Academic Advice, Writing

Writing What “No One” Reads

Citation Needed

“Why write what no one will ever read?”

I hear this question a lot from people outside of academia (and, let’s be real, within it as well). Academics generally write for – if I may make an understatement – a rather concentrated readership: Blood, sweat, and tears go into pages of work that may never be read outside of the “Ivory Tower.” To some, so much work for such a small readership seems like (at best) a wasted effort or (at worst) a quasi-masochistic psychosis.

But let’s face it, academics write about some pretty quirky, obscure subjects that aren’t going to get one on the NYTimes Bestseller List. But what if that quirkiness is, in fact, the whole point? As Annie Dillard says in The Writing Life:

“Why do you never find anything written about that idiosyncratic thought you advert to, about your fascination with something no one else understands? Because it’s up to you.

There is something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain. It is hard to explain because you have never read it on any page; there you begin. You were made and set here to give voce to this, your own astonishment… Thoreau said it another way… “Know your own bone: gnaw at it, bury it unearth it, and gnaw at it still.””

So perhaps as academics, we do tend to gnaw at our own bones, so to speak. But while everyone wants to be read, is the worth of a piece always a function of how many people read it? What if quality can sometimes trump quantity? Yes, if you publish a piece in an academic journal, perhaps only a handful of people will ever read it – but this handful will comprise the top scholars in your obscure little area of interest. They will read it, ponder it, engage with it, and – let’s be honest – criticize the heck out of it. But what better reward for an writer?

Steven Tyler
“Loved the informative footnotes on p. 42.”

Think about it: It’s wonderful if thousands of strangers come across your writing, but might you exchange that for having Bill Clinton, Malala Yousafzai, and Steven Tyler of Aerosmith pour over your manuscript and pull you aside to discuss it with you at a conference? There’s worth in both types of readership (and definitely more money in the former) but that doesn’t mean that the latter cannot be deeply rewarding and fulfilling in its own right.

Either way, the academically obscure is likely not a road to literary fame. But honestly, most writing isn’t. However, it can be road to much, much more as Anne Lamott explains in Bird by Bird:

“I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to do—the actual act of writing—turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.

Call it a labor of love, mental exercise, or even a waste of time, but sometimes, like Lamott says, what you really need is the tea ceremony itself. So whatever your personal “tea ceremony may be” – get to it!

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