Why We Write: Validation and Satisfaction

rainbowI got to thinking about why we writers write. Why we publish. I was actually watching golf. I know, most people would rather watch paint dry. Bear with me. Jim Furyk, a compatriot Arizona golfer, has played twenty tournaments this year, and has been in the top 25 a total of seventeen times. Ten of those times he’s finished in the top 10, and he’s had three 2nd place finishes, but he has not won at all this year. He’s won a ton of money, yet I have a feeling that it all pales next to that big goose egg in the win column.

It got me to thinking: why do we write? What rewards to we get? The way I see it, there are three factors that can validate our writing and bring satisfaction to us.

1. We like what we write; we think it’s good and we’re happy with it.

2. Ordinary readers like it, which translates to good sales. (And when I say “ordinary,” I mean that in no way as a slur; I’m simply talking about readers who do not review or critique in a professional way.)

3. Reviewers and/or critics like it.

I’m guessing that I speak for most writers when I say I write what I like and I don’t publish unless I’m happy with it. However, I’m also guessing there may be some writers out there who use a different benchmark. I’m talking about those who crank out formula stories, who write “commercial fiction,” and know it may not be the great American novel but also know there’s a reader base for it. Using these very polarized positions (and I realize there have to be a zillion other points along the line in between), I set out to map the various formulas for validation and satisfaction.

The second piece of the equation is the reader. They like it or they don’t. If they don’t, the book does not sell and does not make money. If they do, the book does make money and we can hope the popularity spreads by word of mouth.

Third is the critic. If the critics and reviewers like it, that may translate to sales, but not necessarily. If they don’t, it could impact sales, but again, not necessarily. Readers and critics are not always on the same page, and sometimes they are worlds apart.

So here are my (very simplistic) possibilities from the various combinations:

Bowersock love it table

Now, I’m guessing (going out on a limb here) that the No. 1 scenario above is the optimal for every writer. Everyone loves the book; it’s bought by the bucketload and it makes money. Good all around.

But what about No. 2 or No. 4? Do we care more about one than the other? Do we care at all? Is it more important that the readers like it or the critics? And what about No. 3? What happens when we love a book but no one else does? How do we feel about that?

The last four variations are trickier, I think. What happens if we put a book out there that we’re not particularly proud of (maybe our publisher or contract demands it), but others think it’s great? We don’t like it, we know it’s clichéd drivel, but the readers and/or critics eat it up. What does that do for our self-esteem? For our sense of who we are, our sense of ourselves as writers?

Truth be told, I doubt if any of us ponder these possibilities as we’re writing and publishing. I think most of us are impelled by other forces. I would still write if I never sold a single book because I like what I write. I like the stories; I like the characters. Everything else is gravy to me. But once the book is out there, how does its reception color our feeling about it? Does it change the way we feel about it?

I asked myself these same questions, and was somewhat surprised by my own answers.

I have a couple of books that are my personal favorites. I love them. They’re not big sellers. Do I care? No. I enjoy them and re-read them periodically. Every time I do, I am struck anew by how much I like them. The fact that they have never taken off in a big way is of no concern to me at all.

I have another book that is not my favorite. I like it, but it just doesn’t knock my socks off. It’s probably my biggest seller. Does that change the way I feel about it? Not a bit. I’m proud of it, I’m very grateful that it seems to connect with so many people, but it will never be the first book I reach for.

And of course I continue to write. Not to please readers. Not to please critics. First, last, and foremost to please myself and to resolve the stories and placate the characters that tumble around in my brain.

What about you? How does the way your book is received affect you … or not? From where do you draw your own validation and satisfaction? It’ll be interesting to see the answers to why we write.

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is an eclectic, award-winning author who writes in a variety of fiction and non-fiction genres. She has been both traditionally and independently published and lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

16 thoughts on “Why We Write: Validation and Satisfaction”

  1. Like you I like my stories and my characters. My confidence lags a bit when I wonder about the quality of the writing but because my readers tell me they love it I’m beginning to believe in myself more. But first and foremost I write for me. If I lose interest in a story or character I also lose my ability to write it. I can’t force it, so in the end it doesn’t see the light of day.

    1. Yvonne, I think we are very similar in this, and I suspect most of our cohorts are, too–we write for ourselves. Having readers love it, as well, is wonderful, but not the reason for being. We will always know that we have at least one fan of our work! But I’m glad to hear that your readers’ responses gives you more confidence, as well. That’s a big plus, and a great impetus to keep on writing.

  2. I’m a storyteller but in a different way than most writers here. I write nonfiction about the things I do. I feel blessed by a unique type of creativity in the activities I pursue. I have important ideas to speak about and many things to teach to others. I’ve been a verbal storyteller in most of my social life and people tell me they are fascinated by my tales … all of which are true stories about the things I do. I am lucky enough now to be in a position to write full time whether I make money at it or not although I admit making money at it is important to me. I built my writing career slowly and in a traditional way. I started with paid newspaper and magazine articles as a freelancer to build a portfolio and sold my first book myself based on a proposal. It sold more than 10,000 print copies. I now have an agent with my next book due out in January and a new proposal submitted to the publisher of that book. While I am traditionally published so far, what I consider my most important work will probably be self published. My agent who will make no money from that even supports me in publishing my Hillbilly Savant essays in this fashion. I’ve learned a lot from this group and value my experience here. Thank all of you for your support and information about self publishing and the business of writing.

