The Myth of Artistic Integrity

It used to be there were only a few clear-cut paths when it came to writing: journalism,  novel writing, poetry and writing plays. Then came the days of the silent film, and screenplay writing began its first little baby steps. Since silent films relied more upon stories told visually, novel writers were able to successfully write for producers because it was simply adaptations of their literary visions. Dialogue was not as important as the actual story, which was transposed onto the screen.

Then came the talking pictures. Novel writers began to fade back into their own little world and the industry found that screenplays were better written by journalists because they understood how to get the point across to an audience without a lot of flowery script getting in the way. They wrote clear, concise dialogue, because that’s what they were used to doing for their publications in the first place.

The industry continued to evolve. Enter the Internet, and suddenly dozens of branches split off the main trunk of the writing tree, spreading their boughs in all directions. There were no longer just a few branches; there was an entire tree, in full bloom.

These days there are any number of paths to choose from on the highway of writing. You can write screenplays, TV scripts, plays, magazine articles, work as a journalist for any number of publications around the world, write website content for yourself, for a third party, blog, write SEO articles, do rewrites for other companies…the list goes on.

But there are some – we’ll call them the Panicked Writers, or PW for short – who claim that all these various branches are diluting the quality of the written word and stripping the so-called “artistry” from the “craft”.

Let’s analyze this concept for a moment.

There are very few writers in this day and age who write purely for the passion or purely for the “artistic” integrity of a project. Those who do are the writers who never worry about being published. They write in journals, they write in notebooks, they scribble on napkins and they gather in closed circles with others of their ilk, joining in clandestine “writers clubs” to discuss the various weaknesses in plot, progression of characters and strength of dialog. They maybe even write on a blog, purely as a hobby, and purely for their own enjoyment, for the “art” of writing.

Then there are professional writers: those who are writing aside from a real job because they want to see their name in print and enjoy writing enough to earn a little extra cash per month (part-time writers), and those who are writing full-time for a living, making an actual wage, paying the bills and so on and so forth (writers who love their job even more than the part-timers, and have taken their passion and put it to good use).

In the real world, no one writes purely for the “art”. No one writes purely for the “passion”. They write to get paid or to earn a publishing credit, regardless of which branch of the writing tree they have scampered out upon. This is why you continually see rate debates not only in the freelance world, but also from the literary community and the fiction world. Everyone sends in their manuscripts/queries/screenplays/whatever to various publications in an attempt to earn a credit and a paycheck. Everyone wants to get paid for their words. No one in the real world is writing for free. Not a single screenplay writer, author or blogger out there is writing purely for fun. They are all writing for credit in some form or another, as well as justification in the form of a paycheck so they can move on to better, higher-paying gigs.

I am a professional writer. I do this for a living. It pays the bills, pays for my vacations, my hobbies, my investments, my lifestyle and my toys. To me, the most important aspect of my job is to bring a paycheck home so that I can put a roof over my family’s head and food on their table. Period. There is no other reason why I work. Period.

Now, I love the written word. I’ve been chewing through novels and stories since I was a child, and I knew from the time I was still in my single digits that I wanted to be a writer. But here’s the thing: I don’t believe in artistic integrity. I don’t believe that writing has a “soul”, nor do I believe that there is anything to be diluted. There are only the needs of the audience or the needs of the client. In your quest to appease either the audience or the client you are going to be writing in a specific way to earn a paycheck and please the editors + readers. If this wasn’t true you wouldn’t be sending your work in for editors to look at and hopefully publish. You wouldn’t be querying, cold-calling, sending in manuscripts to various publications and waiting with baited breath for an acceptance. You would simply be writing in a journal for your own personal enjoyment, for your own artistic satisfaction.

Many of the artistic crowd claim that the Internet, and the rise of web content, has killed their baby, the written word. I disagree. The Internet didn’t kill the “art” of writing. The fact of the matter is plain and simple: artistic integrity is a lie. It doesn’t exist. It is a myth. It never actually existed in the first place.

