Why we should all write more uselessly
Today, I explore the notion of useless writing and how it’s helped me become a better writer.
Words that never saw the light of day always felt painful to me. So I never wrote just because. I think it’s because I was trained this way. As a writer in various marketing roles at San Francisco-based startups, I wrote furiously but strategically. I needed to write efficiently and not waste time or words. I hated deleting sentences or entire ideas. Oh, how attached I’d get.
But then something shifted—surprise, it happened after I started my memoir. Naturally, I had to write a lot more frequently. For the first time, I was writing in the mornings and afternoons. In crafting my scenes and chapters, I started noticing they were like personal essays with their own mini-arguments about the events I recounted.
I also joined a weekly writing group where I’d write for 30 minutes from a random prompt like “the time you were chosen or not chosen.”
Through my favorite writing podcast, Write Minded (co-hosted by Grant Faulkner of), I learned that published authors, like Lan Samantha Chang, would regularly write senselessly and without conscious intent. It would ignite inspiration and ideas for future projects or books.
The theme I started noticing throughout all of this was that:
writing just to write
writing to explore
…are all good things. No, it’s better than good. It’s downright therapeutic and sparks motivation when you’re feeling blah. Like Lan, I too started noticing the benefits. New ideas for my chapters and Substack blogs suddenly appeared before me.
Useless writing as brain dumps
I really love how the art of writing isn’t binary. I can apply what I learn from writing my memoir to writing for my clients too. I started using the “useless writing” mantra when starting a new assignment. Before, I’d have the writing and research mostly laid out before starting the draft.
But now, I start with the idea first. I use free writing to get all of the central themes and arguments to pour out of me. Even if it doesn’t make sense, I just go with it.
I completely ignore the editor side of me to compulsively fix typos and instead, allow run-on sentences to take over as if periods and commas don’t exist. I let all of the ideas and mistakes flow.
It took me a long time to reach this point. I remember the early days when I’d write for clients and then immediately edit everything. I was overwhelmed with the amount of work so I’d force myself to write an entire article from draft to final. I realized 8 hours had gone by and felt intense fatigue from… oh I don’t know, that my brain was melting?
Now, I write “uselessly” and after it’s all out, I take a break. Sidenote—if ever there was an unspoken rule for a writer, or for any job that requires intense focus, it’s to step away. Some of my writer friends take extended breaks for a month or two, just to distance themselves from the project. Then when they return, they experience it with fresh eyes. I have yet to try this, but it’s on my radar.
For client work, I experience newfound clarity when I don’t look at the draft for at least a day or two. I’m able to formulate different angles and questions to explore, which ultimately, better shapes the argument.
Pick out the ideas and delete what isn’t central
When I return to my computer, I jump into the second round. I like this part because, with a refreshed brain, it’s so easy to delete what isn’t necessary. I still have the habit of being way too attached to what I write. In that case, I create a separate document and save the unwanted copy in there. Mostly, I never look at it again.
This second round helps me figure out what is central. I identify the main idea and supporting statements. Then, I string them together and remove anything that doesn’t support the central idea.
If you write for your job or for clients, try this process out and see if it helps you better identify the main argument. These types of articles are most likely laid out as a problem/solution.
I also use this method for writing parts of my memoir that feel hazy. I start with what the scene is all about and why it’s meaningful.
Or maybe you’re not a writer but want to figure out what goals you want to accomplish in 2023. Write down all of the memorable moments you experienced in 2022 (don’t forget the “whys”) and see what stands out to you.
Speaking of 2023, Happy New Year
This morning, while listening to Write Minded, I was prompted by host Brooke Warner (my future writing teacher—I start her 6-month writing course this month, more on that in a future Substack!) about the following three things:
What is your work in progress and how is that going?
My memoir of course. I have over 90K words written. I still have much of Act 2 (the longest act) to figure out from a macro level. What’s driving the story, instead of “this happened and then that happened.” I’m still struggling through that. I want to better convey how I’ve changed.
What’s one creative thing you learned last year that will carry you into the new year?
In going with today’s article, I’ll go with useless writing because it’s helped me in so many ways both in my memoir writing and professional life.
Who is one person you were inspired by?
There are also so many authors that motivate me to keep going and tell my story. I wrote about it in a previous Substack, memoirs you should read right now, and included Stephanie Foo and her book “What My Bones Know.”
Her writing is phenomenal and she tells her story so deliciously. She’s also Asian American so, in a weird way, I feel a kind of immigrant connection, the “if-she-can-do-it-so-can-I” feeling. She’s a storyteller at heart and her podcasts also inspire me to one day (someday) create my own.
As we embark on a new year, I hope you will think about these three things too, and feel leave them in the comments.
Don’t forget to subscribe to my upcoming Substack about my brother. In case you missed it, I wrote about it in last week’s blog. I plan on posting the first story this month!
I'm a recovering perfectionist and I also just learnt the concept of useless writing recently and it has been really helpful in getting my ideas down and actually getting words on the page and not stressing about getting every detail right.
This was a super relatable read