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Current Issue

No. 66

Editorial by George Green

Reading the articles in this issue make it plain, if there was any doubt, that we spend a lot of time and effort thinking about what people write, and how they write, and how they can be encouraged to write better. These are of course good and important questions. I’d like to pose another, different question that we ask less often: why do writers write?

There are, of course, dozens of reasons why a person might write. Let me suggest a few. Some writers write to impress, because they think it may make them seem more interesting or attractive to others, to gain friends or lovers, or to get the attention of someone specific or people generally. Some writers write because it’s their job, because it makes them money or because they have a Research Excellence Framework to satisfy. Some do it as an intellectual exercise.  Some do it out of arrogance or competitiveness. Some do it to justify themselves in their own eyes and/or the eyes of others. Some do it for therapeutic reasons, to get something out of their heads and onto a page. Some do it to shout ‘I exist!’. Some do it because they have a cause or an obsession. And some do it just because it is fun, because it amuses them.  

The thing that all the above have in common is that the reason these writers write is for their own satisfaction. Not necessarily wholly or solely, but primarily. It’s about themselves first, then the reader. Now, let me be clear. There’s nothing wrong with any of that. There’s no law or code that says that a person has to write to communicate. Writing can be like singing in the bath, or telling your troubles to a pet, or standing on a soap box to harangue indifferent shoppers. Nothing wrong with any of that, it is what it is and that’s absolutely fine, and if that’s what people want to do then we should encourage and facilitate them.    

But, and all that said, there’s an issue here. Think about the great writing that you’ve encountered during your lifetime. How many of those pieces of writing that have moved you, that have changed you, changed the way you see things, how many of them were written for the reasons in the paragraph above? Not many. This isn’t because of the fact that much of this sort of writing is about the writers themselves. Much great writing (Plath, Kerouac) is fundamentally, even entirely, about the person who wrote it. The writer can be, and often is, their own subject. The crucial difference is that while it can be written about the writer it isn’t written for the writer.  It’s written for the reader.  

And that’s the hard thing to get some writers to understand. It isn’t actually about how well they form sentences, or their language, or their frame of reference, or their characters or dialogue or description. It’s about the fact that they aren’t writing to reach out, to communicate, to speak to the reader in a way that they can understand, to frame their story in ways that bring the reader on board, to grip and hold them. Yes, of course, we should encourage writers to write in any way they choose, and if that’s what they want to do then that’s just fine and dandy. But we need also to remind them that the reason writers are remembered is not just because they spoke well, but because they spoke well to others.

Co-editors: Carolyn Jess-Cooke, Tom MacAndrew, Sally O’Reilly

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