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Writing can be a very difficult, frustrating, stressful and effortful process. It can also be very isolating to the writer. Given that writing is a form of communication, what is the point of writing material that you're pretty sure no one else will ever read? Isn't it a complete waste of your time and effort?

Note: I saw this question posed in the comments to another question. I decided to post it as an official question --even though I have an answer in mind --because I feel NOT knowing the answer to this question was, for a long time, the biggest barrier to my growth and success as a writer. Other people's answers are welcome --this continues to be something I struggle with emotionally, even though I've embraced it intellectually.

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    The only way to guarantee nobody will read what you write is never to write anything. In the long term, unpredictable stuff happens! – alephzero Aug 16 at 11:32
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    Ask this of anyone who keeps a personal diary. – CGCampbell Aug 16 at 17:23
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    This is only trending ironically. – DatumPoint Aug 17 at 1:10
  • I'm not an expert but as I remember Kafka thought the same too – Ege Bayrak Aug 18 at 23:47
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    What's the point of practicing shooting basketballs if no one ever sees you practicing? – John Doe Aug 20 at 18:09

14 Answers 14

21

For me, writing is a passion. Not writing is an impossibility. There are stories in my mind; I need to tell them. I need to find out where they go, how they go, what they mean. I have something in mind when I start a story, but it changes, mutates, I do not fully understand it until it is written and finished.

I find out what I think and how I feel about complex issues (moral, philosophical, political) by writing about them, directly or indirectly. A story lets me ask complex "what if"s, that lead me deeper into an issue. I can play with ideas, explore them, travel down untrodden paths to find out what lies at their end.

Writing is a process, and I enjoy every bit of that process. The research, the editing, the sketching down of hasty ideas and drawing lines between them, the bouncing of ideas against longsuffering friends - every part of the process of creation. I love it, because it is a process of creation.

Of course I want an audience. A story is to be told to someone. Otherwise, is there a story? A story that isn't told is like sheet music that's never played - it is a promise unfulfilled. I am made uncomfortable by books that don't get opened - they are there to tell stories, not to sit on a shelf!
However, while I write, I do not ask myself whether this thing will get published. For one thing, I myself might decide that this half-finished creation project is not good, and consign it to the dark pit of oblivion in a "nah" folder. Multiple mythologies speak of the gods making multiple attempts and scraping them before arriving at a final creation. My story, my prerogative.

And then, the thing is, in our digital world there isn't really such a thing as "no-one will ever read this", unless that's the fate you yourself want for a particular story. You might be unable to sell it. You might be unable to have it published traditionally. I'm sure as heck going to try - like I said, I very much want an audience. But I do not look to earn my bread through writing. So if all else fails, I can just post my stuff on the web, and proceed to write the next thing.

Of course I'm learning and I'm getting better as I write. But honestly, that's not something I look at. I do not write now so that "one day" I can write better. I write because writing is a fire in my bones right now.

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    +1 There's some really good stuff in here. My big struggle recently has been learning how to embrace the process rather than the goal. – Chris Sunami Aug 15 at 19:30
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For many years --decades actually --my goal with every piece of writing I wrote was that it be read and appreciated by someone. There were plenty of things I wrote that didn't achieve that goal, and ended up moldering away in some corner of my hard-drive, but I viewed those projects as failures. I write to connect with other people, and anything that doesn't do that isn't worth the effort --or so I thought.

Ironically, it was my day job as a programmer that taught me differently. Often, as a programmer, you can spend months of work coding something that never goes into production. Surprisingly, that never bothered me that much --because I viewed every project as a learning project. Whether or not the code was used, it taught me new things about how to be a better programmer. The same applies to writing. Every word you write potentially teaches you to be a better writer --if you approach it as someone ready to learn. And you can't be a good writer without going through all those pages of writing first. Writing projects that are never read aren't failures. They're learning opportunities. The only failed projects are the ones that you don't learn anything from.

I'm a late convert to worldbuilding, and the Iceberg Theory, which states that we must know far more about the world of our story than we put on the page (and like many late converts, I've been evangelical about it recently!) but I do think this goes even beyond the richness of story that can result from doing plenty of extra research and worldbuilding before writing. The writing you do doesn't necessarily have to be backstory, or even be directed towards a certain project in order for it to be worthwhile. The practice of good writing --and the process of becoming a better writer --is a worthy goal in of itself. And it's a mistake to think you can get to the good writing by avoiding the bad writing. Quantity leads to quality.

