Why You Need To Write For Your Eyes Only

Eyes Only Eyes - Alexandru Zdrobau

Photo: Alexandru Zdrobau

Would you continue writing even if no one reads your work? On the other hand, would you voluntarily write something meant for your eyes only?

Would the act of expression itself please you? Or would you write only to the promise of monies and adulation?

Oh, don’t look at me that way. I assure you that this question isn’t as silly as it seems. There have been famous authors who didn’t set out to be published, after all.

Take Emily Dickinson, for example. She’d written over 1,800 poems without the intent of seeing them in print. They were discovered only after her death, locked away in a chest somewhere.

Franz Kafka also wrote a lot, only to enlist his friend’s help to burn all his manuscripts after his death. This, coming from a guy who once said: “I am made of literature and cannot be anything else.”

In an age where technology has opened up endless venues to being discovered, it’s almost unimaginable to want to create something without sharing it.

But is there a benefit to writing just for writing’s sake? Have we lost the true joy of writing by wanting to pander to likes and follows? More importantly, should you waste your time writing pieces that no one else is going to read? Let’s find out.

Writing for yourself

As someone who’s just started learning to draw, I’ve chanced across a good piece of advice—which I’ll now misquote and paraphrase—and that’s to not fear sucking at art, because that’s just you getting all your bad juices out of your system.

Think about that for a moment. We’ve always looked at practice as a means of getting better, but that word takes on a whole new meaning once we see it as a way to ‘get the suck out’, doesn’t it?

It doesn’t matter if you doodle on a piece of scrap paper or remodel the Sistine Chapel, no effort is ever lost because every bit helps you reach your quota of putting out bad work.

What that means though, is that there’s no way around paying your dues for the craft.

This is where advice like ‘just write’ start to make sense. It’s not much different from doing your squats for a chonkier butt. You can learn about it as much as you want, but what matters in the end is you putting in the work.

Woman

You just gotta work, really. Photo: Thought Catalog

The audience-less mindset

Okay, I know it’s hard to not want to write without sharing your masterpiece, and I totally get you, but hear me out.

If you’ve ever kept a journal or done one of those ‘writing a letter to my older self’ challenges, then you’ll know exactly how it feels to write for an audience of one, and frankly, it can be way funner than writing to perform.

So ask yourself, as a person browsing the internet—or the bookshelves—what is it that you really want to read right now?

Is it an article about writing to an audience of one (heh)? Is it an account of how the drunks used to sleep on ropes during the Victorian era? Is it a story like The Thing but with unicorns instead of aliens?

It’s important that you stop the fronting when doing this. Drop the idea of wanting to read poetry just so people could think of you as a poet. Be sincere with yourself, and embrace your likes, regardless of whether or not they involve glittery vampires, uninformed BDSM scenes, or the Teletubbies.

Once you have that, you’re ready to move on to the next step.

Build your mental library

Can you draw a box? Pretty easy, right? But can you rotate it? How about drawing a hole in the middle, then rotating?

I could go on, but you get the idea. It’s hard to visualise something you haven’t practised, let alone something you didn’t even know existed. That’s exactly what you’re trying to do when you write for yourself.

The freedom of not having an audience allows you to experiment with things you normally wouldn’t do, like writing everything backwards Yoda style, using purple prose to describe your dinner, or inventing your own dialects and slangs.

Do it enough and you start to get a feel of how the words affect your reading experience. You get attuned to cadence, phonetics, wordplay.

You might not feel it at the time, but that piquant new word you just shoehorned into that sentence? You’ll remember how to use it now. That weird segue you used to tie two unrelated thoughts together? You’ll remember that too.

That time you deleted ‘it was cold as ice’ and replaced it with ‘my chest cherries just about shattered from all my shivering’? Yeah, that populates your mental library too.

What you need to know is that just because you’re screwing around doesn’t mean you’re not improving as a writer.

Eyes Only Books - Daniel

Build your mental library, one book at a time. Photo: Daniel

Get started now

All right, you’re sold on the idea of writing without an audience, but you’re wondering how you can get started. Well fret not, as I have a few methods prepped and ready to go.

Urban sketching (with words)
Admittedly easier to do before the pandemic, this is you sitting down in public—preferably somewhere lively—and capturing the fleeting moments in words. I used to head to my local Starbucks after a couple of beers and just create backstories for the characters I saw, or the conversations I overheard. Super fun.

Piss yourself off
This is my personal favourite, and it’s gotten me out of quite a few writing ruts. Basically, what you do is write something that you know you’ll hate. Better yet, imagine your harshest critic (an editor that despised your work, for example), and write something that’ll get under their skin. More often than not, however, you’ll discover that this method results produces some pretty decent results, despite its intent.

Step by step
Think of a sentence. Then write the next sentence. Then the next. Don’t worry about anything else. Don’t plan ahead. Write your current sentence based off your previous one. That’s it. Tunnel in. Don’t try for grand set-ups or even a story arc. See your previous sentence? Find a way to connect your next sentence with it. Then keep doing that. It’s like driving and only seeing what’s lit by your headlights at any given time. This paragraph was written with that technique.

