Creative writing is notoriously difficult to make a living with and most writers struggle to find financial stability. Many people view creative writing as a hobby or “nice-to-have,” not a serious or valuable pursuit. Though the fact is that while friends, family, or colleagues may challenge your commitment to writing, the worst critic may, in fact, be yourself.
Do you question whether you should write? Do you wonder whether it’s “worth it”? If a little voice in your head sometimes says, “Don’t bother, it’s a waste of time,” you’re not alone. A lot of writers face the same self doubt.
Many writers write because it makes them happy. The work is its own reward. Beyond that, it can also have serious social, health, and cognitive benefits that many people overlook.
The reasons not to write
Here’s what they — or you yourself — may say:
Creative writing has no practical value.
Unless you’re J. K. Rowling or Stephen King, you can’t make a living from fiction.
Instead of wasting your time on stories, you could invest time in your actual career or in your family.
Stories are just empty entertainment — they don’t have any social or cultural value. So why bother?
Keep in mind that the value of writing is subjective. Where one reader sees a novel as a waste of paper, another sees it as a life changer. But forget about the readers for a moment. Consider the effect on the writers. Many find great enjoyment and fulfillment in creative writing, and a regular writing practice can have several cognitive and emotional benefits.
In fact, some can't live without it.
“Not to write, for many of us, is to die.” — Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing
The reasons to write
You can get value from writing even if you are the next bestselling author. Even if your creative goals are modest. In fact, there is a growing body of research on the cognitive and emotional benefits of creative writing, including writing fiction.
For example, research has shown that writing fiction improves social skills and empathy, maybe because the writer has to delve into the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of characters who differ from themselves.
Let’s look at some other reasons writing is worth it:
- Personal enjoyment: Creative writing can be enjoyable and rewarding, whether you publish short stories and novels or start your days by doing free-form writing. The act of writing — like painting or knitting or running or rowing — can be its own reward.
- Self-expression: Writing down your thoughts, feelings, and experiences can unlock parts of your own self that otherwise remain buried. This self-expression can help you process your daily life and make sense of it.
- Emotional release: Creativity can be a therapeutic outlet. Research has suggested writing can reduce stress and improve well-being, in part by providing a sense of control and accomplishment — not to mention escape. Being transported into a fictional world can be powerful. When I’ve gone through difficult periods in my life — from dealing with a painful breakup to the death of a parent — writing has often helped me ease stress or express my feelings, even when I was writing about fictional characters that looked nothing like me.
- Cognitive development: Research has suggested that creative writing can improve memory and cognitive function, in part because it involves generating and organizing new ideas, considering multiple perspectives, as well as recalling and describing specific details.
- Intellectual challenge: Writing is hard work. The writer has to generate and organize ideas as well as consider different perspectives and viewpoints, putting everything together in a narrative that flows naturally. This intellectual challenge is like a complex puzzle, and it can be hugely rewarding.
- Community building: People often think of the lonely writer working in solitude. But writing can also be a powerful way to connect with others. On platforms like Wattpad, writers can test out ideas and build community with like-minded readers. The friends I made during my MFA in Creative Writing are still a tightly knit bunch more than a decade later.
- Professional development: For some people, creative writing may be a path to a new career. It may even come as a surprise how useful stronger writing skills can be professionally. When I finished my MFA in Creative Writing, I had no expectations that my two years spent deep-diving into the craft of short stories and novels would help me in my day job. But soon after graduating, I landed a job in communications at one of the world’s largest philanthropies — in part because my writing skills had improved by leaps and bounds.
There’s no doubt that creative writing has a range of benefits. But ultimately, you have to decide for yourself whether those benefits are worth prioritizing in your busy life.
Are you ready to dive in?
How to get started
These best practices can help you get the most out of your writing practice:
- Schedule time for writing: Set aside time specifically for writing, whether it’s 5 minutes or 5 hours. A short, daily session is better than a long, weekly one. If you must choose between 5 minutes a day and 35 minutes on Saturday, stick to 5 minutes a day. In my experience, the daily practice will reap real benefits that the once-in-a-while session won’t.
- Find a distraction-free place to write: Shut off your phone. Tell friends and family that unless it’s an emergency, you’ll be unavailable during your writing session. If you can’t close a door to stop interruptions, put on headphones to show that your focus is elsewhere.
- Start with a goal in mind: Whether you’re working on a short story or a novel, it’s helpful to have a clear objective in mind. Maybe a specific scene or character you want to develop. Or a scene you’ve drafted that you’d like to revise. Even if your goal is to free-write for 15 minutes, it’s best to articulate what you’re doing before you start, so you don’t waste time thinking about what to do when you’re sitting in front of the blank page.
- Keep a writing prompt in your back pocket: If you feel stuck, reach for a writing prompt that can help you get started. Even if you have a goal, following a writing prompt can warm up your writing muscles. There’s no need to waste time staring at a blank page.
- Don’t worry about perfection: Writing is a process. Even the most experienced authors begin with a crappy first draft. Allow your writing to be mediocre or bad and save your revisions for later. See the next point.
Set aside time to revise: Don’t mix your drafting time with your revising time. When you’re drafting, you want to rush headlong forward, not worry about plot holes, character inconsistencies, or grammar.
- Get feedback: After revising, consider sharing your writing with others for feedback. Ideally, your readers should be writers or readers who can provide unbiased, constructive feedback. Very often, family members struggle to play this role, and you may need to find a critiquing group to get help.
Writing fiction can have a range of positive effects on mental wellbeing and intelligence. It can reduce stress and improve well-being, improve social skills and empathy, increase cognitive flexibility, and enhance memory and cognitive function. All good stuff. But honestly, you don't need to know about the benefits to justify your writing practice. It’s enough to know that writing makes you happy.
If it does, what are you waiting for? Grab some of that joy.