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Writing is not a passion for me, not at all. I never wanted to be a writer.

I wanted to be a scientist, and I became a scientist. As a scientist, I spent much of my life learning. Through learning (whether through direct learning or through teaching which is also a form of learning), I came to see that life is more worthwhile if we actually grow during the process of it.

My science career wound down, and I switched to writing. And frankly, because I'd been in science for so long, I had the good fortune of having a birds' eye view into numerous scientific things--I had hobnobbed with Nobel laureates and the like, partied with present-day galileos and so on and so forth.

And the thing all of us would agree on, including not only the smarty pants but also my collegial teachers in the CC system (who are smartypants in their own ways), is that learning is the key.

So, with science done but a decently-fit and trained brain, thanks to the investment of US tax dollars, writing (fiction) became the next thing. I'm learning.

My vocabulary is expanding. My facility with sentence structure, paragraph structure, character arcs and so on. I'm meeting new people--artists--who also agree that trying new things (another word for learning) is good.

I have plenty of published papers. Some of them are barely cited. Possibly not even read. That's OK--they are part of the official record of peer-review. Other articles, decades old, are still cited dozens of times each year. That tells me that work I did ages ago is being discovered now, by people to whom it's useful.

If my fiction has even a handful of readers, that will outstrip the number of readers of some of my research. And since a low readership (from those papers) is my benchmark, that'll be a win.

So I write for all of those reasons. Not much of a useful answer, but I wrote it anyway.

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What is the point of going to the gym, when you know you will never compete in the Olympics?

You do it because it is fun, it is entertaining, and it is good for the soul.

If you write to become the first great american author, 1. you will fail, 2. you will not write, 3. the process wouldn't even be fun.

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    "If you write to become the first great american author," you'd probably also need to invent time travel :P – V2Blast Aug 16 at 8:00
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    @V2Blast Or somehow become so great that everyone else is retroactively downgraded to "mediocre"... – Chronocidal Aug 16 at 13:51
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When I was in high school, a friend and I wandered together downtown and came across a psychic's booth. Out of curiosity, we stepped inside. We were both writers, she told us. My friend wrote for herself and it didn't matter to her if others saw it. But I was different. I wrote for others to see. No magic required; she nailed it.

I've kept a diary on and off, though even there I have fantasies that one day people will care about my inner life. And I've written first drafts that never turned into second drafts. But mostly everything I write is with an eye to sharing it with others.

I wasn't ready for publication when I was younger (aside from a few small things) but I didn't want to write things no one would see. Chris talks about changing his view of writing that wasn't going to go anywhere. This wasn't my path. You can consider this a bit of a frame challenge to the question; my approach was to change my writing.

I started an email mailing list which was a support group for people with a particular health issue (before that, I did it on USENET). When the world wide web began, I started a website and published new material plus the best of the emails (mine, or others' with permission). Now I've done several websites and a blog too, and am active on other mailing lists. I'm not great about keeping stuff up to date, but all the different things I do add up.

A year ago I found StackExchange and I've spent quite a lot of hours writing up answers, mostly here and on Worldbuilding. Researching issues I'd never considered researching before. It's all helped me to become a better writer. Both in honing my prose and in incorporating research.

Prose isn't fiction though and fiction is where I'm aiming. Even so, I've found writing the huge number of (semi) polished email or web posts to be helpful. How do I tell a story of something that happened? (does it matter so much to my writing if the story is real or made up?) How do I use research facts without overwhelming the audience? In what ways can I evoke emotion in my readers? How can I shorten this piece without losing anything important? Crafting over and over again. And then just practice in sitting down and finishing something.

What is the point of writing something that won't be read? Find the point. Find what inspires you to keep going. If all the things that others here have written about aren't enough for you, then reframe the problem. Practice your writing but do it in a way that sustains you.