Just do it

Musicians practise their scales, footballers drill their free kicks, and runners hit the pavement.

Yet when it comes to writing, everybody thinks they can put pen to paper once a week and expect to bang out a masterpiece every time.

Maybe we’re overthinking things and underestimating the effort we need to put in. Maybe it’s just as simple—and as hard—as sitting down at a typewriter to bleed.

And maybe the best way to get an audience is to first start with yourself.

54 thoughts on “Why You Need To Write For Your Eyes Only

  1. That’s interesting!! I think in my case I’m able to write just freely as I am, because I have no understanding of audiences, and that’s a huge difficulty for me. I literally don’t know how to write something for an audience. Like, my middle-grade series doesn’t appeal to actual middle schoolers (I’d guess). I’m not sure who it appeals to, but I like them. And my YA standalones don’t fit the YA mold of angst, bullies, snobbishness, etc. I can’t bring myself to do that. I have to go deeper, and my books all get rejected by agents. (Well, that’s normal, I guess, but I’d love to make it to the next level!) So now I’ve written my memoir, and I’ve got to try to sell it to agents despite the fact that I’m not a famous person writing a memoir. If I were Barack Obama, I’d be golden. I could pick an agent. But I’m just your average citizen here, so I’ll have to try to understand about audiences!!

    Interesting blog post!! If you understand how to write for an audience, I’m a tad envious! :-D Good for you!! :-) [Thumbs-up.]

    • What I’ve learned is that you’re not entitled to results, but you sure are entitled to your actions. So don’t compare yourself to Obama while shopping your memoir. You should celebrate having taken the steps to sell it (or even having written it) in the first place. Wishing you all the best with your WIP, and thanks so much for sharing your thoughts!

  2. Great post!

    The “invisible audience” in my head holds me back far more often than it helps me.

    I’ve been trying to treat my blog posts as an audience of one. Just me, hanging out with me. It kind of surprises me when someone says “Hey I’ve been reading your blog!”

  3. I feel that’s where many new bloggers fail, lack of internal motivation. They write for the sole reason to monetize and don’t actually like to write so they lose motivation quickly.

    • I think even more experienced bloggers do write with money in mind, which I think is fine, but if that’s the only target, then it’s easy to fall into the trap of writing for numbers. Great point you have there!

  4. I think you make an excellent point about writing for yourself as an opportunity to practice and develop skills, similar to practice, drills, and training in other fields. I generally find that overall, writing developed for an audience is generally better quality than writing developed for oneself (if for no other reason than that having another person read it usually leads to revisions which usually leads to improvement), but you can’t discount the importance of using writing for oneself to develop skills.

    • There’s this element of being able to reiterate and improved based on your personal observations that truly complements improving with external feedback.

      I find that it’s a similar feeling to learning how to improve your penmanship. Your first attempts will inevitably suck, but it’s up to you to learn to determine the difference between that and a good piece of work, and adjust your practice accordingly.

      Love your thoughts on this. Thanks for taking the time to share!

  5. Unique take as usual! It is so hard not to picture an audience when you’re trying to do anything. Especially when you were raised by a judgmental mother 🤯. But I think it’s the only way to get really good at using words and creating images in someone’s mind. You can’t make someone see something that you didn’t. Obviously readers will have their own interpretations of things and how they imagine things, but if they’re starting with nothing, it will make it harder (and more boring) than if you gave them a lot to work with. Not being afraid is everything, I think. Even just life in general. Maybe being afraid of an imaginary audience is really being afraid of what you will think, afraid that you yourself will judge it inadequate.

    ‘my chest cherries just about shattered from all my shivering’ WTF!! LOLOLOL! Just by this sentence alone you proved beyond a doubt that your method works. Sign me up!

    • It’s so interesting that you mention ‘creating images in someone’s mind’, because I was just watching this Brandon Sanderson YouTube lecture about concreteness.

      He says that the word ‘dog’ may seem like it’d conjure up the same thing in everyone’s minds, but if you take it a step further, you can write ‘a patchy-haired mongrel that smells like piss’ and ensure that your audience gets the exact picture you have in your head.

      Love your observations as always, Hetty, and hope you’re doing better this week!

      • Thanks. I’m a little better. I think the skill really lies in finding that unique image and wording that pops into the reader’s mind and is so memorable.

    • Thanks so much for your kind words! You made my day :)

      I like the step by step method too, mostly because I’m too easily distracted, and if I just focus on the next sentence, suddenly the arduous task of writing becomes that much more manageable. Thanks again for stopping by!

  6. This was right on the money. My fitness blog is more about helping others. My other blog is more about writing just to write. I often use your “step by step” method when writing for “Brad Journals.” It takes the pressure off and I can open up more. I’m still a work in progress about letting go, but I’m on my way.

    • What’s really helped me in that regard is Julia Cameron’s morning pages. It’s not so much the words that I write, but the constant reminder of how it feels to write without my internal editor. It’s so awesome that you have separate blogs and ‘modes’. Thanks for stopping by, Brad!

