Why does a person sacrifice real living to write things down? “To have someone read what you wrote.” It’s not that simple. For anyone who has tried to become a writer, you learn quickly. Writing is a more difficult pursuit than anything you’ve ever done. Only a few paragraphs into a manuscript do you recognize the complexity you’re dealing with. What should come next? What mistakes have you already made? You keep writing. The complexity doubles, then triples. Many people quit. If you stick with it, push through the confusion, and continue on your quest, the motivation for writing gets interesting. Writing isn’t simple, nor are the reasons for it.

There are hidden motivations. There have to be, as writing diverts a person away from the fun of life. The time demands for serious writing are larger than anyone expects. When you’re finished, you don’t know what people will say. You aren’t even sure an audience will be waiting for your achievement.

Each writer navigates this uncertainty. It’s what makes writing an adventure filled with equal parts of expectation and frustration. Every writer, either knowingly or through instinct, emerges with a strategy, a plan to succeed. It’s how a writer copes with the stress of the closed door, the empty room, the time drain, and the potential for being ignored when a book is completed.

Overlooked is how these strategies impact the writing itself. A writer who aims for sales will write differently than a writer who seeks an artistic standard. Which writer is more correct? One, neither, or both? Is there a proper process for writing? Is anyone audacious enough to say there is a rule?

For the longest time, the answer was likely no. There are no rules. Before the internet, reading was popular. You could write for any number of reasons. In these pre-technology days, a new book was welcomed. An audience would likely sample it.

Video games hold this allure today. Every new release is investigated by millions of players restless for the next title. Books were once this popular. Hardcover sales were healthy at upwards of three times the price of a paperback. With a market of fans waiting, a writer could be lax and sell.

Technology has captured everyone’s attention. Sure, the tech boom gave us the ebook, but there are many more examples of technology distracting us. This shift from reading has put the writer in an even greater defensive position. Not only does a writer gamble time on a speculative book, but the potential audience is now actively avoiding books. For people habituated to technology, hundreds of pages take too long and aren’t stimulating enough.

What does a writer do with this reality? One answer would be to write better books. And yet, it’s not obvious to everyone. The “life hack” concept tells us to work smarter, not harder. Many writers believe quality will not get them more attention. What their writing needs is more novelty and more energy.

Writers are at a crossroads. Quality or novelty? Which one could tear the smartphone out of the would-be reader’s hand?

An editor friend of mine discovered these conflicting styles when helping a younger writer. This writer had a natural ability—he could craft spellbinding scenes. However, he wasn’t sure how he did it, as he was self-taught, which left the quality of his manuscripts uneven. This writer had self-published a few books. They hadn’t received attention outside of a circle of friends on social media. My editor friend offered to help put his next manuscript over the top.

The editing process would shift between hopeful and discouraging. This self-taught writer could find the truth within a scene. He could expose the humor and hypocrisy of the urban life he wrote about. The trouble for my editor friend was how the scenes were joined together. The self-taught writer couldn’t step back from a collection of scenes and weave them into a theme.

Seeing no way forward, my editor friend cut major parts of the book. He wanted to show the writer what his truthful scenes looked like without his artificial commentary. One remembers a famous example of a slash-and-burn work process in the partnership between Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish. Carver became a legendary short story writer, but the price he paid was to grant Lish full editorial control. The cuts were severe, but they worked.

It wasn’t to be in this case. Their editor-writer partnership dissolved. The writer balked at seeing his commentary removed. He likely didn’t realize what he was signaling, but he felt his truthful writing couldn’t live by itself.

My editor friend had cut out passages of fanciful writing, passages where the writer emulated other writers, told the reader how he felt and promoted himself. In essence, my editor friend removed the parts where the writer was showing off. The writer believed the entertaining parts of his book were gone. To him, the truth of his story fell flat by itself. It didn’t feel like him.

We were surprised. My editor friend and I had been schooled in literary fiction of the 1980s. To us, it was obvious. You sat in the chair, toiling to find the truth within your story. You cut the rest. This self-taught writer was a natural at finding the truth. Every time he sat down to write, he was over halfway finished. It was only a matter of excising one’s natural vanity.

My editor friend was to learn vanity was the driving force for this writer. He would put in the time for sales and recognition. This strategy prevented him from relying on truth to sell a book. His previous books failed to do well enough. Instead of recognizing his books lacked enough truth to attract a reader, he drew the opposite conclusion. His next book needed even more entertainment. Truth was a subjective quality. Fun was an obvious one.

Once again, I became aware of many assumptions about writing. Writers are trying to hack the process, to create a spectacle to mesmerize a busy person. The naked truth is a comedown with the opposite effect, and the effect is all.

I couldn’t argue too much. A brilliant magic trick will work if you can pull it off. It’s a big if. Truth is a much safer bet. Attractive on a subconscious level, truth is the thread among the great novels. People feel their ears twitch at a true statement. People will stop and listen despite themselves. Truth is also long-lasting. The longevity of classic novels lies in their validity.

When you question a person’s writing, you challenge the writer’s motivation. “What are you hoping to achieve?” Critiques can be painful and claustrophobic for a writer. Your vanity is an embarrassing thing to have exposed.

My editor friend and I had survived the wars of city writing workshops. We knew the value of having our egotistical motivations called out. If it stung to hear your writing was slight or superficial, the solution was clear: Watch for it and don’t do it again. A self-taught writer isn’t ready for this news, and many don’t want to hear it. For the novice, writing is only an exercise in freedom.

Hearing my editor friend’s trouble reminded me of a workshop anecdote from years back. Amy Hempel, the minimalist writer, shared with us an illustration between artifice and truth. A woman’s story began, I can’t get over my husband’s death. The writer was challenged by the workshop. “This first line is cliché, common hyperbole. You can get over anything, eventually.” It was agreed, the writer was showing off her grief. What was she trying to say?

From the critiques, the woman changed her first line to, I don’t want to get over my husband’s death. It revealed a truth of grieving. The woman’s pain overwhelmed her to where it was a comfort. To get over it felt like a betrayal, to leave her husband behind. She didn’t want to lose this terrible feeling.

An anecdote from thirty years ago stayed with me. Amy Hempel impressed on us the power of truth. If it wasn’t writing’s one rule, it did do all the work.

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