Should you write for money or for art?

Fort: Writing for money versus for art

In the nether-reaches of the internet, shadowy figures argue whether authors who write for money are sellouts. These are their opinions.

If you push aside enough cobwebs, wander down enough dank corridors, and tiptoe through enough iron-bound doors you might find yourself in the nether-reaches of the web where shadowy figures debate the question of whether writing should be about money or art.

I confess I have no strong views on this matter, but that’s not an interesting way to approach a question, so for the purposes of this post let’s pretend I have all the strong views.

In case your socks got too wet and your candle burned out before you reached this nether-web, here are some of the arguments that may or may not be bandied about.

Against art: Writing only thinking about yourself is self-indulgent.

Against money: Trying to write what you think readers want is the best way to produce vanilla, derivative stories.

For art: You should write what inspires you, the stories you need to tell, and if you write honestly and deeply your work will find an audience.

For money: If you’re trying to make a living off your writing, you’d be naive not to consider the audience for your work.

Against money: Anyone who cranks out stories they think will sell is a sell-out to their art and a hack.

For art: Writers should be artists. It’s so crass to think about the business side of writing.

Against art: Writing is about communication. If you write something that only a few people in the world can understand it defeats the purpose.

Against money: You can’t make much money writing anyway, so you should focus on creating something deep and literary that adds to the world’s culture.

For money: If you can make enough from writing to live on you’ll have more time to write.

For art: You can’t write a worthwhile book in six months or even a year. Take the years required to get every word right and you will create something valuable and lasting, not something that might be interesting for a few months and then will be forgotten.

For money: Writing in popular genres isn’t selling out, it’s being smart.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea and it’s awfully cold and dark down here. Plus I think there are spiders.

Time for some opinions.

Should you write the genre that sells best even though you don’t enjoy reading it?

No. (See? I can be opinionated.)

You won’t do a good job unless you’re familiar with the genre, which means you need to read widely in it, and if you don’t enjoy it why would you do that to yourself?

If you’re disdainful of the genre you’re writing it will show. No one wants to read a book by a writer who’s sneering at them.

If you publish multiple books every year are they necessarily rubbish?

No.

Though you could probably make them better if you spent more time editing. (What? I said “probably”.)

On the other hand, anyone who publishes multiple books each year is producing a lot of words, and it’s hard to write that much without learning something.

And some people write quickly because they know exactly what they’re doing.

Must you consider the reader, or is it okay to write purely for yourself?

If you never plan to share your writing there’s no need to consider the reader.

But if you plan to publish and intend others to read your writing, you need to ask how your words will affect your audience. You don’t have to try to cater to everyone, but you should try to cater to someone. Even if it’s kittens.

Does writing for money make me a sell-out?

Um, I think writing for money makes you a professional. (That’s the definition, right?)

You can write for a small, cultured audience of individuals who enjoy sophisticated and subtle literature, or you can write for a mass audience of people who read two books a year and still think sparkly vampires are original. Either is a valid choice.

 

Did you see all those opinions? And they were all mine.

Kind of. Yea, not really.

I only have one opinion on what and why you should write: whatever and whyever you like. So long as you don’t insist I read it.

What do you think about the (possibly non-existent) writing-as-art-versus-writing-for-money debate?

Always hear when I write more stuff.

Author: A.S. Akkalon

By day, A.S. Akkalon works in an office where the computers outnumber the suits of armour more than two-to-one. By night, she puts dreams of medieval castles, swords, and dragons onto paper.

33 thoughts on “Should you write for money or for art?”

  1. I want to write deathless prose that will win me the acclaim and undying respect of my peers … and also make me piles of cash. Not too ambitious, surely.

  2. At the end of the day every writer takes a path that they are comfortable with and can live with. Sometimes you have few options because the marketplace decides for you.

    1. I think you’re entirely right. What bewilders me is how some people feel they have the right to tell other people that they’re writing for the wrong reasons.

  3. I think that when you’re passionate, you don’t do it because of money, but because it makes you happy. Now, you also need money to do what you love, so some money becomes a necessity. A lot of it is the cake icing, but if you write to be famous and rich, you should probably think of doing something else. Lol Everyone’s motivation is different. This is how I see it, but that’s just me. 🙂

    1. Exactly. Writing isn’t easy, so why write if you’re not passionate about it. But if you’re living off your writing you do need to consider the money aspect.

  4. Do they have to be mutually exclusive? Maybe the question is should you write what you want to write or what others want to read? I believe that if I am interested in it, others will be too!

  5. In regards to writing up and selling her memories for money, Han Suyin said “A piece of one’s soul to the multitudes in return for rice and wine does not seem to me a sacrilege.” I’m not sure if I am quite that detached, but I like the philosophy.

  6. “You should write what inspires you, the stories you need to tell, and if you write honestly and deeply your work will find an audience.”

