What your writing is missing and how to get it

Writers love to write. We love the idea of writing, the act of writing, and talking about writing. We love the instruments of writing – pens, notebooks, software, clickety-clackety keyboards. We love the history and ephemera of writing – pithy quotes from beloved authors, old-fashioned typewriters, and musty smelling books that stand as testament to the labors of writers who have gone before us. We love the process of writing, the dance with the muse, putting all the pieces together.

But, why do we write? 

This question keeps popping into my head as I sit in my writing class. Even as I savor the atmosphere and drink in delicious new ideas and insights, a small voice in the back of my head keeps asking, “Why?”

Perhaps this voice is speaking up on behalf of resistance. Though I am excited to be learning new things about the writing craft, this new knowledge is also daunting. It reveals to me the enormity of what I do not know – everything that sits below the waterline, hiding beneath the tip of the iceberg on which I perch with my pen and notebook. So, the little voice asks, “Why?” It whispers that I shouldn’t expend so much energy without knowing why I’m making such an effort – all those hours, all that study, all the work of getting it wrong, and wrong, and wrong, and finally somewhat right.

And I don’t have a ready answer.

Simon Sinek, in his now famous TEDx talk preaches that you must start with the why. According to his “golden circle,” “why” is at the center, followed by concentric rings of “how” and “what.” But, we writers often get caught up in the how (our craft) and the what (our book) and lose sight of our why – our purpose. Sinek says of purpose, “… a true sense of purpose is deeply emotional, it serves as a compass to guide us to act in a way completely consistent with our values and beliefs. Purpose does not need to involve calculations or numbers. Purpose is about the quality of life. Purpose is human, not economic.” He is usually talking in the context of business, but the same can apply to your writing. What is your deeply emotional “why?” What serves as your compass? How do your values and beliefs weave themselves into the fabric of your stories?

When you write with purpose, you are a better writer. 

I do many kinds of writing. I journal, blog, write marketing copy, and am starting to get more serious about my fiction practice. The work I am most proud of is the work that is driven by a purpose. I have written letters to the editor that I hold more dear than a forty-page ebook or a branding framework that took three months to develop. I wrote letters to the editor because I was on a mission for one thing or another. I was trying to take a stand, make something happen. I cared, deeply, about the outcome.

Do you care about the outcome of your writing? Do you even know what you want it to be?

Over on my business blog, I recently wrote a post called The real secret of doing what you love. I confessed that I don’t love my work. It’s true. I don’t. But, I do love the people I help through my work, and I love the outcome of our partnership. I get excited about the purpose my work serves. My friend and colleague Craig McBreen also recently wrote about this in his post, Passion ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. He also believes that having a purpose or a mission is more important than having passion.

You know you have a passion for writing, but what’s your purpose for writing?

Think about your favorite fictional characters. They have amazing stories because they have a great sense of purpose or a mission to fulfill. Frodo in Lord of the Rings, Katniss in The Hunger Games, Harry Potter … they all have a reason – a “why” – behind what they do. The drive of that why, that purpose, creates the conflict that makes a good story.

Is there conflict in your life story?

What dragon are you fighting? What are you trying to prove? Who are you trying to rescue?

Writing is not easy work. If you are going to embark on this journey, pen in hand, you need something that will keep you going far along the road. You need something that will push you forward when you hit rock bottom, inspire you when you feel all is lost, pull you up when you just want to sink down and cry. You need a purpose – a why.

You have a deep, impassioned reason behind your desire to write. Find it.

  • Ask yourself “why?” over and over again like a five year-old child. Be persistent. Dig for the real answer.
  • Write the words “I believe…” on a piece of paper and then finish the sentence. Repeat the process until you hit on something that stops you in your tracks.
  • Look at your heroes. What do they stand for? What are their whys?
  • Read your own stories. What themes come up again and again?
  • Think back to when you began writing. What inspired you to pick up the pen the first time?

Finding your why will change your writing. When you know why you write, you’ll know what to write and you’ll know how you want to write it. You’ll bring more of yourself to the page, so you’re writing will be more alive. You will inject your passion with purpose – and that, my friends, is an unstoppable combination.

So, why do you write? 


Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of voice and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Image Credit: Mike Rastiello

31 thoughts on “What your writing is missing and how to get it

  1. Jamie, yet again you’ve written a post that reaches out directly to me. I realize you’ve written this for everyone, but it’s uncanny the topics you write, and the approach they take, and how they touch exactly on things I struggle with. Thank you so much for what you do!