  • I'm really on the fence about this answer. On the one hand, I really do think that the (internal) demand that everything I write be shareable has held me back as a writer. On the other hand, I do find that last sentence of value... – Chris Sunami Aug 16 at 15:27
  • @ChrisSunami I hope you're not on the fence about whether or not it qualifies as an answer. I am a bit worried it might not, though I'm presenting it as a frame challenge. – Cyn says make Monica whole Aug 16 at 15:29
  • As for the content, I read your answer (and question) and the others and I find I can nod along and appreciate what people get out of writing that won't be shared, but I can't make it resonate inside myself. In my case, my novel was in my head for 10 years (after some initial setup and research) but it wasn't until I joined a critique group that I finally put it on paper (computer). I need that audience. – Cyn says make Monica whole Aug 16 at 15:31
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    That's always the tightrope you walk with a frame challenge! :) The question is specifically "is there a point to writing that won't be read?" so "write something that WILL be read" is arguably not an answer... Still, I did find things of value here... – Chris Sunami Aug 16 at 19:07
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I think it can be very rewarding for a humble writer to create something concise and share it with a single other person. It becomes a kind of intimate experience for them, being the first person ever to read a story intentionally crafted by another human being. Unfortunately I don't have an answer for you as to why you should want to write something nobody will read. My answer is to find one person who will read it, and to know how deep even that simple experience can be, for them and for you, and to find satisfaction in that.

A friend of mine writes poetry, and he occasionally sends it to me before anyone else has seen it. When I think about the fact that another human being just poured part of their heart into writing, and that I am the first person ever to be given the chance to engage with that part of them in that way, it makes me feel like I've gotten to experience something special.

It's sad to think of all the fantastic and heartfelt works of literature out there that were only ever read by the author alone or by a small group of the author's friends, that for one reason or another having nothing to do with how good it is it never picked up enough traction to become widely recognized. It's not sad to me because it never got popular or because the author never got paid, but because it is, in a sense, locked away from those who might have enjoyed it or been affected by it. But the stories they've written are no less valuable just because I and others won't get the privilege of finding it.

I say the value and reward of your writing is putting into the real world a manifestation of part of yourself. I personally believe it's our natural human inclination to tell stories, imitating the one in whose image we are made and who made us and is telling our story. And I think if you see it that way, even getting to know a single person experienced the story you created for them will feel like a blessing.

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For me one of the uses of writing is to help me work out, clarify and order my thoughts on some matter. The process of developing a clear and definite explanation for someone else, regardless of whether anybody else actually reads it or not, helps me make sure that I really do understand what I think I understand and exposes any areas where I need to do further work. It's not necessary for anybody else to read the result for me to get this benefit; it's the process of creating the work that's important.

While a fairly obvious case for this this is for developing and confirming understanding of mathematical and scientific ideas (famously, every Haskell programmer writes a monad tutorial), it's useful in other areas, such as fiction, as well. Most works of fiction live in a world that's not entirely written up in the story itself; to be convincing the author must still know and understand this background because it will "leak" into the story as written. Writing up this background can help ensure that it's both consistent and understood by the author. Virtually every television show has a bible, never intended to be read by the viewers, for exactly this reason (though it's also used to share information amongst the team of writers).

  • +1 Very well written answer that clarifies an important point. – Chris Sunami Aug 17 at 2:09
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As Emerson said, 'Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm' - and some significant hard graft. Writing that aims to be read can be difficult, frustrating and so forth, but the rewards, should it ever be read, are not guaranteed and certainly not commensurate with the work involved.

For me, writing is its own reward. It's how I communicate with myself. I have written a daily journal for decades and it fascinates me to read back on the hopes and anxieties of past selves, and to see where progress has been made in how I understand myself and the world I inhabit: even to identify burgeoning wisdom. I doubt anyone else will read these journals (I hope not anyway, at least during my lifetime), but these are the pages on which I explore ideas and hone both my writing and my life skills.

As well as that mundane daily practice, I write for different platforms and for my Master's Degree, both fiction and non-fiction. Some of the latter is in the process of being published, but that has taken a very long time. Everything I have written has got me to this point, of having the confidence to put it up for publication, of sending my little darlings into the great wide world, to succeed or fail.

But regardless of whether I am ever read by more than my beta readers, not writing is not a sustainable way of living for me. Writing is like breathing - it's harder if I have a cold or am climbing four flights of stairs, but I can't not do it.