  7. Thank you! I’ve been feeling pressure since the site I’m on, certain stories are popular so I’ve been feeling like I had to conform. But you’re right!

    Trying to write a story I hate…might be some good medicine for me. I feel my writing is definitely limited especially sometimes I have a hard time writing my character as someone incredibly flawed…

    • There’s no need to conform at all, though it’s always wise to ask yourself if you feel anything as the reader, because like they say, “If they writer doesn’t feel anything, then the reader won’t.”

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  8. Good luck with your art journey. I don’t think I have enough days left to use up my quota of bad art. I also like your Starbucks approach to writing, seems like it would generate a lot of good stories.

  9. I think back on the exercise of Morning Pages from my “Artist’s Way Days”. I always called it a form of clearing the mechanism. It allowed me to flush out the mental pipes before I started really writing for the day. Though, it is easy to get lost in that practice and never get to the real project.

    You have some great exercises though. I may give them a try as a way to do something different.

    • I still do morning pages! It’s my way of connecting with my thoughts, and to practice writing without constraints, though like you said, there is the possibility of writing a whole bunch of nothing. Thanks for stoping by!

  10. This is wonderful! I love the way you sum this approach up as “to not fear sucking at art.” I would like my writing to live longer than me, so having it published sure sounds nice. However, it would be boring to work on a story that was only for someone else. I still have moments when I get caught up in trying to please an imaginary audience, but I like the work I wrote for myself most. Probably why it’s such crazy stuff. 😅

    • I think there’s a magic to getting attuned to what you personally like, and not what you think an audience would like, and the fact that you like the stuff you wrote for yourself just means that you’re learning about an audience that shares your tastes.

      Of course, there are also other ways to please an audience, such as tight writing and pleasant prose, but when it comes to plot, I feel like we should always ask ourselves what we want to read first.

      Thanks for stopping by again!

  11. Pingback: Why You Need To Write For Your Eyes Only – Kreativ Solo

  12. I just bought a nice, basic set of watercolors and some paper, so I can start trying my hand at a bit of painting, just for the creative expression of it. The most important thing to me is doing it without harshly judging myself. Just remembering to let my creativity flow and go where it takes me, even if it’s not a masterpiece. So long as I’m not trying to MAKE it be something in particular, it will be an artistic expression for myself. Same as my writing, it’s just being and creating. As you know, I post my stuff online for others to read, but it’s so I can prove to myself that others will read it. There is value in knowing your creativity can connect with others. But, that’s different than writing -for- the audience.

    • Thanks for adding on your thoughts! They really enrich the message of this post indeed. And I’ve been meaning to buy some watercolour too, but they can be kinda pricey, can’t they? That’s why I’m sticking with pen and ink for now. Love your comment, Cheryl!

      • I was just shopping for almost a kid’s level set of watercolors, but they were all sold out. I guess everyone else had the same idea as me. So, I got a $25 set that has tubes of watercolor (I never even realized it came in tubes) plus a few brushes and such. For the contents, it’s a decent price. Had to get something, so I’d actually start trying this out! It’s on my list for this week’s Artist Date.

  13. Thank you for this eye-opening post! I’d like to add that I’ve found that writing for myself helps me organize my thoughts.

  14. I love your thoughts here. I wrote 5 novels before I decided to try to write the one I wanted out there. I call it my apprenticeship. I’ve been a publisher, editor, proofreader and ghost writer. I’m loving writing a few blogs just because I can.

  15. I really enjoyed reading this post – it reminded me that I like to write for myself, and that’s why I made an account. I think writing for ‘the act of expression itself’ as you say is the most important motivation.

    • It’s awesome that you enjoy writing for yourself! I myself sometimes find that a lil tiring, despite writing being my craft of choice. Thanks for stopping by, by the way. I truly appreciate it!

  16. I love your insight on this. I definitely have learned the benefits of holding onto the joy of writing the stories I would like to read rather than stressing over writing for others. When you write for yourself, you truly love it. And readers that also love what you’re creating will come organically. Thanks for this!

    • Yup, because you’re part of an audience after all, and the fact that you’re consuming your own work makes it even better, so you can fine-tune the piece to how someone like you would actually enjoy it.

      Thank YOU for stopping by!

  17. I am just now warming up to the idea of writing in (private) journals and notebooks as a way to ‘get the suck out’. My perfectionist tendencies have been getting in the way for too long! I’ve heard this advice before, and I know I need to embrace it. I’m working on it. 😊

    • You should definitely do it! I write random sentences into my writing journal for this exact reason. I get to practice and I know I’m not doing it for showmanship. Good luck with your practice!

  18. I actually have been posting not worrying about an audience at all but was quite happy when you left a comment on my blog. Judging by how many people commented on your essay I think we all share similar feelings and hopes about our writing. I look forward to reading all your writing.

    • This is exactly why I love reading people’s blogs and leaving my thoughts on their work, because I’m really honoured that I was able to make you happy.

      You stopping by did make my day too, so thanks for coming!

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