves ‘why’…. Once we start asking why, those small tasks become pieces of a larger constellation of meaningful projects, goals, and values.”6
He continues, “That’s when self-motivation flourishes: when we realize that…it is part of a bigger project that we believe in, that we want to achieve, that we have chosen to do”7
When you discover your reason for writing—when you understand why you’re undertaking a project or task—you’ll see how it works toward what you believe in and what you want to achieve.
Today when you devote an hour to research or you churn out 500 words in your work-in-progress, you’ll see how it feeds into the bigger picture, the driving reason, your personal why.
Discover your reason for writing, and you’ll work with deeper purpose. You’ll find what drives your creative efforts. Discover your reason for writing and you’ll answer, project by project, the question the late Mary Oliver posed in her poem “The Summer Day”:
What have you chosen to do with this one wild, precious life?8
- Ep 180: Write to Discover – Start with Yourself
- Ep 181: Write to Discover the Courage You Need to Confront Your Fears
- Ep 182: Write to Discover Your Reason for Writing
- Ep 183: Write to Discover Your Top Themes and Topics
- Ep 54: It’s Good for a Writer to Ask Why
- “228: From Crying in the Bathroom at Work to a Multi Six Figure Online Business – A Writing Blogger Shares Her Story.” ProBlogger
- On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life That Lasts, by Ann Kroeker and Charity Singleton Craig (affiliate link)
- The Right to Write, by Julia Cameron
- Smarter Faster Better, by Charles Duhigg (affiliate link)
- If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland (affiliate link)
You can subscribe to this podcast using your podcast player or find it through Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or Spotify.
- Kroeker, Ann, and Charity Singleton Craig. On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life That Lasts. Ossining, NY: T.S. Poetry, 2014. Print, 19.
- “228: From Crying in the Bathroom at Work to a Multi Six Figure Online Business – A Writing Blogger Shares Her Story.” ProBlogger. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Jan. 2019.
- Ueland, Brenda. If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf, 2007. Print, 24-25.
- Cameron, Julia. The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1999. Print, 4.
- ibid, 4-5
- Duhigg, Charles. Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business. New York: Random House, 2016. Print, 36, 37
- “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver Poetry 180: A Poem a Day for American High Schools, Hosted by Billy Collins, U.S. Poet Laureate, 2001-2003.” Planning D-Day (April 2003) – Library of Congress Information Bulletin. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 23 Jan. 2019. <https://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/133.html>.