    It sounds like your course is really developing a huge thought process for you, and that’s part of what makes you such a great writer. Passion is HUGE in the writing process; without having the passion to write (such as your letters to the editor), I don’t think any of us would have any success. The purpose, and the mission I believe are deeply driven by the passion that we have to drive the story, letter, or project forward.

    Yet again, you words, and more importantly the questions you pose at the end of your post, have made me think about what I hope to accomplish, and remind me that the writer in me won’t be satisfied until I reach for the “golden ring”. This is another that will get printed and put into my folder for days when I struggle with “why?”. Thanks again!

    • Tami,
      Thank you so much. Connecting is a big part of my why (though I’m still sussing that out), so I love to hear that you felt this reached out to you directly.

      My commitment to taking this class is what has gotten me thinking. That and the fact that I’m starting to come face-to-face with years of saying “I want to” and “I’m going to” and “someday.” When you get to this point and are about to start wrestling with your motivations, it brings up all KINDS of things. 🙂

      Here’s to reaching for the golden ring!
      Thanks again for such warm compliments. Very honored to be in your folder.

      • Absolutely my pleasure Jamie! I’m with you on starting to face the “I want to”, “I’m going to”, and “Someday”. I’ve told myself it’s time to MAKE my dreams goals, or quit spending so much time with them whirling around in my mind!

  2. Thank you, that’s a very thought provoking post. I’m now wondering if I do know why I write, I thought I did, but now I don’t think I do, not really, or rather I don’t think I have a big enough answer to the ‘Why?’ question to do justice to its importance. Hmmm…

      • Hi, Vanessa. Hi, Richard.

        I’m still sorting out my why. I think it’ll turn out to be a combination of things. There is no “right” answer, but I do think there are levels of answers … which is why playing the 5 year-old and asking “why” over and over can help you get to your “best” why:
        Why do I write.
        Because I like to.
        But why do I like to.
        Because I like telling stories.
        But why do you like telling stories.
        Because I like …
        … and so on.
        Good luck!

  3. I love this post! A thoughtful approach to writing cannot be stressed enough. My most recent post, The Youngest Man in my Life, came out of my asking a why question: “What makes a four year old do that?”…Your reasoning here makes me think I may be on the right track (or write track?). Thank you for this.

    • Thanks, Jennifer. 🙂 I love that you took the time to leave a comment.

      I think asking “why” and “what if” are two of a writer’s greatest tools – whether she is crafting a story or delving into her own motivations.

      Keep asking why … you may be surprised at what you turn up!

  4. Years ago in high school it started. The writing of thoughts that were popping up about classses, some required reading, or things certain teachers said were written in a spiral binder. I ha donly written one research paper, the “term paper” and it wasn’t very good. It took me a long time to understand “the form.” But in some part the why never came up. I wrote partly to amuse myself. As an art student, the art I was doing was a self amusment thing too. I had no concept of trying to sell anything, no idea of the work involved in the selling process.
    One day my father approached me and asked my about the content of that spiral binder. It wasn’t a diary but it was personal. Some of all that was there were ideas questioning everything …… everything including questioning the ideas with which I was raised. Some of it were my thoughts on Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn [not on the high school reading list, and he was on the school board]. He was disturbed by what he had read. I was disturbed by his reading my writing. In embarrassed anger I told him, “Don’t worry about it,” and in front of him tore out the pages and tossed them in the fire in the family room fire stove. It was a good lesson all the way around, for both of us. I got over it. Not sure he did. But the why of continuing to write was one of entertainment, from poetry in home made birthday cards, to ghosting papers for my wife’s college classes [she worked while in school also]. But this “Why” posting has me going here.

    • Hi, Timothy.
      Let me first say that I winced a bit when you said you threw those pages into the stove. As someone who has been journaling since the age of seven (and has never thrown out a single page) … ouch!

      Anyway, sounds to me like part of your why is just a deep curiosity about a variety of things. Curiosity is another critical tool in any writer’s arsenal. If we aren’t asking questions about the world around us, other people, human behavior, etc … we’d have nothing to write about.

      I hope you have new notebooks now, and I hope no one makes you feel embarrassed about them.

  5. Hmm. As a writer reading this post, it’s the kind of question I have to answer before I can do anything else now. Thanks a lot–just kidding ; )

    I’m thinking more about why we write in general, rather than the reason behind producing each individual piece. Both are important, but the former always stands ahead of the latter.

