If you write long enough, at some point you are going to experience a lag in productivity. Whether you call it “writer’s block” or “resistance” or just “a slump,” the moment will come when you struggle to put words on the page, and you just can’t find motivation to write through the struggle. One way to overcome that lag is to lean into what motivates you.

Motivation to Write: The 7 Fundamental Needs of Writers And How to Leverage Their Motivational Power

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

In 1943 in his paper “The Theory of Human Motivation,” Abraham Maslow proposed that our needs fall into a hierarchy. Maslow said that we pursue physiological needs first, then our need for safety, then our need for belonging, then our need for approval and acceptance, and then finally our need for self-actualization.

The basic idea behind Maslow’s Hierarchy is that we are motivated by our needs. Maslow believed that the most basic needs must be met before a person could devote energy to the higher needs.

I think this is true for us as writers as well. We are motivated by foundational needs that drive our desire to write.

But rather than those needs falling into a hierarchy we all share, I believe there are seven foundational needs writers have.

We each experience one or more of these foundational needs. These needs aren’t necessarily better or worse than one another. They are simply different.

My goal with this article is not to present a polished theory of author motivations. I didn’t work through a data-driven scientific process to develop these seven needs. I built this list through self-examination and observation of other writers.

Rather, my goal is to provide a potential path out of a slump.

If we understand what our foundational needs are, we can leverage those needs to push through difficult times in writing. My hope is that by reading through these seven categories of needs, you will see yourself in a few of them, and then be able to use those needs as a tool to increase your productivity as a writer.

The 7 Fundamental Needs of Writers

In myself and my friends who write, I’ve noticed the following seven foundational needs driving our productivity:

1. The Need for Narrative Fulfillment

I was told from a young age that I was a good singer. My mother often signed me up for choirs and volunteered me to sing solos in church. When I went away to college, I started as a music major because I had this deep need to know if what I’d been told and what I believed about my musical ability was true. As a child, I’d been told a story — you are a musician — and I needed to finish it.

It took me a year to figure out that I was not meant to major in music and that being a musician was not my story.

The writers I’ve met who feel this way talk about how they began writing at a young age. They started scrolling down stories as soon as they were able to write. This founding story created a need in them to finish the narrative of the young kid who was a writer at a young age.

If this is you . . .

When you hit a slump in your writing and need motivation to write, remind yourself that this is part of who you are. This is your story. You’ve been writing since you were young. This is who you are. It might be hard at the moment, but that will pass. So sit down and get to work.

2. The Need for Self-Understanding

I am a mystery to myself. Often I am surprised by my own feelings or thoughts. Routinely I don’t know how I feel about something until I sit down to write about it. My thoughts crystalize when I write.

In this way, writing is about self-discovery.

The writers I’ve met who feel this way will often talk about writing to discover something about themselves. They feel like there is something beautiful hiding inside of them and the only way to release it is to write it out of its cage. It is as if they are sculptors standing in front of unshaped marble and writing is their hammer and chisel.

If this is you . . .

When you hit a slump in your writing and need motivation to write, remind yourself that you are just at a tough part of the marble, but that there is something beautiful lurking under the surface, and the only way to get it out is to start banging away at it.

3. The Need to Champion a Cause

The prophet Jeremiah said his prophecy was like a fire in bones. He couldn’t possibly hold it inside. It had to come out or it would burn him alive. Jeremiah had a message that he couldn’t help but share.

The writers I’ve met that feel this way are often obsessed with a single topic. Even if they want to diversify, they can’t. Everything they write eventually comes back to their message.

I’ve heard journalists talk this way about the truth. It is something they have to uncover. They can’t let it alone.

I’ve heard fiction writers talk this way about certain characters. No matter how hard they try, their protagonist always takes a certain shape or battles a specific issue.

If this is you . . .

When you hit a slump in your writing and need motivation to write, go back to your message. Pretend you are sharing it with someone for the first time. Relish in it. Let your passion for it fuel your work.

4. The Need to Fulfill a Calling

When I was in seminary, I heard a lot of people talk about “calling.” The idea behind calling is that there is some force outside of you (your god, or the muses, or something unknown) that is urging you to do something.

