Whenever I talk about personal writing, and I advise that you should write for a specific group of people to convey your perspective … I get a little nervous.
Personal narratives in blog post introductions can form connections with strangers almost magically, but self-indulgent writing has the opposite effect. It’s boring and a turn-off.
The tricky part is that there’s a fine line between “personal” and “self-indulgent.”
During my early days of learning how to become a freelance writer, my unbridled enthusiasm for crafting word art met that obstacle.
I still meet it today when brainstorming blog post ideas, but I’ve developed skills that swiftly get me back on track when I’ve accidentally veered into self-indulgent territory.
If you’re looking to customize your content marketing without distracting your audience, keep reading to discover seven of my favorite tips for personal writing that’s not self-indulgent.
1. Let your audience guide your personal writing
Select the marketing stories you tell based on who you want to attract.
Your goal is to show the people who you want to be a part of your community that they’re in the right place.
Let’s review the definition of “self-indulgence”:
“Excessive or unrestrained gratification of one’s own appetites, desires, or whims.”
The intersection of your own appetites, desires, or whims and your audience’s appetites, desires, or whims guides you to the “personal” zone.
2. Reveal your journey
People love backstories.
Think of “before they were famous” television segments or magazine articles about celebrities you like.
That idea translates to information content creators can reveal about themselves, with one small addition to stay audience-focused.
It’s valuable when you explain how you got to where you are today and your motivations for sharing your knowledge. Why do you want to teach what you’ve learned?
In the introduction to this article on personal writing, I mentioned that I’ve cultivated ways to avoid “veering into self-indulgent territory” because it’s a challenge I’ve dealt with as a longtime writer.
You’ll also see this in the best book introductions.
3. Have a point
As your audience’s mentor, it’s your job to clearly communicate the purpose of your content.
Everything you reveal should be tethered to your point. You never leave your audience stranded without a GPS. They should feel secure in your created reality, not lost.
These three resources help with that:
- How to Write Better Content
- Where to Begin When It’s Time to Edit Your Content
- Struggling to Finish Your Blog Post? Try This Quick Editing Tip
You could also think of your point as the moral of your story.
Ultimately, if a story doesn’t serve, it can sound like rambling, a diary entry, or even gossip.
4. Set boundaries with your personal writing
Speaking of gossip, I also call this one: “You’re a Writer, not the Town Gossip.”
Authenticity doesn’t include spilling every shocking secret you know. Your story can be true and your writing can be colorful without divulging parts that are inappropriate.
As you develop your presentation, some boundaries will arise organically and other times you’ll have to ask yourself:
- Do I need to say that?
- Do I want to be known for saying that?
- Does this accurately reflect who I am?
Professional writers need to “check themselves” when it comes to their personal writing. It’s an integral part of effective storyselling.
5. Choose specific language
I love applying techniques from other creative fields to business blogging.
During an interview in 1976 about his songwriting process, Leonard Cohen said:
“I’ve always felt that the more personal you get, the more universal the application, rather than the other way around. If you begin to address yourself to the masses like that, then I suppose you could have a hit, but to me the more accurate you get about your situation, then the more accessible it is to other people.”
Here’s an example from a Saturday Night Live sketch, which appeals to women who wear leggings when relaxing rather than exercising.
The clip mentions the reality show Vanderpump Rules. It’s more powerful to add that specific name instead of a vague phrase like “trashy TV.”
I’ve never seen Vanderpump Rules, but the sentiment in that line immediately evokes thoughts of my guilty pleasure while relaxing in leggings: falling down rabbit holes on YouTube.
6. Avoid excessive praise or bad-mouthing
If you elaborate on how much you love or hate someone or something, it’s typically a sign that your personal writing deviates from your point .
Even though other people can relate to the emotions of love and hate, musings related to your individual circumstances are often not useful.
Expressions of gratitude or frustration from your experiences can be made without tangents that don’t keep your reader’s best interest in mind. It’s one of the most important tips for beginner writers.
7. Empower a transformation
This is another tip about avoiding extremes, such as putting a spotlight on yourself as a victim or a hero. It also comes in handy when you’re learning how to create digital products.
Descriptions of failure or success have to benefit the audience. Position those details in ways that empower the transformation the reader wants to have, rather than attacking or bolstering your own character.
For example, real estate photography in LA helps realtors sell their properties faster. That’s the bottom line. A stellar photography portfolio is about empowering the transformation the realtor wants. It’s not about feeding the photographer’s ego.
