Chip MacGregor

April 15, 2013

Why do we write?


I’m sorry to have dropped out of the teleseminar last week. If you stopped by and were expecting me, I apologize for doing a no-show. Knowing I was going to be talking with Michael Hyatt, I went to a Mexican restaurant and ordered fish tacos for lunch (since everyone knows Mike believes fish tacos are the secret to great book publishing). Anyway, lesson for the day: When eating at a sketchy Mexican place at the beach, stay away from fish tacos. I got sick, and ended up in bed. My apologies, but I hear Mike and Amanda rocked it. Thanks for participating, thanks to Michael for being fabulous, and a huge thank you to Amanda for pinch-hitting and taking leadership of the event. 

If I can go back to writing and publishing questions, I thought you’d like to see this question someone sent me: “I’ve been writing for several months now, and I’m trying to figure out what my motivation is. Can you help me understand WHY I want to become a published author?”

A fascinating question. Okay, this may surprise you, but I believe most new writers basically want to get published so that they’ll be famous. They want that thrill of holding up a book with their name emblazoned on the cover, show it to their friends, leave it on their coffee table, maybe peruse a copy at the bookstore and casually mention to someone in the aisle, “You know… I wrote this.” I think most new writers are seeking fame and encouragement, that they believe validity and meaning will arrive out of publication. They see fame as offering a measurable amount of worth and competence. 

That’s not to say most new writers don’t also have something they want to say — they do. It’s just that many newer writers struggle with having a worthwhile story. Think about it — we all know it takes a while for a writer to become competent. Rarely do you see a novelist her her first completed wok contracted. The industry average is five complete books… in other words, if you’re starting out, it will probably be your fifth completed novel before you get a contract. That’s why so many writers give up after one or two — it takes persistence to complete five novels before a publisher will pay attention to your work. So, in my opinion, many writers get into the business as a way to express themselves; as a way to get noticed. 

Yet most writers who have achieved some level of fame fairly quickly eschew it in favor of craft. They may still enjoy the warmth associated with being recognized, or having someone come up and praise their words, but most successful authors discover that fame is not only fleeting, it doesn’t make us better people or better writers. And that, I think, is why so many successful writers I know spend considerable time attempting to improve their craft. In other words, the best writers are always trying to get better.

If that’s true (and it might be too much of a leap for some readers to accept), then the one thing a beginning writer ought to do is to devote himself or herself to improving their craft of writing. As an agent, I see hundreds of manuscripts every year that I reject for representation. Nearly all of these are rejected for one basic reason: the writer simply isn’t good enough. The ideas may be interesting, and the marketing may be slick, but the authors simply aren’t good enough to publish. That’s a message I’ve tried to get into the heads of beginning writers everywhere: Don’t try seeking “the secret” of writing; improve as a writer. I’ve yet to meet a great writer who is not published.

And how does one go about doing that? I don’t think it’s all that complicated – write regularly and expose yourself to great writing. A beginning writer should read widely, and should focus on great, not just popular, writing. A beginning writer should set aside time to write regularly, and should make writing a habit in his or her life. A beginning writer should find someone who can help him or her improve – a writing instructor, a writing mentor, an experienced editor, even a writing critique group, so long as the members can bring some wisdom to bear on the issue of craft.

I know of no other craft that promotes beginners before they are ready. Surely a young pianist doesn’t take a couple lessons and rent a concert hall to present Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” A first-year ballet student doesn’t expect to dance the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy. An artist cannot expect to move directly from paint-by-numbers to creating fine portraits. Yet I often meet beginning writers who are hell-bent on publishing “something.” They often have no clue of their motivation or message (though they can dress it up with spiritual talk and make it sound like “a calling”). What they really want is to be noticed — to have be able to show someone “I did a book.” So my advice to beginning writers is to study the craft of writing by reading and listening to those who already know it, in order to become more like them.

Now, having said that I realize there are those in the industry (including a couple editorial friends) who disagree with me. They think “market” is more important than “craft.” In other words, “Don’t focus on becoming a good writer, focus on creating a salable book.” I understand that thinking, but I don’t agree with it. Right now ANYBODY can get ANYTHING published. Go to, and you can find a way to get anything (your company reports, your school papers, your nutcase political screeds) into print. Lulu and PublishAmerica and Author Solutions will print anything you send them. We’ve made “becoming an author” into the easiest, most-accessible form of “art.” You may not be able to paint well enough to sell a still life, or sing well enough to have a CD in Wal-Mart, or dance well enough to get cast in a show… but you CAN become an author! 

Well, I’m sorry, but that’s not really legitimate. One of the things that real publishing professionals provide is a filter. There is training and evaluation involved as agents figure out who can write, and editors determine what is valuable, and publishers produce books that offer something of merit. So part of the role of those of us who work in the industry is to strive toward some sort of quality. As I always say, if I were in this strictly for the money, I’d do porn. (It’s cheap, it’s easy, and there’s a huge market for it.) But I can’t make myself go there, since I still think part of my job is to help writers become better, and to help publishers sell good books. 

So what’s the motivation? In writing it’s probably to tell a story, I suppose. We write to inform, to entertain, to expose, to convince, to enlighten — there are a ton of motivations. But from a personal perspective, I think every good writer wants to be a great writer. 

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  • I LOVE this post because it shows very clearly your integrity within this writing industry. A part of me wants to be a writer as you say, for the”thrill of holding up a book with their name emblazoned on the cover”. But what I’m NOT willing to do is to attach my name to a project that isn’t WORTHY of actually being published.

    I agree it is way too easy to become a published “author” these days and the lackluster writing flooding the industry in recent years tends to devalue the very title I seek.