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    Welcome to Writing.SE, Nimbusgrey! Take a look at our tour and help center pages, they're helpful. I hope to see more of you, particularly since you state writing is so important to you. :) – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Aug 19 at 19:54
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Anais Nin had a beautiful piece I believe is totally relevant:

We write to taste life twice, in the moment, and in retrospection. We write, like Proust, to render all of it eternal, and to persuade ourselves that it is eternal. We write to be able to transcend our life, to reach beyond it. We write to teach ourselves to speak with others, to record the journey into the labyrinth. We write to expand our world when we feel strangled, or constricted, or lonely. We write as the birds sing, as the primitives dance their rituals. If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don't write, because our culture has no use for it. When I don't write, I feel my world shrinking. I feel I am in a prison. I feel I lose my fire and my color. It should be a necessity, as the sea needs to heave, and I call it breathing.
- The Diary of Anais Nin

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I'd like to address the premise of your question.

Writing can be a very difficult, frustrating, stressful and effortful process.

That's subjective. For some, writing is an easy, fulfilling, relaxing, and calming process. This poster in particular finds leading people to be difficult, frustrating, stressful and effortful. That's why I write novels, write software and don't lead people.

It can also be very isolating to the writer. Given that writing is a form of communication, what is the point of writing material that you're pretty sure no one else will ever read? Isn't it a complete waste of your time and effort?

Some might like the isolation and the venue that writing can give them. Maybe it helps put their thoughts in place. Maybe they write to themselves, so they can remember what they need to remember without using up their precious brain-space, like David Allen's GTD method.

Given that publishing material online is easier than ever before and that there are seven billion distinct potential readers around, someone is bound to read what one writes. So you might not get thirty thousand readers, but you might get a hundred or a dozen. There are sites for ameteur writers you can publish and get some exposure for free.

Extreme case, your machine might get hacked and the hacker reads your content. My point is, you can't "know" nobody will ever read.

The answer to the question, now that the "nobody will read" might be appropriately debunked, depends on the writer. Why do you write?

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Look at this from another point of view. Let's say you're the reader. You're the audience member at a magic show, with a carefully calculated point of view. You get the full production, with music, atmospherics, banter, beautiful but distracting assistants. The trick goes off--you've never seen anything like it! It's the sort of thing you want to discuss with other people afterward. Maybe you were completely fooled, or maybe you could figure out in retrospect how it was done, but you were delighted.

That's what you are aiming for as a writer. You are showing the audience the performance. You want them to see the magic.

But you still need to do all the behind the scenes work. The magician needs to build the apparatus, work out the timing, the choreography. The trick can be based on months of planning before it's rolled out. But you don't show any of that to the audience because it ruins the trick.

So, analogies aside, you need to know everything that informs your novel, such as your protagonist's favorite cereal growing up or how she lost her virginity, but for god's sake, don't ruin the trick by showing it to your audience.

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Storytelling is more than just consumption. Consider three stages:

  1. Model the story. Design a setting, characters, conflict, plot, and flavour.
  2. Portray the models created in stage 1.
  3. The audience interprets the portrayal.

The reason to write a book no one else will read would - in this perspective - be to portray the models designed in stage 1 as well as possible, or to improve them by writing them down.

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Because it makes sense to you, or helps you make sense of and keep track of who, what, when, where, why, and how.

Even if your reader doesn't necessarily need to know, it all too often helps you, as an author.

It's world building, basically.

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For some, writing is a job, or a significant part of their job. They write to earn a living. They sometimes write more than needed because they need to put down ideas, streamline thoughts and just to practice before getting to the finished product. Basically, they have to.

For the rest it is a mean to pursue an egotistical dream. Every extra word, every extra line is but looking into the mirror of self adulation and reassuring themselves that they have what it takes to achieve their goal. It is like the maiden brushing her hair in front of the mirror. She may only need one stroke to get her hair done, but she goes on and on, feeling prettier with every pass, even if there is no one else to look at her. She knows that if they had seen her, they would have acknowledged her beauty. In the same manner the greedy hobbyist writes for their secret reason, saying that no one will read it, but gloating with the certainty that if anyone were to read it, they would acknowledge the artwork.

As for myself, I write for my own pleasure. I use it as an extension of my thoughts. I record ideas, and talk to my future and past self through my written word. It is like a constant conversation with all other versions of me. Always improving, always advancing. Like a never-ending feast. Glad to share if it happens, but I don't care. Any extra line is one more line of pure bliss. Why would I want to miss that?

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