We can work to get better at the craft, write and submit frequently, and market to the best of our ability, but in the end, whether our books hit the bestseller lists may depend just as much on luck as on skill and perseverance.
How we pursue our writing careers, however, is entirely in our control. Whether we split our time between fiction and non-fiction, work as copywriters or journalists, self-publish or traditionally publish, write simply as a hobby, or use our way with words to support social change, is up to us.
But how do we determine the best way to shape a writing career? How can we tap into our individual strengths to find the best path to success?
Applying a Little Psychology to Our Efforts
In the book Getting Unstuck: A Guide to Discovering Your Next Career Path, author and professor Timothy Butler states the following:
“Over the years in my work as a psychotherapist, researcher, and career counselor, I have come to appreciate the central role that three social needs (or social ‘motivators’) play in our life decisions: the need to act in our immediate world, the need to belong, and the need to achieve. A shorthand to expression of these three needs is: power, people, and achievement.”
Butler’s thoughts got me thinking about how these three areas might apply to writers and their careers. In today’s age, simply writing a book may not be enough—especially for those wanting to craft a living from their work. Tapping into our personal motivations could help us to see more clearly how we might broaden our goals and increase job satisfaction.
Three Possible Motivators for Writers
Butler explains that though we may be motivated by all three of these social needs, usually one tends to stick out a bit more than the other two and “is clearly dominant and accounts for most of our social decision making.” (Or our decisions about what/how to write and publish.)
Below are brief descriptions of the three categories. Which one sounds like the dominant one for you?
- Power: Those motivated by power find it easy to act in the outside world and go after what they want. They like positions of authority. They want to be “players” and “decision makers,” and are often the ones who take charge in groups or lead dinnertime conversations. They volunteer for leadership roles, and enjoy influencing others. Look at your past. Did you often seek out positions of power? School officer, club president, team captain? When you think of your future, do you want to be in charge of something, or leading something? Do you think of yourself as managing events, making decisions? Though we all have a need for power, some of us define ourselves mostly by our desire for dominance and/or authority and feel out of sync unless we are in charge of something.
- People: Those motivated by people need to belong. Though we all need satisfying relationships in our lives, those who find this motivator dominant just don’t feel “whole” if they aren’t involved in relationships that nourish them. They value connection above all else, and seek out roles that offer interpersonal contact. They are definite team players, and have many friends and acquaintances. This person is comfortable in the role of coach, counselor, teacher, homemaker. He places high priority on spending time with family and friends, and will likely trade other things in life (like power and achievement) to foster good relationships. Look at your past. Were you the one getting friends together? The one worried when arguments and strife entered your social circle? The one organizing team activities? The one others leaned on when they needed help?
- Achievement: Those motivated by achievement have a deep personal need to accomplish their goals, regardless of what that means in terms of relationships or their positions in an organization. These are the scientists laboring over research for years in the hopes of making a discovery, the musicians practicing for hours in the basement in the hopes of becoming proficient at a piece. They are looking to achieve their “personal best,” and then to raise the bar a little higher. They may be competitive, seeking to outdo others to satisfy their own need for achievement. They enjoy being challenged, and become quickly bored if they’re not learning new things. They love to be seen as experts, but don’t need to be in charge. Look at your past. Were you the one trying to better your running time, achieve straight As, become the go-to expert on car engines? Were you satisfied only when you won an award, or when your teacher held up your assignment as a good example? Did you find jobs that failed to challenge you boring?
Apply Your Motivator to Your Writing Career
Once you’ve identified your primary motivator from the three above, how can you apply that to your writing?
With a little reflection, you’re likely to come up with your own best answers, but here are a few thoughts to get you started.
- Power: You love to run things. You may be happier self-publishing your book so you can control every aspect of the process. You may enjoy writing books or articles that help persuade people to think as you do, or that help position you as the leader in an organization. Your writing may support your efforts to gain a higher position in your chosen occupation, or may be the vehicle you use to launch a new company. You may need to feel effective and like you’re making an impact, so choose writing topics that support that goal. Tap into your passions and write to influence people. Beware—you may enjoy “having written” over actually writing, so if you find yourself putting off the actual work, dive into a powerful or emotionally arousing scene to get yourself going. Emotional scenes influence people, so you’re likely to enjoy these best. Picture the people you’re going to affect as you’re writing. Pre-publish parts of your work now and then so you can enjoy others’ reactions to it. Tell others about your goals. The fact that they might ask you about your progress later on will motivate you to get the work done. Offer to make a presentation that relates to your work, and have beta readers who are willing to look at your early pieces and give you “rah-rah” feedback.
- People: You love to connect with people. You may enjoy starting a writer’s group, and introducing new writers to experienced mentors. Online coaching may be perfect for you, allowing you to reach a larger number of people and to use your writing skills to help them improve their lives. Your writing may lead you to teaching positions, or mentoring. Perhaps you would like to start a regular writing retreat, or write a book about relationships. Since you like working with others, co-authoring a book may be right up your alley—or joining with others to start a new cooperative blog. Imagine how you can help others with your writing—maybe self-help is your category—and find supportive friends who provide reassurance and will be there to take you through periods of rejection and challenge. (This is really important for people writers—you need positive support!) Attend workshops, and when you’re alone with your writing, imagine a friendly reader enjoying your work. Better yet, write in a café or somewhere you can enjoy the feeling of other people being around.
- Achievement: You need to be constantly challenging yourself. If you’re bored with what you’re doing, find out how you can set the bar higher. If you’ve won an award for your short stories, maybe it’s time to see if you could get a book of them published? If you’ve been published but have yet to see high sales, challenge yourself to become a better marketer or to improve your personal brand. Seek out opportunities to enter contests that provide critiques. Simple praise doesn’t work for you. Find a writing mentor who will challenge you to get better. Take classes and set goals for yourself. Don’t divide your energies with group activities—give yourself time to work alone and to focus on your goals. Don’t be afraid to take risks in your pursuit of achievement. If you’re self-publishing, you’ll want your book to be the best it can be, so understand the time and commitment that will require. If you’re seeking to traditionally publish and you’re not succeeding, find out why. Achievers are great problem-solvers. Don’t forget to celebrate each of your successes, however—achievers are rarely satisfied, which can lead to depression, so take a moment now and then to see how far you’ve come.
Though we may all start out thinking that we want the big book deal, the truth is that a writing career can take many shapes. We just have to figure out which one best suits us.
All of us are influenced by all three of these motivators at one time or another, but identifying the one that is most powerful for you can help you to set goals that are more suited to your particular writing personality—and may help you get more joy and satisfaction out of your writing career.
For more on how these three motivators can be put to work in your writing, see Stephen P. Kelner Jr.’s book, Motivate Your Writing! Using Motivational Psychology to Motivate Your Writing Life.
Which motivator fits you best? Does identifying it give you some new ideas into how you may expand your writing career? Please share your thoughts.
NOTE: Butler gives credit to American psychologist Henry Murray and psychologist David McClelland for their work in researching and identifying the three needs.
Timothy Butler, Getting Unstuck: How Dead Ends Become New Paths, Harvard Business School Publishing, August 2007.