To Publish or not to Publish? Is that really the question?


When I hear about people who write but have no desire for publication I always imagine closet diarists who hide their notebooks in drawers under their thermals if they live near the equator or their sarongs if they live in the Arctic.

If we write for ourselves we only have a reader of one to satisfy. This reader will always perceive the world with our eyes. She will understand the in-jokes, know exactly what we mean, get upset by or enjoy the same things.

Or we might write for ourselves in order to make sense of what we’re feeling, thinking, or experiencing. By “talking” to ourselves on the page we might come closer to understanding the world we live in. I fill journals with things I don’t want anyone to read, and have no desire to publish.

According to The Shorter Oxford the definition of ‘publish’ is to make publicly or generally known. So it surprises me when writers who say they don’t want to be published share their work with others.

I wonder if what they really mean is something else entirely. Perhaps they say they don’t want to publish because they fear rejection, or exposing themselves, or think their writing is not good enough. Or they get embarrassed when people ask if they’ve published anything. These fears, and others like them, can be crippling. They may be hidden not only from others, but from themselves.

Writing is “speaking” on a page. We write because we have something to say. As soon as we want someone else to “listen” we’re moving out of the private domain and into the public. In other words, publishing.

I see getting published as a crucial part of creative writing, rather than as separate from it.

In the interval between finishing a work and sending it out we are forced to face a frightening reality: our writing will be read through someone else’s eyes. We scurry back to read it before we expose ourselves to a discerning stranger. Our critical eye becomes sharper and we read with a heightened intensity. Does that word exactly describe what I’m trying to say? Can this sentence be phrased more effectively? So when we finally send it off our work is as complete as we can possibly make it at this stage of our writing development.

If the manuscript returns, be disappointed but not discouraged. The distance of time gives us fresher eyes and improved writing skills to see areas for improvement more clearly. Tweak that beginning, deepen that metaphor. Polish, and send it off again. If we weren’t sending it out again, would we spend the time creating a better manuscript?

Some writers I tutor are preparing their stories for an ebook publication. Most have had work published on-line or in anthologies. Several have won awards. All of them are now in that intense period where they are obliged to see their stories through a reader’s eyes.

Without the impetus of publication we’re less likely to complete our story or novel to its full potential. That’s why seeking published is a fundamental part of creative writing.

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13 Responses to To Publish or not to Publish? Is that really the question?

  1. Diana Threlfo says:

    A very reasoned and powerfully expressed appeal to writers who don’t aim for publication to ponder their reasons and rethink their decision. Thanks, Karen.

    • Thanks for your comment, Diana. It’s so important to ask why we do things. Why do we write? Why do we publish, or not publish? There are as many answers as there are people asking them.
      For me, the fear of showing someone else my writing forces me to take a story as far as I possibly can. For that reason publication helps me achieve that goal.

  2. Margaret jackson says:

    I agree completely. Seeking publication is an important step in learning to be a writer. The need for a critical editing eye becomes important. The tweaking and the polishing deepens the learning curve. It takes courage to reveal your work to others. One of the things that I have found most helpful is to become part of a small writer’s group where you gradually expose your writing to critiquing and gradually come to trust your fellow writers with your work and so see that work through other eyes. It is so amazing when you receive approval of your writing and so helpful to accept advice on how to improve the writing. Through this process you can learn to trust your own voice. From there it is an easier step to seek publication. As you work through the final polishing before submitting you go deeper into the editing process and find deeper meaning in your writing. Thanks for the encouragement Karen.

  3. anne says:

    I couldn’t help but smile, Karen, when I read this lovely piece. When I had my first article published someone asked me did I have a byline. “What’s a byline?” I asked, seriously. Publishing was not the be all and end all for me at that early stage. I truly believed that I didn’t have anything to say to anyone that would be of any interest although I loved to write.
    Then when I did have a couple of articles published in a national women’s magazine a writer said to me, “Oh, anyone can write an article.” This confirmed my belief that I probably didn’t have much to say.
    I agree with you that publishing your pieces are like the final part of the process. I have to add, though, in defence of those who choose not to publish that they might enjoy the actual writing, which doesn’t necessarily mean the end is publication. I write heaps that I throw away. I’ve just thrown out 45 years worth of journals and diaries. I am decluttering in more ways than one. Over the years, I’ve thrown away heaps of children’s stories, short stories, essays, plays, poems …
    I don’t write to be published as my main goal, even now, but I do hope that one day my children and grandchildren might enjoy my memoirs which I’ve been writing for the past 15 years, on and off.
    Like you, I’d encourage writing students to aim for the professional level i.e publication. It is a thrill. Always before I sent something away, hoping to be published, I’d read it and think, “This is terrible. How embarrassing!” I never sent a lot away but when pieces were accepted and I’d see it published I’d think, “Ah, that’s not so bad after all.” So take courage and push yourself to your most professional self! You have nothing to lose.
    And you’re very lucky if you have Karen as your tutor, that’s all I can say.
    Love this writer’s life.

    • Ooohh, I recognise that embarrassment (cringe). It’s a major factor for why I’m so slow to send out my stories. Knowing that someone else is going to see what I’ve written and discover how inadequate it is, and therefore I am, is mortifying.
      I have a computer full of stories I haven’t shown anyone and I’ve enjoyed writing most of them. But it seems to only be when I make a story ‘publicly known’ that the fear of showing someone else, whether it’s my children, my friends, my writing group, an editor, any reader actually, pushes me a little further to write as well as I can. Sometimes, it even makes me write a little better than I can. And it’s in that, not publication itself, where the true value lies for me.

      • Your honesty here is much appreciated Karen! I think sometimes as students we see our tutor as a perfect god-like creature that could never fear sending their works out publicly. It’s heartening to hear your perspective…

      • I smiled when I read your comment, Jessie. Oh no, we are very human with all the same fears.

  4. Ruth Robertson says:

    Thank you Karen for a very thought provoking article. Although I have had a couple of stories published together with other writers in a group, I have never bothered (underlined) to go out of my way to submit stories to competitions, publishers etc. I put it down to having a successful writer for a brother and feeling that I would never achieve the same success. I feel ashamed that so many years of writing are still sitting in a large box for my family to read when I pass on. I cannot in all honesty say that in 2014 I will change, however, I promise I will give it some thought. Thank you once again for your efforts in encouraging creative writers in their endeavours.
    Bobbie Robertson

    • Hi Bobbie. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment.
      Your family is very lucky to have such a treasure trove of your writing. Publishing, in the sense I mean, is making your work available for other people to read, even if those people are your family and friends. I find knowing another set of eyes will be reading my stories takes them to the next level.
      I can see you’ve given this topic a great deal of thought, and if my post has helped you in deciding what suits you best than I’m thrilled.
      Happy writing,

  5. anne says:

    That’s so true, Karen. Pushing yourself, doing that extra mile, is good for our writing and our soul 🙂

  6. rgayer55 says:

    I like for my work to be read. One of my goals is that it be more widely read. But my primary goal is that my writing will be better tomorrow than it is today, and even better the day after that.

    • Hi Russell. I couldn’t agree with you more. I love the challenge of finding new ways to give my writing more clarity and make it more effective. What’s great is the learning will never stop.There’s nothing quite like the high you get when you nail a piece of writing. Don’t tell anyone I said that – I’ll be certified as mad, or at least, unutterably nerdy. Thanks for coming by and commenting. Cheers, Karen

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