The shared feature of all great writers is that they make a contribution, which makes it the most important thing on your “to do” list as a writer.
What is the one thing all great authors do?
Create beautiful words? Tell gripping stories? Create new ways of writing? Become the voice of a generation?
Yes, all this and more, but the shared feature of all great writers is that they make a contribution.
They make a contribution that at least some readers value: the best influence many or even contribute to the shaping of the zeitgeist.
In this sense, a contribution is the most important thing on your “to do” list as a writer. Books – and authors – live on based on the size and quality of their contributions.
You have four roles as a writer trying to get a book out the door. You can throw all four out the window if you only wish to write for yourself – these roles apply if you want to be read by others.
- Finish what you start. Resolve everything and don’t leave anything hanging.
- Don’t fill the pages with garbage.
- Make things easy for readers. This means writing in a way readers can understand.
- Contribute. Do something no one else is offering the world. This requires having something to say in the first place.
The first three roles are the mechanics: get your book out and make it readable and enjoyable. The last point is the heart of your book.
How do you make a contribution? Anyway, you like.
Making a contribution is why you took the trouble to write this book in the first place. It’s what you want readers to remember. It’s how you might want readers to be changed after reading your words.
Let’s say you have written a memoir about addiction. Perhaps you want readers to understand and have sympathy for addicts, or maybe you want to encourage addicts to turn their lives around, like you did.
Memoirs, and some nonfiction, are often about helping others: to warn readers and help them from making the same mistakes or to show how even the most significant obstacles can be overcome. But fiction can also have a place and purpose. Imagined tales also make a contribution – especially when it gets people talking around the water cooler.
Perhaps the biggest modern success story is J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter epic. What did she contribute through this work? She gave the world Harry Potter and the magic of Hogwarts. Her characters are role models for countless girls and boys, and even grownups. She gave entertainment and excitement. She stoked imaginative fires. She gave fan fiction writers treasure troves of ideas to mine. Her seven books gave a hungry movie industry blockbuster scripts. She made Christ Church dining hall in Oxford a travel destination. The list of tangible contributions runs long.
No one can tell you what to contribute, only encourage you to do so. You decide how. You deliver. This is the type of paradox that justifies Robert A. Heinlein’s adage, “Writing can be learned, but not taught.”
An editor will try hard to pull on this “what are you contributing” thread, making sure you contribute all you can. Maybe it’s a special experience, a unique perspective, an idea, or simply a book that will make people happy. Whatever it is, you need to commit to it and add your contribution to the book world.
The path to great writing is wide open – as it should be. Whatever you write doesn’t matter as much as that it adds in some way to the lives of readers. Many authors say they are happy if they please just one reader. You are lucky if you can do more.
Think hard about the type of contribution you want to make. Whatever it is, work hard to make it. It’s your primary job as a writer.
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