The Art of Personal Writing that’s Not Self-Indulgent

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 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 as a writer, I remember when 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:

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?

Writers need to “check themselves” when it comes to their personal writing. It’s an integral part of the profession.

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.

7. Empower a transformation

This is another tip about avoiding extremes, such as putting a spotlight on yourself as a victim or a hero.

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.

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:

  1. “Where is this going?”
  2. “This is already really repetitive.”
  3. “Why should I care?”

But we all have to practice recognizing those qualities in our own work too, before we publish.

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