What Are You Writing Toward?

I do editorial consulting work, which is largely what it sounds like: I’ll read a client’s manuscript, and then I’ll offer feedback on what’s working and what isn’t working that they can think about as they write their next draft. At a more advanced level, I’ll offer specific revisions, but for the most part I’m telling my clients what they need to focus on as they move forward. As they’re deciding whether or not they even want to move forward, they’ll often ask: “Would it be worth it? Do you think this is publishable?”

As it happens, the writers I’ve worked with have generally been pretty far along in their development, such that I’ve honestly been able to say yes when that question comes up. Some manuscripts might need more work than others, some might even need a lot of work, but there’s been something in each of those manuscripts that they’re clearly passionate about, a story worth honing and refining to the point where, yes, the writer ought to be able to convince an agent, and then an editor, that people would pay good money to read it.

Recently, though, it occurred to me that the end goal for aspiring writers always seems to be “getting a book deal” or “getting published,” and the more I thought about it, the more I realized I might not be entirely happy about that.

Don’t get me wrong: Being a professional writer is one of the best jobs around, even though it can be one of the hardest. It’s certainly one of the most fulfilling jobs I’ve ever held. If you can do it well, and do well at it, you absolutely should. It’s just that I’m less willing, these days, to accept that the only reason to take up writing is to become a professional writer.

We accept a certain recreational value for all sorts of creative endeavors without any thought of generating a new revenue stream for ourselves. Plenty of people want to learn an instrument without eying a career as a professional musician, or take up drawing or painting without expecting to have a gallery showcase. Start writing, though, and, before too long, if you’re not asking yourself whether you’re going to try to get published, the people around you who know you’re writing just might.

Why, though? Why is it considered normal to develop a technical proficiency at, say, playing the guitar or painting watercolors just for the fun of expressing yourself creatively, while writing is usually expected to “earn its keep,” so to speak?

Some of you might be thinking, “But what about fanfic?” Well, yeah, but the public perception of fanfic is that it’s not “real writing.” That public perception is wrong, and I’ve written about why it’s wrong, but it’s still out there.

Over the last year or so, this newsletter has often returned to the idea of writing as self-discovery, “a way of learning who we are, of better understanding ourselves precisely in order to then be able to communicate with everyone else at a meaningful level.” Even if you’re writing fiction, you’re gravitating towards stories and themes you feel passionately about, and learning more about those passions as you go along—and learning how to share that passion with others.

That’s a meaningful prize, in and of itself, even before getting paid for doing it becomes a possibility. Again, I’m not judging anybody for wanting to make money by being a writer, not least of all because that’s the path I’ve chosen. If you’re just looking to make money, though, there’s so many easier ways to do it. And although I concede the possibility that you can write a commercial viable book, maybe even more than one, without going through the process of self-discovery, I have to believe that it can’t be all that personally fulfilling.

(No, really, I have to believe that. Otherwise I’m gonna go into an existential tailspin.)

Ultimately, I suppose, “Is this ever going to be publishable?” is not all that different a question from “When can I share this with readers?” It’s just a matter of emphasis, after all. But I’m starting to believe that—especially when you’re just starting out, when you don’t have any contractual commitments, when it’s just you and the empty screen or the blank sheet of paper—it’s the second approach that will produce better writing… and make it easier, if you decide to seek publication, to get satisfying results.