Now before you jump down my throat, actually look at the facts. Everyone wants to get paid for their time. Period. No one writes for free (or at least no one wants to write for free, thus the rate debate across the highways of writing and the continual attempts to get published and earn some form of credit and recognition). If artistic integrity was so all-important, there would be far more people writing purely for the “art” of writing, for the sake of writing the “perfect” prose, the “perfect” line of poetry, the “perfect” screenplay, the perfect sense of self-indulgence (which is all artistic integrity really is) and not giving two shakes about whether or not they are earning a byline or a paycheck for their time. They would be writing purely for the pleasure.

So now that we’ve gotten the fact that everyone wants to make money (or earn a byline/credit) out of the way, we can move on.

The long and short of the reality of writing is this: at the end of the day each and every one of us who is writing for a living is doing so at the whim of one person and one person only: the client/customer. Their vision, their concept, their ideas, are the only ones that matter. Why? Because they are the ones writing the paycheck or giving us the byline/credit.

The client is interested in one thing: a product. Each client is different; each is unique. Each client has a different view on what they think is best for their business. Some want straight-forward content, some want rewritten Wiki content to simply flesh out their pages and to hell with the quality as long as it passes Copyscape, while others want SEO, which in some cases can read like it was chopped up in a meat-grinder before being hosted on the website if keyword padding is the only thing the client is after. Keyword density with some articles is so heavy that the articles read less like an actual article and more like exactly what they are…keyword-padded chunks of text. But, be that as it may, it is still a product that relies on the written word, which means it is technically still an aspect of writing. And since there is still an audience for it (see clients) then it still falls under the banner of actual, breathing words.

Anyone who works with the written word has the right to call themselves a writer. That means the guy writing keyword-heavy SEO articles has must as much right to call himself a writer as someone writing for The New York Times or some other publication. Both are working with the written word, and both are making a paycheck for their time.

So is there really any difference in the writer working on SEO and the writer who is authoring poetry or stories, or the more “artsy” projects?

Not in the least.

Which brings me to the crux of this article: should you be worrying about the PW (Panicked Writer) who claims you have no artistic integrity and are stripping the soul away from writing with your SEO content and other non-flowery-prose articles? Are you selling your artistic soul, or are you simply doing what every human being on the planet does: performing a task to earn a nut, which in turn provides for you and yours.

Let’s be realistic. Artistic integrity doesn’t put food on the table. It doesn’t pay the bills. It doesn’t provide for vacations and insurance and necessities. Artistic integrity is nothing more than a warm fuzzy feeling that rests within your stomach, letting you know that what you wrote stirred some emotional response from the readers, or was in some way “beautiful”. Sure, it’s a nice feeling, but does it provide an actual, tangible side-effect that you can use to make your way through life? Does it keep the lights burning bright, the heat on in the winter, gas in the vehicle and food on the table? Does artistic integrity pay for your children’s doctor bills when they are sick? Does it pay for your health insurance, your emergency surgeries or your retirement?

Most of you (the readers who follow this blog) are professional writers in some way, and most of you understand that there is only one thing that really matters: the needs of your client. Clients are what pays the bills. Not flowery script (unless that’s what your client is after) meant to provoke an emotional response in readers. Clients want to know that you can deliver exactly what they want, when they want it, for a price they find affordable. That is your job. It doesn’t matter if you are writing SEO, rewrites off a web page or Wiki, health articles, golf articles, overviews on how to get rid of fleas for dogs, how to boil an egg, the airspeed velocity of a laden swallow, or how many pickles can you eat in an hour.

Your job is to sell yourself.  The most important thing any client wants to know about you is whether or not you can give them what they are paying for the first time around. That’s how you earn your paycheck. Clients want consummate professionals who put one thing ahead of anything else: delivery of a superior quality product on time, every time.

The value of the written word is purely dependent upon the audience. For some, artistic integrity is in SEO. For others, it is articles on how to boil eggs. For others it is a literary piece. Some prefer political essays or writing plays and films, while others prefer crafting science fiction. Each individual determines for themselves the value of the written word. For others, it is the perfect dialog and scene progression for a film or TV show.