Many of my fellow students at seminary would talk about how they struggled with this call. They didn’t want it at first and wished they could reject it, but the voice continued to urge them forward.

The writers I’ve met that feel this way often can’t pinpoint why they want to write; they just know they can’t escape this voice that continues to call to them. It is different from the need for narrative fulfillment because it isn’t about a story they’ve started with their lives. In fact, sometimes this calling is a diversion from the path they’ve been on.

These writers feel pulled by something outside of themselves.

If this is you . . .

When you hit a slump in your writing and need motivation to write, ask the force calling you if you are done. If the answer is “yes,” then breathe a sigh of relief. If the answer is “no,” then stop fighting your calling, embrace it, and get back to work.

5. The Need to Measure Up

After discovering I had no business studying music in college, I started preparing for medical school by changing my major to fit a pre-medical studies emphasis. My father was a famous surgeon. He died the summer after my sophomore year and I felt I needed to somehow follow in his footsteps. I had a deep desire to measure up to him.

The writers I’ve met that feel this way have a history of writing. They have family members who write, or they’ve been to school for writing, or they have parents urging them to write.

This need is based on exterior expectations. Those expectations may be tangible or self-applied. Either way, these writers have a need to meet them.

If this is you . . .

When you hit a slump in your writing and need motivation to write, use those expectations to push you forward. People are counting on you. People believe in you. You have a legacy to fulfill. Like a prince with a kingdom to rule, take your place on the throne and get to work.

6. The Need to Belong

I played football in high school. Our team was amazing. We went to the state championship game multiple times. Several of my classmates went on to play in the NFL.

I, on the other hand, was terrible. I spent most seasons on the bench. I was okay with that because I wasn’t actually there for the football. I was there for the camaraderie. I played because I loved being a part of the team.

The writers I’ve met that feel this way love being a part of editing groups. This doesn’t mean they are bad writers like I was a bad football player. Many of them are amazing writers.

It’s just not the writing that is driving them.

They love sharing their writing with fellow writers. They love commiserating and discussing ideas. They love message boards and social networking groups.

For them, writing is as much about belonging to a group of writers as it is about the writing.

If this is you . . .

When you hit a slump in your writing and need motivation to write, reach out to other writers and ask them what they are working on. Offer to read their work. Let their energy feed your fire. Ask them to hold you accountable. Embrace the fact that writing is a team sport for you.

7. The Need to Serve Others

While I discover things about myself when I write and I have some soapboxes I like to stand on, I started writing fiction as a way to bring extra money into the house.

I’ve got five kids. Four years ago, I lost my job and for a brief moment, I had no idea how I was going to care for their needs. As I searched for a new job, I desperately looked for something I could do that might become a secondary source of income so that if I found myself unemployed again, I wouldn’t be stuck with nothing.

Writing was the only thing I was capable of doing.

There are moments I love writing and there are moments I hate writing. I didn’t write as a child and there isn’t a history of writing in my family. I’ve got people depending on me, people I love deeply, and I don’t have many talents besides my ability to tell stories. Writing is one way I serve them.

If this is you . . .

When you hit a slump in your writing and need motivation to write, picture the people you are writing for. Imagine them and let your commitment to them fuel your writing. Picture them in your mind, remember how much you love them, and then let your writing flow as an act of service.

Motivation to Write

It is likely as you read through this list that you found yourself in more than one of the seven foundational needs. That’s great because it gives you more needs to leverage when you get into a slump. No one need is better than another. They are all simply tools we can use to push us forward.

It is also possible that you didn’t find yourself in any of the needs I listed above. If that’s true, I’d love to hear what is motivating you. Tell us in the comments what pushes you to write and how you use it to motivate your work.

What motivates you to write? Let us know in the comments.

PRACTICE

Take a moment and focus on your foundational need. With that need in mind, give yourself a motivational pep talk. Then, free write about anything that comes to mind.

Write for fifteen minutes. Without editing, share your work in the comments. Be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers, too!

Jeff Elkins
Jeff Elkins is a writer who lives Baltimore with his wife and five kids. If you enjoy his writing, he'd be honored if you would subscribe to his free monthly newsletter. All subscribers receive a free copy of Jeff's urban fantasy novella "The Window Washing Boy."
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