Four Universal Motives for Writing

Writing at the time or Orwell

In 1946, British author George Orwell wrote an essay titles Why I Write, prefacing the four motives for writing he outlines with some background as to how we got started and the evolution of his writing. He says, “from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued.”

Orwell started with poetry at the very young age of four or five, often imitating the style of authors he admired, like Aristophanes. When he reached sixteen, it became clear what kinds of books he wanted to write, “enormous naturalistic novels with unhappy endings, full of detailed descriptions and arresting similes.”

The emotional attitude writers acquire in their lives before they get started provides the internal motivation toward building a voice. What's happening around them at the time they start writing is the external environment that permeated how they create their work.

Orwell says there are universal motives that are common to every writer. The proportion of their influence is based on the context — what's going on in the atmosphere in which a writer live at the time. The list excludes the need to earn a living:

(1) 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, willful 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-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.

Most writers are vain and self-centered, they want their opinions noted.

(2) 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.

Some writers take pleasure in beauty and want to share experiences about it they feel valuable.

(3) Historical impulse

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

These writers are interested in facts about the world they live in and want to record them for future generations.

(4) 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.

Writers who are motivated to alter perceptions, raise awareness of certain things that are happening.

Orwell himself was writing during an age of political changes in Europe — totalitarian regimes and world wars. His writing reflected the years spent in unsuitable positions followed by poverty and the sense of failure he experienced. There's a need to balance personal natural tendencies with what's required in a moral sense for the age one lives in.

He says:

The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.

It is not easy. It raises problems of construction and of language, and it raises in a new way the problem of truthfulness.

Why I Write is a short conversation of a prominent author with his audience. For another take on writing from a different age and context, see David Ogilvy's memo to all employees. Writers may enjoy four ideas for writing more and better.