    Personally, I write because I’m an external processor. I don’t know things, but hand me my laptop with an open word document, and I can find out what I really believe and why. So too it creates a step-by-step discovery of your idea for the reader.

    Isn’t that where the roots of this post began? You create a course, a subject matter, a topic route, and you follow it where your head takes you. You’ve been led to think about the question, so instead of just handing us all the answer, you’ve now created a participatory piece where your thought process to self discovery is leading your readers to do the same. How cool!

    But I think beyond that is a deeper question: what are our motives for writing? Our goals? What do we hope to gain from it? That answer, I think, is what defines what exactly it is we write.

    There is the kind of writing that pleases an audience, that makes us money and perhaps famous within our lifetime. And there is the kind of writing that expresses the depths of our soul. This is the kind of writing that often goes unnoticed, while simultaneously fulfilling us. I think this is the kind of writing that creates legends for centuries, but there’s a reason it sometimes doesn’t happen until after the death of the author. It’s not marketable. It’s not what people want.

    Are we writing to produce a marketable product, or are we writing to create and to discover ourselves? How do you merge the two, and where do you sacrifice to achieve them both successfully? I don’t know J.K. Rowling’s email address, so it’s a temporary SOL.

  6. Thanks for being so clear about the differences between passion and purpose. I don’t think I’m always aware enough about this – but making a distinction between them I can see that the passion can be at times something quite self-indulgent, and the purpose something much more compassionate and constructive. And they complement each other perfectly! I don’t agree with Craig McBreen that purpose is more important – but it has a vital role to play in helping you to be objective and clear-headed about what you’re saying and how you’re saying it.
    As to my ‘why’ – I’m pretty sure I write to be able to understand. I’m not sure if I understand anything properly unless I write about it! It helps me focus.

  7. A very thought-provoking post, thanks for putting it out there! I’m especially interested in working through your bulleted list of questions to deepen my understanding of my motivations for my fledgling writing practice….that kind of introspection always pays dividends. Thanks again!

  8. Hey Jamie,
    Why do I write?
    Because I like the places writing takes me, and I do not mean physically but imaginary. I get so lost in the story when I am writing that I say to myself, thats not right. It is kind of weird that when I am writing I am see the story playing out in my mind, it is even weirder when the character surprises me 🙂
    I hope this makes sense and you dont think im losing it haha

  9. That’s a great post! Writting good posts is art, not everyone can do that.I love posts when reading them you feel like talking to that person, you feel the energy and personality

  10. Wonderful post! I’m just heading into college in the fall and trying to figure out what I want to do in life… thank you for your helpful ideas and thoughts 🙂

  11. I recently pulled one of my journals from high school out of storage. I’ve been journaling since the age of about 10 and wanted to see what I had to say, my tone. (I did this unrelated to responding to this post but because I’m working on a story where the protagonist is about 13 years old and I wanted to remind myself how a young teen thinks.) Immaturity, naivete present amongst the angst-ridden entries, but also some very wonderful confirmations that I really haven’t changed much in terms of my desire to write. So let me quote my younger self from the 1970’s:

    “I don’t know how to communicate. Why me? Why can’t I find the right words? Why do I have to work so hard for them? I can’t imagine great writers wracking their brains out for a single word…Because communication is EVERYTHING!….People should always keep trying to connect to other people’s hearts, and I know it sure ain’t easy, but it can be done. I want my book to be REAL to whoever is reading it. I want people to feel what I am feeling, to instill something in them with words…I would like to paint a gigantic picture and be able to step back and say, ‘Look, I did it! And people will look and see something in what I did and like it.”

    Those words are simplistic. But storytelling is part of humanity. Everybody loves a good story and I love to tell them. So more than forty years later, I am listening to the young girl inside me. It made me want to cry that I’ve waited so long, that I’ve delayed expressing this passion for writing and let life put it on hold.

    I’m not holding anymore. I’m doing. It’s gotta come out! This is my why.

  12. I write because I am compelled to do so. I write because I love it and when I feed my own internal fire I feel fulfilled.

    I write because I get paid to do it. I write because I choose to do it. I write because I write.

    Five different blogs, 12,000 posts and many more to come. It is just what I do.

  13. Im not a proffesional writer..i had never took any writing classes as well.. I write because I love writing..!! but you post is a tool to improve the purpose of writing ..thank you for posting..!!

  14. Wow, you have yourself an amazing blog here. I’ve read many of your posts and have found that things you say complete reflect on my own thoughts and how I feel about writing. Thanks for sharing! I look forward to reading more of your blog.

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