Another way to think of it is the way that Stephen King referred to talent in his On Writing book. “If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn’t bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.”

The next time a PW or any other critic tries to tell you that what you do for a living is somehow less than artistic, pay them no mind. Instead, look at your paycheck. That, in and of itself, is more than enough proof to the entire world that you are a professional who is writing for a living. That, and that alone, determines your reality. It doesn’t matter if some random individual on the Internet thinks you are stripping the value away from the written word; they are wrong. The artistic value of the project is directly related to your client and/or fan’s happiness with the end result. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

Or in this case, your bank account.

 

 

This post is actually a revised version of a blog post I wrote back in April of 2010, roughly one year ago. For the original version, you can go here.

 

T.W. Anderson is the founder of Complete Writing Solutions, and is a freelance writer specializing in travel writing, website content, interior design and home improvement, green-related topics, as well as anything else potential clients need him to be.

Posted in Freelance Writing 101, Freelance Writing Tips Tagged with: , , , , , , ,
4 comments on “The Myth of Artistic Integrity
  1. poch says:

    I agree with your frank article TWA. Bravo. Once your write for money, you lose integrity. One proof of this are padded bestsellers. it seems to me you have no chance of writing a bestseller if you can’t pad your manuscript. It also made me realize the difference between writing and visual art of painting or drawing (I do both). A painter can’t ‘pad’ his work like a writer. So I conclude that a visual artist could have artistic integrity while a commercial writer can’t.

  2. Hola, Poch, thanks for your comment :)

    I would still argue that a visual artist loses artistic integrity the moment they start painting for money/publishing credit/respectability. Padding aside, it’s the desire/urge/need for a paycheck that drives most of us to do what we do for a living (artistically), and regardless of what type of art you are talking about, the moment you start making changes to a piece (whether it’s reduced word count, less nudity in a particular piece to get published in X publication, so on and so forth) your artistic integrity is proven to be nothing more than a myth…the only thing that really matters is whether or not your customer (agent/publisher/client/editor) is willing to buy your work.

    But I see your point :)

  3. Derek Prokopf says:

    Although I agree with most of this article, I can identify another motivation for writing besides money/prestige or self-fulfillment.

    I am a geology student at the University of Missouri, where I returned in my early 30’s to pursue a second undergraduate degree. It occurred to me in the fall of last year that my studies consist entirely of math, science, and Chinese, and thought it would be healthy to use a creative part of my brain for a change. However, I certainly required more motivation than that, and over the past winter break started writing a book with the goal of entertaining friends and family, and perhaps pass on to my children if I ever have any. It is certainly not because I derive pleasure from the act of writing. There are certainly other things I would rather be doing.

    Over the past eight months I have made progress on something that I feel will be a respectable addition to the canon of American literature, and I will almost certainly seek formal publication. Honestly, I will happily accept any money or fame that may come my way as a result, but despite all my hard work, I remain confident that I will be happy if I never make a dime, or if it is never read by anyone other than the small group of family and friends for whom it was originally intended.

    I do not pretend to have wings or halo, but I consider myself an artist, and feel secure that my primary motivation falls outside your box. Just thought I’d share. :)

  4. Cheers, Derek.

    One could argue that the fact you feel the need to have others read your work, even if it is only your friends and family, is still a form of “approval”. Otherwise, it would remain a private piece of work that only sees the light of day when you yourself feel the need to read it. As such, the integrity of the piece has been removed from “personal” enjoyment into public enjoyment, at which point the work ceases to be a personal work of art and becomes open to scrutiny and thus swaying of your opinion based on other people’s opinions. Ultimately, if you decide to publish, that will lead to the necessity to edit, at which point the original integrity of the piece is forever gone in favor of having it published for the reading of other people.

    I welcome sharing :) Especially from opposing viewpoints! After all, Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates…the great minds of the past never would have achieved the heights they did had they surrounded themselves by yes-men and back-patters. It is only through differences in opinion that we learn to overcome challenges and think outside the box. Thanks for your comment!

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