    1. Richard, sounds like you’ve been doing an excellent job of balancing your creativity with the pragmatism of making a living. So many new writers want to become an instant hit, not realizing that most “overnight successes” have been at it for years, if not decades. Thanks for your comment and good luck with the new project. I hope you’ll keep us posted.

  3. Interesting questions Melissa. And also a thought provoking matrix. I’ve been writing for over forty years. A tiny fraction of what I’ve written has made its way to the public in print and other media. But even if I never released another thing, I doubt I would stop writing.

    I doubt any writer who didn’t enjoy the process at all would stick out the months, or in my case years needed to produce a book. So the satisfaction and challenge of word and story craft take primacy. The rest as you say is gravy. It’s always nice to get pats on your back, but the creative spark in each person will always find an outlet regardless of the world’s perception.

    As for the formula writers, I think it’s a bit like going to a job one doesn’t particularly enjoy. That’s why they call it work. Personally, I refuse to let writing become work. I already have something in that slot. Yet I suspect that even those writers have something in the bottom drawer, which they pull out when the house is quiet and even the cats have gone to bed – something which perhaps no one will ever read.

    The only thing I’d quibble with is that if readers like a book, it will necessarily translate into profitable sales. That hasn’t been my experience. And from what I’ve read here in IU, while favourable reviews will help, it seems that advertising and promotion are more important than readers’ reactions. Those of us old enough to remember pet rocks know that you can sell absolutely anything with the right ad campaign.

    1. John, I think you nailed it here: So the satisfaction and challenge of word and story craft take primacy. And you’re right about readers’ reviews not necessarily translating to sales, but I was thinking more about readers liking a book and passing that on by word of mouth. That seems to be the way most books catch fire, and I believe that process, more than reviews, is what propels a book into the stratosphere.

  4. Loved the article Melisa…I just had a conversation with a writer friend about validation and what it means and how much it matters. In the end, I think we agreed that for the two of us specifically, it’s pride in the words we put down. My grandmother used to tell me that for every lid there’s a jar. I believe that about readers, too. It’s getting your work to ones who most likely will love your work that has become the issue. So in the end, after the bliss of creating we all have to enter the business of writing if our validation includes published works read by others, right? I’m connected to my stories, my characters…I love them or hate them but I write them for me in the hopes that others will see in them the same good or evil that I do.

    1. Thanks, Jacqueline. I believe your grandmother was absolutely correct. I know if I like my own book that there will be some readers out there somewhere who will like it as well. That perfect pairing is what we all aspire to. Sounds like your grandmother was one smart lady!

  5. I write because like you, I have the characters that come into my head telling me their story. I would like it and feel validated if enough readers read my stories and liked them. Even if I never write a best seller or have a book in the top ten, I will keep writing as the stories come to me. I identify with a lot of my characters especially those in my two series. I gave them my personality, hair color, eye color and likes along with the same dislikes. When I am writing the story, I become them in a small way. Some may be more violent than me but they have the same emotions. So for me, validation occurs when someone reads my book and says it has a good story line regardless of how the critics see my stories.

    1. I’m with you, A.G. Between readers and critics, I’d much rather have readers enjoy my stories. It sounds like you have a lot of fun with yours, letting your characters be your alter-egos for a little while.

  6. An interesting little matrix, Melissa. I’m with you 100%: firstly I have to like it (I’m also with Yvonne because if I somehow fall out with what I’m writing I just can’t keep writing it), next would be the readers, and lastly the critics.

    From my observations, if the critics hate something, it’s best if they really loath it enough to want to really bag it and drag it across hot coals. In actual fact the more vocally vicious they are the better it sells.

    An excellent post, Melissa,

    1. TD, I guess I was off the mark when I supposed that some writers would be fueled by things other than personal satisfaction; we all seem to be in agreement here. I love the bit about having critics hate something so rabidly that it draws attention. Even bad PR is still PR. Thanks for commenting.

  7. Melissa, great article…long long ago a friend in Manhattan urged me to write commercial fiction — just to make enough to write what I really wanted to. I never could. My first novel took me 20 years to complete — not at a stretch, mind you – it went through many incarnations until i was satisfied with it. Its spiritual/metaphysical fiction and has won great reviews but it is certainly not adding to my coffers. But I love that i took infinite pains with it and am proud to have given birth to it. And now I’m on the home stretch of my second — also in the genre I love. Thank you and all the others like me who validate this form of writing.

    1. Mira, boy am I with you on that. I tried to write “commercial fiction” once, too–threw it out after the first chapter. Can’t do it. I love that you take your time with your books rather than rushing them. I’m sure your careful labor will show through. Good luck with #2. Keep us posted.

  8. Thought-provoking questions, Melissa. If I don’t write what I like, I fail to see the point and consequently lose interest. If my heart isn’t in it, the readers will know. I’ve stopped writing a few projects because…well, no passion. I hope readers will like what I’m publishing, that’s the best of all possible worlds, as you’ve mentioned.

    1. I think we’re all agreed, Laurie. Good thing, too, because I think readers really want books with heart. So that’s what we’ll continue to give them! Thanks for commenting.

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