On Writing,  publishing,  Topic of the Night

Topic of the Night: Play Ethic

Topic of the Night: Play Ethic

This topic actually gets confusing, so let me see if I can make it clear. If confused on something, feel free to ask in the comments or write me.

And caution: This topic might slam into a few belief systems. Just saying. (grin)

“Work Ethic,” as described in dictionaries and online is basically a value based on hard work and diligence.  There are all sorts of different meaning attached to the term depending on your political or economic system, but not going into that.

And the term is tossed around in a thousand ways, so I want to try to narrow it down to the career of fiction here.

What I want to jab at is the idea that you must have a “work ethic” to become successful in writing.

You do, sort of. But it can also be deadly.

Where you need a “work ethic” in a fiction writer’s career.

— You must be able to be diligent and work hard at your publishing, business, and marketing to be successful as a fiction writer these days. In all those areas, if you don’t have a very solid “work ethic” you will soon fall behind and your business will fail. (Soon meaning in just a few years.)

— You must have a “work ethic” and be consistent and diligent in education, both about business, about the publishing industry, and about learning craft. If you do not have a solid basis of a “work ethic” in this area of education, you will soon be doomed. (Soon meaning in just a few years.)

— You must convince your friends, your family, and all the others around you that you have a “work ethic” about your career, your writing, and about your future as a writer. A work ethic buys you respect in this crazy world.

Notice I did not say you need a “work ethic” when it comes to actually writing.

In fact, from the observations I have made of hundreds, if not thousands of writers, a work ethic when it comes to actually producing words is damaging if not deadly, especially to production.

Let me attempt to explain why.

What is Work?

For a vast majority of people on this planet, work is something you do to get the money to buy the things you need to survive.

Work is something you go to because you have to, and then look forward to the weekends or your time off. Even when you like your job.

Work, for many people, is not something they like. Not all, granted, but many, many people. They do it to pay the bills and buy food and clothing and would quit if they won the lottery.

Work is something you get away from to go write.

So, when you call your writing, your sitting down and telling a story, “work,” you are dragging in all the real world definitions of work and how your parents felt about it and your economic upbringing so on. At first, you won’t notice that, but after a time, it will drag your writing down to the point where you would rather not do it.

Work has Value

For most, work is something you do, work brings in money,  your work title is how you describe yourself to the world.

Value and work are tied up so tightly, it is impossible to pull the two apart for most.

So when you call your writing work, you are trying to give it value. I understand that. It is a way to tell your family and friends that what you are doing has value. You are working, for god’s sake. Can’t they see that?

But that’s all fine and good if your writing does have value in REAL WORLD measurements. But for all of us, and I was no exception to this, in the early years of writing, writing returns no real world value.

So you go to work, but you get no return for your work, therefore your work must be worthless. And after a short time, that will grind you down and stop your writing as well, all because you called your writing work.

Critical Voice

When you make your production of words so important as to be “work” then you have almost no choice but to do a lot of your writing from your critical voice. After all, your writing is important, it has to be “perfect.”

Writers with this stress on making their writing work also are stuck in massive rewriting issues.

And writers with this stress on making their writing work have to justify that to the outside world, so novels often will take a year to write because, as everyone knows, writing is “hard work.” That way they not only fool themselves, but all their family and friends for doing so little work over such a long time.

But making your writing work makes the critical voice take over, and from there you will end up nowhere in a career but frustrated and teaching college.

Go Play!

Over the years, Kris and I have told more writers with “work” problems to just go play.

And I constantly tell people to have fun with their writing.

The creative voice is a two-year-old you, that part of you who just wants to have fun, to create, to move on and do something new all the time.

That creative voice is brilliant at storytelling and if you give it permission, it has soaked up most advanced writing techniques. Your critical voice doesn’t know much about storytelling, even though it thinks it does.

So writers, especially long-term writers, have figured out ways to let their writing be play. Now they might call it work when talking to others. I sometimes do. Nature of the beast of communication.

But when actually sitting down to tell a story, for me it’s like strapping into a fun ride at an amusement part. I don’t know where I’m going, it will be thrilling and scary.

And it will be fun. Great fun.

And when I am done, I climb out of the car and move on to a new ride, which keeps my two-year-old creative voice happy.

Keeping Writing Play

Now over the years I have fallen down into the trap that my production, my writing, is important, that is is work. I make my living from my writing, so an easy slide to go down.

