Write for Yourself
First published 12/10/2002; last edited 12/17/2004
Not long ago I mentioned that writing for yourself differs from writing for publication. In some ways I spoke the truth--and in some ways I dodged the issue.
Not the Same
For those who didn't read that other article, I'll provide a brief recap. When people start to dream about a career in writing, they often have a couple of things mixed up: the image of a writer who writes for herself, and the expectation of publication of a writer who writes professionally.
People expect to write on their own schedule. They wait until they feel inspired, then write what they feel like and as much of it as they feel like writing. If they think it's perfect, then they don't need to revise it. If it has value to them then that's the only thing that matters--not whether a reader or editor thinks it has value.
Writing for yourself does have value. It satisfies us emotionally. It allows us to explore personal issues and cares in a private manner. Writing for yourself is a perfectly legitimate way to explore writing, and I think that many people would enjoy writing more if they realized this. Then they could stop worrying about whether other people like what they write or plan to pay them for it. They could stop worrying about grammar or plot holes. They could write for themselves and enjoy the results.
However, in many ways this view of writing doesn't mesh with the expectation of publication.
The Expectation of Publication
When people consider writing as a dream job, they often don't realize that the image of writing above doesn't work with the expectation of publication. Getting published takes a lot of work. Millions of writers compete for the comparatively small amount of money available to authors. In order to get that money, you must learn craft and skill.
Writing Your Own Material: Many people sit at home, write stories and/or books, and try to get them published. Once they've had several published, they can hopefully get advance contracts for further books. This sounds perfectly compatible with the image above. So what makes it different?
If you want to get your material published, you do need to take the needs of the market into consideration. You need to revise your material until it meets editors' needs and wants, even if for your needs the work is perfect. You need to admit that what you want to write isn't always what someone else wants to buy. You need to listen to other people's opinions of your work in order to find the plot holes, consistency problems, and grammar issues. If you get contracts, then even more things interfere with that image of writing for yourself. Now you have a deadline and a contract saying you will write a certain thing. You can't just set aside the manuscript and wait until you feel inspired or you'll probably miss that deadline.
Writing Freelance: When you write your own material you probably won't get a steady paycheck unless you hook up with a publisher who really wants you to churn out books for the next 10 years, and that's pretty unlikely. Writing freelance tends to pay better. When you write freelance you write material of various kinds for a variety of employers: articles for magazines or newspapers; business writing for companies; even portions of books for roleplaying companies.
However, you often have less flexibility and freedom in what you write than when you write your own material. You might pitch articles and then write the version that a publisher actually asks for. You might write to assignment--in other words, you write about other people's ideas entirely. When this happens you can't just change your mind mid-stream and write about something different; you have to stick to contract and outline. The pay is better but the freedom lacks.
The Relationship: So far there appears to be a pretty direct relationship here. The less control you have over what you write and how you write it, the more money you make. Ouch. You can see why people cling to the romantic idea that they can write what they want and make millions doing it. And you can see why so many freelance writers burn out getting those paychecks.
Write for Yourself
Contrary to everything I said above, however, I believe you can write as a professional and yet write for yourself. Stop looking at the image as a whole package deal, one where the only happy option is to write exactly as you please. Or the only option that leaves you financially solvent is to write in ways that you hate. Instead, keep these things in mind:
Time-Share: If you don't have the money to write your own material, but writing freelance burns you out, see if you can manage a part-time deal. One where you spend three days a week freelancing and two working on your new book, for example.
Make Sacrifices: If the above seems impossible, see if you can sacrifice something to make it work. If you gave up a TV show, would that give you an hour a night to work on your own writing? If you cut back on your book-buying could you afford to take a half-day a week off to write?
If you aren't willing to make sacrifices, then consider that perhaps you don't have the kind of monomaniacal dedication to writing that it usually takes to succeed at it professionally. There's nothing wrong with this. You don't have to be a super-dedicated professional writer in order to write and enjoy it. But you do need to know how you plan to approach your writing.
Always Write Something for Yourself: Always find the time to write something just for yourself, that you know you won't publish. Write letters to friends. Keep a journal. Explore your life and feelings through writing. Experiment (perhaps try exercises from books that intrigue you) just because you feel like it. Decide ahead of time that you won't try to publish this material--that way you'll feel no pressure.
Re-Frame: Re-frame what it means to write for yourself. It doesn't have to mean doing everything exactly your way. Remember how good it can feel to know that you've done something well? Remember how wonderful it can be to get better and better at something? Improving your skills and becoming a better writer are part of writing for yourself. Thus, you can take market considerations and other people's opinions into account without giving up the idea that ultimately, you write for yourself.
Put Other People's Opinions in Perspective: I keep a note on my monitor. It says: "I create for me. If other people like it, that's an added bonus!" This does not mean that I don't care whether I write things that other people would consider good. It doesn't mean that I ignore the needs of my employers or the market. Remember that last point: becoming a better writer is important. I don't place undue importance on other people's opinions. I listen to them. I take them into account. I consider whether they would improve my writing. But a negative opinion doesn't end my career or ruin my week. I don't ignore suggestions and opinions about my work--I keep them in perspective. It's a subtle difference, but an important one.
Create for Yourself: Go back to the first part of that note: "I create for me." I must remember why I write and for whom. Once I forget that I write because I want to, because I enjoy it, I'm on the road to burnout.
Most people get tons of rejection slips before they publish something. During this time they learn that, whether or not something gets published, they can feel satisfied with the result. (If they don't realize this then they probably never get to the publication stage. They give up before they get there.) If you skip this stage, if you go straight into publication, it becomes very easy to forget why you write. If you spend a long time in publication you can also end up forgetting.
Know Why You Write
Many people who would feel perfectly happy writing for themselves needlessly orchestrate their own frustration and discouragement. They write as though they write for themselves, but they try to get that writing published. They get evaluations from professional editors and writers and they burn out when those evaluations don't say what they want to hear. Because they write for themselves they refuse to improve their craft, but they still try to hold themselves to professional standards.
On the other side of things, many professional writers forget entirely about writing for themselves, and they quickly burn out. Make sure that no matter what you do, somewhere at the heart of it you write for yourself. Even when you do contract work on someone else's ideas and to someone else's deadline, make the act of writing your own. You can create for yourself at the same time that you create for others. You can take others' opinions into account while allowing yourself to be the ultimate decision-maker.
Know why you write. If you write solely for yourself, then enjoy that and don't worry about trying to get published or seeking out professional evaluations. If you write for yourself but care about improving your craft, then do so. Get some things published, even, but don't lose sight of why you write, or you could quickly find yourself losing interest in it. If you write for publication, then write with seriousness and a consideration for what editors and publishers expect from you--but also write for yourself.
Know whether you write strictly for yourself or as a professional. Then make sure that either way, you write for yourself to some extent. This is one of the most important keys to a happy career as a writer.