You know personal writing that’s self-indulgent when you see it
We typically have three thoughts when we encounter personal writing that’s self-indulgent:
- “Where is this going?”
- “This is already really repetitive.”
- “Why should I care?”
But we all have to practice recognizing those qualities in our own work too, before we publish.
Reader Comments (12)
Jane Rucker says
This post is a useful reminder to keep your focus where it belongs in each piece you write. Finding that balance point between being personal enough to be accessible to your reader and being overly open to the point of losing your reader is a highly effective skill to learn.
I enjoyed the linked article about “ruthless editing” as well. Speaking as an editor who works with writers at various skill levels, I have to say that the most difficult writer to edit for is still myself. It’s a challenge to cut things down sometimes!
These 7 tips are worthy of learning in order to increase the effectiveness of your content. Thanks for sharing!
Stefanie Flaxman says
I’m a big supporter of writers developing self-editing skills. 🙂
It’s really a matter of — to use your phrase — getting good at recognizing the parts where you’ll “lose your reader.”
Thanks for sharing, Jane!
Ryan Biddulph says
Being genuine helps you find that balance Stefanie.
Per being human, we overthink stuff. But when writing from the heart you are being you, sharing your personal journey, having fun and connecting with exactly the folks who want to hear your personal stories. Even if said stories stray into the realm of self-indulgent behavior.
My readers care not for nature shots, even though I share ’em regularly. Nope; selfies are preferred. As are my silly stories, and links to blogging. Definitely off the cuff in many regards yet I have fun writing these tales and my readers have spoken. This works nicely with your advice. Listen, and feel their nudges.
Being genuine is key though. Like if you are being your authentic self through your writing, readers who crave that message – even if self-focused – find you and gobble it up, wanting more. The vicariously living through me thing in play and I am a change up in both travel and blogging tips niches.
Cool share Stefanie. I will begin reading CB regularly again; absolute gem I have missed while busy with other fun stuff. I will be back 😉
Stefanie Flaxman says
Glad to hear you’ve been doing other fun stuff, Ryan — but good to see you back! 🙂
These points hit a salient point with me right now. A friend asked me to help him write a memoir, but I struggled to say why I was leery of the project. You captured those concerns here though; self-indulgence, lack of direction, knowing your audience;yup, those are all flags. And as much as I might be guilty of some of these traits in my own writing on occasion, when it comes to ghost writing a book for someone else, I don’t want to get lost in the process.
Thanks for sharing Stefanie
Stefanie Flaxman says
Terrific example, Katherine!
Lack of direction is a major obstacle for editors and ghostwriters. It’s hard to do your best work on a project when there is no clear point.
Good luck breaking the news to your friend …
My suggestion is letting him know that where he’s at right now is not the right fit for how you work. Here are some more thoughts about the benefits of saying “no,” if you’re interested:
Kathie York says
Yeah, this hit home. I am a proofer. I find allllllllll kinds (!) of problems with client files… but every once in a while one of my editors or proofers taps my humble button.
I doubled down, timewise, to get an inspiration-came-out-of-the-blue article written quickly. I was so proud of it, but one of my editors moved stuff around and slashed four sentences. In a row!
She said, “It all works fine, but if you do this, it will FLOW fine.”
Ouch. Yep. We have to be careful not to press too much and leave the audience behind.
Appreciate this (ouch!) one :->
Stefanie Flaxman says
Sorry about the “ouch,” Kathie! But I appreciate you sharing the feedback you got — it’s a great illustration of the writing process. 🙂
Absolutely agree with this, especially point number 2! People overlook the power of storytelling outside of the obvious applications.
Emails, internal communications, slideshows, simple landing pages, whatever… they can all benefit from inserting a bit of that ‘journey’ (whether it ends up being first person or not.)
Stefanie Flaxman says
Thanks, Evan! Yep, there are so many opportunities for strategic storytelling in business content. 🙂
Shea Castle says
My posts typically revolve around expressing a personal opinion, but I’m often loathe to dive into too much personal information for fear of that “self-indulgent” moniker. Why should people care about me and my opinions more than anyone else’s?
My wife (who is not a writer but is much smarter than me) is constantly pushing me to write more personally. This article is a great supporting argument that you can write personally without making everything about yourself. Can’t wait to tell her that — as usual — she’s right.
Stefanie Flaxman says
Very cool, Shea! 🙂
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