And over the years I have fallen into the state that I believed my writing has no value, and so, as a person who was brought up lower class who thinks I should be working, I stop writing.

I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have started down that slide and caught myself. And how many friends I have who are lost in that same trap. The trap that writing is important and it must be work.

And if it is work, it has to be painful to do and something you don’t want to do. And if it doesn’t bring in money, it’s worthless and your time would be better used elsewhere.

Yup, I know all those problems, see it in writer after writer, especially writers lost in rewriting myths.

So how to get out of all that?

— Diligence. You have to be constantly aware that making your production of words work can be deadly. Writing itself, the creation of words must remain fun. Scary, sure, but fun scary.

— You have to protect your writing as a fun place to go away from the problems of your life. You are writing escape literature for readers, it also needs to be your escape.

— You have to figure out ways to give fun in your life value. It will go against so much of how you were brought up, but when having fun, when enjoying your writing feels valuable to you, you will do it more.

In other words, you need to develop a “play ethic” where going and playing at your writing is done regularly, with diligence.

You might have to tell your family you are working. Fine. They don’t need to know the entire truth.

But when you sit down at the computer to produce new words. Let yourself just play.

And then leave what you have created alone. Get it out to readers to enjoy your play sessions as well.

You are an entertainer as a fiction writer. Entertain yourself first and the readers will come along just fine.

And apply your work ethic to your publishing and education side.

Go play with the writing, the creating. Have fun.

Get a “play ethic” when it comes to producing new stories. Play hard and with diligence.

You will be stunned at how much more you produce and how much more readers will love it.


  • Miguel Angel Alonso Pulido

    Hi, Dean
    It’s funny how everything seems to be connected. I’ve been struggling with my writing for a few months. I’m living in a new country, with my savings as the only way to support my family and writing sort of became my “work”. And as you say work is dull and boring, specially when there is no direct return. And then I get two possible jobs as a freelance, that will allow me to have a decent wage and still time to write, but they are still in the air, so there is no return from then also, but still they need a lot of prep work. And now I have a lot of work to do, but I found myself surfing the web, watching tv, and feeling guilty about not having any work done.
    Man, how I needed your post! Now I’m going to work my ass off on the job offers, even if there is no return yet, and make writing my escape. It’s not going to be easy, but if I don`t do it, I will lose one of the thngs I love most: creating stories and sharing them with the world.
    Thanks, Dean! Maybe you just saved me! 🙂

  • Mike

    Dean – I wonder if this play ethic is part of the reason you suggest a Dedicated Writing Computer? Because if you have a DWC, it’s much easier to slip into that play mindset immediately after you sit down?

    Timely post for me so I really appreciate it!

    • dwsmith

      It does have something to do with it, Mike. Yes. Good observation. The dedicated writing computer is a trick you play on your mind, a training tool. When there, nothing is important. Just write and play and tell stories.

  • allynh

    There you go.

    What’s interesting, is that when I talk about what I’m doing, people say, “Oh, that’s too much work,” and it just shuts down the conversation. I mention people like Charles Hamilton writing 100m words in his life, and they miss the point that those 100m words represent thousands of stories that people devoured. They only see the amount of “work” he had to do, and that he “obviously” made money at it otherwise why did he bother. Glug!

    Then I see people doing stuff like this just for the joy of it, and I keep on doing.

    This Man Has Spent 30 Years Mapping the Imaginary Land of Ukrania

    Jerry’s Map

  • Sheila

    Thanks for this post, Dean! I think I’ve fallen pretty hard into the “work” mind set, and it’s played heck with my production. I really needed this reminder about making writing fun.

  • Rob Cornell

    I remind myself of this constantly. Once I start thinking of it as Important Work, I start doubting my every move. But when I let myself write the way I want to write, the way I *enjoy* writing, the writing itself comes much easier.

    I’m actually getting better at this. After recently writing a book I really did not want to write, there was a while there where I wasn’t sure I would write much of anything again. But I’ve got the love back. And things seem to be running smoothly again.

  • Bill Sinclair

    Picasso, and many great artists of the 20th century, would wholeheartedly agree with this. Picasso made the selling, promoting, and marketing of his stuff, and the learning of craft, the ‘work’. But his works were the products of play. He was adamant about this.
    Just sayin’.
    Thanks again, Dean, for another thought-provoking post