    ^That’s my argument right there. Totally.

  7. I think the write what you enjoy comment above expresses things best, if you don’t write what you enjoy, you’re most likely not going to be successful whether you’re writing for money or art.
    I’m lucky enough that what I write (mystery novels and sci-fi) is popular and so can earn money, I say can because I’m still struggling with that part of it, but I would, someday, like to write some great piece of literature that is underappreciated upon release but praised to the heavens as the years go by.
    Until I manage that though, I’ll continue with the mysteries I enjoy, and hope to sell them for some filthy money, because, you know, I have bills to pay.

    1. It’s great when there’s a large audience for the kind of books you want to write anyway. I hope you do sell your stories for some filthy money and write great literature as well. 🙂

  8. The only thing that makes sense to me is to write because you enjoy it. If you’re writing for money you’re a fool, because any minimum wage job will earn you more than writing fiction. If you’re writing for art, nobody is going to hail you as the next Big Artiste. If writing doesn’t bring you pleasure it itself then find another hobby!

    I have no time for writers who accuse others of “selling out”.

  9. I can’t wait to publish my novel and rake in all those tens of dollars! Perhaps I’ll make enough for a nice dinner on the town.

    Of course I’d love to make money from writing, but only if it’s what I want to write. One of my best friends is a copy writer and I think that would be a special kind of hell. She gets paid well, though.

    In the meantime it’s enough to connect, share, express, entertain, inspire. . . That kind of thing. Actually, that’ll probably always be enough.

    1. Ooh, you’re aiming big! I’ll be thrilled when I make enough for a coffee. 🙂 I’m with you on the copy writing. It’s taking something wonderful (writing) and turning it into a special form of torture.

  10. Samuel Johnson famously said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money”, and if you substitute the word “readers” for “money”, it becomes an even more interesting discussion. There’s no crime in writing in the popular genres but, in my experience, it’s hard to find an audience there. There’s too many other people already crowding the aisles, eager to sell-out if at all possible.

    So you might as well write what you love. Don’t you think?

    1. That’s a great quote. 🙂

      You make an excellent point about the popular genres being crowded. Personally, I have no intention of writing anything but fantasy because that’s what I read and love (most), and I don’t have to live off my writing income. Luckily it’s also a popular genre.

  11. I’ve always thought of this as a trick question. Shakespeare wrote for money. Dante wrote for money. Basically anybody the world thinks of as a genius, and who endured over time wrote for money. You just do the best you can, and maybe it’s good enough to make money while you’re alive and maybe… if it’s really, really good… somebody will call it art someday. The idea of “oh, I’m just too brilllllllllliant to make money” just sounds like a self-reinforcing delusion to me.

    1. Thanks! I agree, and I also think some of the things people think they’re arguing about they’re actually not. For example, who says literary fiction has to be boring? I don’t write it, but I’m pretty sure it shouldn’t be. 😉

  12. Your choice of the word “should” is interesting. To me it implies there is a right answer to your question and that seems to me to be a fallacy. There is no “should about writing.” There are a lot of ‘ifs’ though. I might have used ‘do’ instead, but then that wouldn’t have been as provocative and there clear a desire for a response to the question, or at least the stimulation of dialog. So, in the interest of dialog, while I wait for my horses to eat breakfast:

    In my case, I write to keep my brain from turning into oatmeal in retirement. I spent 35 years as an Aerospace Engineer, the last 20 working on the Space Station power system that’s up there orbiting the earth every 90 minutes as you read this. It was 35 years of never doing the same thing twice, of never ending steep learning curves, doing things never done before. Then I retired and my brain nearly spun a bearing. I designed houses (43 of them were built) but when the learning tapered off, I quit and turned to gunsmithing. I conquered that, at least the parts I cared bout, chambering and fitting high accuracy rifle barrels, so I needed a new learning experience. I had been reading 5 to 10 books a month since I can remember and on a lark, decided to write a novel.0 year

    Wow. Talk about a learning experience? I put the novel on hold and turned to Fan Fiction to try and get a grasp on writing fiction. They don’t pay engineers to write fiction, at least outside of the climate sciences. I read 39″ of book shelf, books on writing, and picked up two excellent mentors. Major learning experience. Plot, dialog, POV, tense, person, limited, multiple, scene structure, plot structure, my head was spinning, but after a quarter million words of FF, I went back to the novel and by golly I finished it, edited it, and a few people read it as an unpublished manuscript.

    There’s no should in there.

    That said, ‘if’ one wants to write for a living, and actually eat and stay out of the rain, one ‘should’ write something people are willing to pay money to read if for no other reason than eating and shelter aren’t really optional. Survival isn’t a sellout, it’s the most basic of news for all living creatures.

    I never ever regarded the authors of the books I read as selling themselves out for providing me with thousands of hours of entertainment over the last 70 years since I learned to read. God bless ’em all for dong what they did.

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