George Orwell’s Personal Guide on the Motivation to Write

Every writer has his or her own motivations to write. Writing is hard work, often without much external reward. Something must compel us.

I recently wrote about some of my own motivations to write.

I always enjoy reading about what motivates other writers to write, especially the pros and Grand Masters. One of the more interesting treatises I’ve come across is George Orwell’s essay, ‘Why I Write‘.

writer's motivation

According to Orwell, a writer’s motivations stem from the past, their experiences and the present age they live in. A writer, Orwell says possesses four motivations to write, each existing to various degrees over various periods in each writer.

Why Writers Write, According to George Orwell

Sheer Egoism

Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, wilful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centred than journalists, though less interested in money.

Aesthetic Enthusiasm

Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.

Historical Impulse

Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

Political Purpose

Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

George Orwell said a writer’s motivations stem from the past, experiences and their present age.Click To Tweet

Reflecting on his own position in this spectrum of writers motivations, Orwell had this to say about his own work:

Looking back through the last page or two, I see that I have made it appear as though my motives in writing were wholly public-spirited. I don’t want to leave that as the final impression. All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a POLITICAL purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.

Read the Whole ‘Why I Write’ Essay

To read the complete essay, ‘Why I Write’ and a handful of other essays by George Orwell check out this collection.

Thinking about your own motivations to write, do you agree with Orwell’s points? Do you see your own life as a writer in any of these? Do you have any additional motivations to write not listed here?

Kate Krake
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Kate Krake

Kate Krake writes speculative fiction and non-fiction. She is the author of the urban fantasy series Guessing Tales. Kate blogs about popular culture, health, wellness and creative writing. She lives in Brisbane, Australia with her husband, daughter and two beagles. Find out more on www.katekrake.com.
Kate Krake
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