Monday, July 21, 2014

The Best Mentality to Write With

I rarely ever say something is the 'best' way to do something. Quite simply, there are many ways to do anything and one way could work best for one person and another way for another. But what if I told you what I believe to be the best way to write?

It all started when I read the article, "The Secret of Effective Motivation". Read it quickly then come back, to this page.

Basically, the article summarizes a research project studying motivation. The researchers surveyed about 11,000 cadets at West Point, asking them to rank their motives to attend the academy. The motives were split into internal motives like being trained to be an officer (basically, goals that are inherently related to the journey itself) and instrumental motives like finding a job later on (goals that aren't inherently related to the journey).

The researchers expected that the cadets who would become officers, got early promotions, and stayed in the military longer would obviously have strong internal motives but also strong instrumental motives. The most surprising thing was this: the cadets that had strong internal and strong instrumental motives "performed worse on every measure than did those with strong internal motives but weak instrumental ones."

What does this mean for your writing journey?

Obviously, we probably all want to be published, become NYT bestsellers, etc. The idea of winning prizes, holding a physical copy of our books in our hands, etc. drives us to write. We love to write, sure, but we'd love recognition. In fact, what might be best to getting that recognition is not running after it at all.

It's a hard mentality to switch to, but I think it's necessary. Could JK Rowling really have spent nine years simply in planning the Harry Potter series and writing the first book if all she desired was publication? Nine years is a long time to wait for something. What must have driven her was the journey itself; the intrinsic goals of writing the book, being with the characters, discovering her world, and crafting prose.

The funny thing is that there really shouldn't be a balance between intrinsic and instrumental motivations. To be successful, as the study shows, your intrinsic motivations must outweigh your instrumental ones by a lot. Don't try going for the best of both worlds; pick the better world and your world will become better as a result. Don't go for a 50-50 balance unless you're absolutely certain it works for you (I'd be skeptical, because the study proves that weak instrumental motivations and strong intrinsic ones win out every day).

This also helps a lot in keeping your chin up through the rejection-heavy process of writing. If you don't long for winning contests, prizes, even being published, rejections won't hurt nearly as bad. It might be scary to think, I don't need to be published, but think of it as: I need to create the best book possible for myself, as a writer, and publication will come as a side effect.

If you are intrinsically motivated to create the best book possible, publication itself shouldn't be the goal (just think how many bad books are published). If you want publication alone, you might just do the bare minimum to get a book deal instead of pushing your writing the furthest it could go. I highly doubt that writers like Hemingway, Angelou, Hugo, Salinger, Rowling, Tartt, and more just wanted to be published. They pushed writing to a new height, and it couldn't have happened unless they were intrinsically motivated to be the absolute best they could be, instead of just publishable.

I know, it's easy to say 'forget about your dream goals'. I still long to be published, win prizes, etc. It's hard to get out of that mentality, but it might be necessary. Don't shut down or ignore your instrumental motivations, that's just dangerous. Just let it flow through your mind like water. Acknowledge them and move on. Obsess over your intrinsic motivations instead: creating the best prose possible, fleshing out your characters, tightening that plot. And, as a result, you'll be on your way to success.

I loved that article - it completely changed the way I think about motivation. What do you think about the study?


  1. I needed to read this today, SC. Thank you! I really enjoyed the motivational article. There were some great insights that could help me with a the other side of my life, the non-writing side. =)

  2. I have slowly been discovering this in my writing journey. I've also discovered that I love writing b/c...well, I love writing- and not just b/c I really want to see my name on a cover someday. Which is reassuring! :) I always want to keep writing, even if I never get published. I couldn't imagine never not creating new worlds and characters.

  3. I caught mention of this post on the Nightmare on Query Street Twitter feed and enjoyed reading both your post and the article. Very interesting and something I will try to keep in mind! It's similar to something literary agent Donald Maass wrote about in his book The Fire in Fiction. You can read it for yourself in the Introduction's sample pages on amazon or Just thought you might be interested.