If no one ever read your work, would you keep writing anyway?
I addressed this question years ago when Novelty Revisions was still, technically, new and figuring things out. The consensus in the comments was that most people would continue to write without any hope of an audience, but that they would do so more “freely” and less often.
Which explains exactly why writers who are trying to build an audience for their work struggle so much when their work doesn’t seem to be attracting an audience. If you’re putting in all this work and effort and time and nothing’s happening, is it even worth continuing?
On the days when you’re feeling at your worst — like no one cares about your work and you should just stop trying so hard — what should you do? Should you keep going? Should you slow down or take a break or stop completely? And how do you know if your work “matters” when no one’s telling you one way or the other?
Maybe the advice I have to offer you isn’t what you’re looking for. But it’s the method that has helped me most throughout my writing life, and though it may not be what you want to hear, sometimes there are some things you NEED to hear instead.
What is it that would make you truly feel like your writing “mattered”? Most of us really don’t do it for the recognition, at least not completely, yet when we check the comments on an article we published a few days ago and responses are minimal, we get a little sad. Not because we wrote the article only for the comments it could generate, but because sometimes we write to spark discussion, and when no discussion happens, we start to question, well … everything.
I can only speak from the point of view of someone with a small online following, obviously. But I’ve actually found that getting fewer compliments on my work actually makes me appreciate the ones I get that much more. I also screenshot the occasional shoutouts I do get and save them, so when I’m not feeling great about my work on a particular day, I can go back to them and remind myself that someone out there does care and my words aren’t all for nothing.
But it’s not that praise is the only way to feel satisfied with your own work — in fact, you shouldn’t rely on the expectation that people are going to reach out to you at all, because often times they never do even when your words make a difference to them. Of course the kind comments feel nice. Everyone likes to be told they’re doing a good job. If you sit around waiting for them, though, you’re going to feel disappointed.
If you truly want to feel good about what you’re writing — ESPECIALLY on those days you’re putting your best work out there and it seems like it’s not reaching a single person — in all honesty, you have to do the best you can to be proud of it even when no one else says they are.
This takes a lot of self-love, something many people struggle with. It’s not easy to pat yourself on the back for accomplishing something when you’re busy doubting whether or not it was worth the effort. Sometimes the most helpful thing is external validation — OK, this proves it, I’m not as much of a failure as I think I am — and you don’t always get that. And that’s hard. It’s never going to stop being hard.
It’s just one of many things non-writers simply don’t “get” about the writing life. It’s not enough to produce good content and work hard and make sacrifices so that your efforts will, ideally, reach more people. Sometimes the hurdles and barriers are self-inflicted of no fault of the individual. If someone with low self-esteem, for example, needs to hear that he’s doing good work, but can’t get any work done because he’s so down and unsure in his own mind, then it just becomes a cycle of “I want to write because it makes me feel good but I don’t feel good so I can’t write and I continue not to feel good.” And it goes on.
Writers don’t just benefit by practicing and learning how to write better and “getting out there and doing it.” Many of them also need to take time away from writing — or make time in addition to writing, or both — to work on self-improvement. It’s common that a person’s issues with writing aren’t with the writing itself, but in finding and maintaining the confidence and drive to continue writing when there are zero rewards associated with it.
And this isn’t something you just conquer and move on from, either. It’s a battle many people have to fight constantly for years on end, if not their entire lives. I’ve been writing professionally since I was 19, and I clearly still have days when I just want to quit because I spent three hours writing a kick-butt article and nobody cared about it.
But I don’t quit. Because there is always, always, ALWAYS the chance that something I write will truly matter to someone, somewhere down the line. They might tell me so — more likely, they never will. I have to trust that in small ways, every time I publish something, I’m helping a person here or there. Some days that’s the only thing that keeps me going, the only reason I keep writing.
People don’t like the advice to “put your head down and work hard until somebody notices,” but it’s the best advice I have ever heard — for creative efforts and for life in general. It’s the advice I used to get through a rough point in my day job, it’s the advice I used when half my freelancing clients dropped me in the same month. It’s the advice I go by when I’m proud of something I did and it goes completely unnoticed. And it’s the advice I’m passing on to you now.
You have to believe your work matters, and that it will continue to matter whether a thousand people read it or only one person skims it. I can’t tell you how to get to a place where you can trust yourself enough to produce work that can accomplish this most of the time, but I can tell you that if you keep writing, if you don’t let yourself quit out of disappointment or discouragement, your chances of making a difference with your words are so much higher.
You’re going to have plenty of days where it feels like you’re screaming into the void. I’m having more of a week of this at the moment. Just because no one responds doesn’t mean your work is meaningless. To the best of your ability, you have to begin to believe in yourself, or at the very least, pretend you do until it becomes real.
Being a writer is challenging. It will never not be challenging. But it’s a challenge, not a roadblock. You can overcome it, one word at a time. We all can, if we just keep going.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.