    So, that being said, after more than three years of fine tuning my skills as a writer, I am only now feeling confident my stories might be worthy of viewing by the experts in this field and so I submit with a wish and a prayer that people like YOU will provide honest feedback in order I might continue to grow as a writer while trying to share my stories with the world.

    Donna L Martin

  • Bonnie Doran says:

    Thanks for addressing the issue of self-published versus traditionally published. I know there are good authors out there who choose the self-published route, but I’m grateful for an editing staff that helped hone my novel into the best it could be.

  • Cheryl Russell says:

    For me, your last sentence really resonates. I think wanting to be the best you can be lasts longer as a motivator than wanting to publish a book.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yeah, I think that’s true, Cheryl. The best writers I know are trying to get better.

  • jewellspring says:

    As a 44yo who hasn’t published, what about the motivation lost BECAUSE everyone thinks it’s so easy? I easily remember the times when that was not the case, but I was raising my young children. Now that I have time, I’m saddened that others do not respect the craft I know takes hours/days to pursue.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Good point, jewellspring. It drives you nuts when other people don’t want to work hard at the craft, doesn’t it?

  • Robin Patchen says:

    Part of the issue, I think, with beginning writers, is that they don’t know enough yet to be intimidated. They can’t step back far enough from their own work to evaluate it.

    I was like that with my first book, and only when I started a second, then completed a third, was I able to see the serious flaws in the first. With four books and three novellas finished, I am so much more aware of the standard I want to achieve–to write like those authors whose words and characters stay with me for weeks and months after I put their books down. And as I learn to evaluate great writing, I see how very far short I fall.

    I want to be a great writer first. I never want to look back on something I’ve published and blush and hope nobody ever reads it. Your analogy to painters and musicians is spot-on. We would never sit in the audience at a concert hall, look at a musician playing an instrument we’ve never touched, and think, “I could do that.” Yet how many read great books and think they could write one? It is so much harder than it looks.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Excellent point, Robin. Thanks. You’re absolutely right — the more time we put in on the craft, the clearer we see the work it will take to be great.

  • Rick Barry says:

    No doubt, different writers start with different motivations. For me, at least part of the motivation is to make a connection in the minds of readers. Since before the first book (or scroll) there have been story tellers. But no story teller sits and pours his story out to an oak tree or a brick wall. With no possible reaction, it’s pointless. The story teller wants to quicken a heartbeat, to spark a laugh, to open eyes, to give an “Aha!” moment, to motivate to become a better person, or to illuminate truth in the context of a tale. In short, to make a reader say, “Wow, that was good.”

    I suspect there is a similar motivation among sculptors, painters, and musicians. Michelangelo and Da Vinci could have created their artworks and then locked them away inside crypts, where no one could see them. But that would be pointless. Each artist strives to make an impression on his or her audience.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yes. I think I’ve just found that most beginning writers tend to think they are brilliant, when in fact they are not. Perhaps the same is true of all art — that every new painter thinks he is secretly a Da Vinci, when in fact he is a Da Vinci Code…

  • Jan Cline says:

    Wow. May I print this off and give it to the writers in my writing group? As their leader I continually harp on becoming a better writer. Most of the time I get a polite smile or nod, or with the newer writers, it’s a blank stare. I think most writers never embrace the concept, but once in a while I meet a writer who is willing to do the work it takes to be better. I have found that working on my craft is the most challenging job I’ve ever had. I don’t care about being famous…I care about having a book that will make someone read to the end and pass it along. I can’t imagine anything better than that. And I can’t imagine anything worse than giving up on a dream….except for getting sick on fish tacos. Hope you’re all better, Chip.

  • karenrobbins says:

    Fame and fortune would be nice–especially the fortune part, but I truly enjoy just having the feedback from readers who have enjoyed reading my books. It keeps me fueled to keep on writing and yes, keep on trying to make my craft better. Watch those fish tacos!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks for that tip, Karen. In the future I’ll only be eating the official Michael Hyatt Approved Fish Taco. :o)

  • Janet McLaughlin says:

    So true and so well said, Chuck. Besides, getting published, though exciting, is only the first step. The glam wears off quickly, especially when you’re helping to market you’re first book (work) while you’re writing your next book (your passion) and finding that you have less and less time to do what feeds your soul. Eventually dedicated writers come to the realization that the real joy is in the creative process. For the rest of it–forgive the cliche, but you do what you gotta do.

  • I appreciate the frank assessment of the business. It made me laugh, since I also always say if I were just in it for the money, I’d write porn. And now I know to stay away from fish tacos, too.

  • Thanks for the honest thoughts! I’m trying to improve my writing with a blog, and tabled my book for later when my writing is where I want it to be to give my book (message) the quality I think it deserves!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      That’s interesting, Esther. I think the best writers tend to write a lot, so finding a venue where you can crank out a lot of words, then refine and improve them, will pay off in the long run. Thanks for participating in the discussion.

  • Ron Estrada says:

    Guess the McDonalds lobster wrap in Maine is out of the question. I started out with all those wonderful fantasies involving Stephen King as the MC at a banquet honoring my life’s work. Now, though, it really is a quest to improve. Years of humility will either break you or drive you to the edge of madness in pursuit of your passion. I kind of enjoy the edge of madness myself. Makes for some interesting writing.

  • We missed you, Chip, but Amanda killed it. She did a fabulous job. And whatever you don’t give up on fish tacos. They are the secret to my “bestseller launch formula,” which I plan to reveal in the next few days. 😉

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Again, thanks for coming on, Mike. I’m really sorry to have missed participating. Looking forward to the Michael Hyatt-branded fish taco franchises, coming to my neighborhood soon.

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