Writing for Yourself vs. Writing for Others

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Different kinds of writing serve different purposes and different audiences. What kind of writing are you doing?

Chasing down writing advice on the internet can be confusing. It all swirls together like a giant Dairy Queen treat until you find yourself at the bottom of a blood sugar crash with words falling in on top of you.  

It’s easy to think all information listed as writing will be helpful, but the truth is different kinds of writing serve difference purposes and different audiences.

Ask yourself, ‘what kind of writing is right for me?’

There’s no right or wrong way to produce content. Lady Justice’s scales balance out when she’s holding up therapeutic writing on the left side and creative writing on the right.

But there are best practices to follow when it comes to choosing one over the other.

Don’t ask yourself, “what kind of writing is best?” Ask yourself, “what kind of writing is right for me?”

You need a clear understanding of the different types of writing, before you know your intended audience or how to produce content for them effectively.

Here are three writing categories that often get confused:

  • Therapeutic Writing

  • Creative Writing

  • Copywriting

(There’s overlap, but for the sake of this article, we’ll keep these guys separate.)

Therapeutic Writing:

Maybe your therapist mentioned you should write down your feelings after that last fight with your husband. Or perhaps you keep a journal because you like to self-identify your habits, dreams, or to keep a running log of your life experiences. Nothing wrong with any of that.

This kind of writing can serve to release a lot of bottled up stuff and help you to start figuring yourself out.

But understand the audience here.

Therapeutic writing serves only you, the writer.

This kind of self-improvement is writing that serves only you.

Its goal is for you to get comfortable with opening yourself up through the medium of writing. 

Like your 7th grade Sweet Valley High diary—the one with the key you kept on a chain around your neck—nobody needs to see the pages you produce.

And contrary to what you may think or what your tween self feared, most people don’t want to read your disjointed thoughts on some hot crush or how you turned into a pelican and flew to Mars in last night’s dreamscape.

Your random thoughts don’t amount to a story.

So, why the hell has this kind of therapy taken on gospel-like significance for people who want to write a narrative and get it published?

Lots of novice writers quote the writing ritual found in the Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron as their inspiration for setting a regular practice. Cameron advocates for what she calls Morning Pages as a creative routine where you wake up and produce three pages of longhand journaling first thing in the morning. 

But it’s important to note what Cameron claims about Morning Pages:

“They [the morning pages] are not even ‘writing,’” she says on juliacameronlive.com, “they are about anything and everything that crosses your mind—and they are for your eyes only.”

In other words, this is therapeutic writing at its best. It’s not storytelling.

Here’s the 4-1-1: Cameron was in a 12-Step Program and writing became a form of discipline. As someone married to a recovering alcoholic, I get the necessity for routine used by addicts to stay sober. Making yourself write regularly is a great method to use. But it’s not much different from making your bed every morning.

This discipline will strengthen your ability to be consistent, but it’s not in and of itself a great way to learn how to shape a story, to write a book, or to connect with an audience.

If you’re a writer who’s not looking to get published, putting words down on the page may be enough for you.

I focus on this kind of writing over at the Narrative Nest. There, I teach women how to write their traumatic birth stories and recount miscarriages. I still advocate for these women to structure stories, because I believe making meaning and finding your voice both have a profound effect on processing wounds. But sharing is optional.

If your goal is to write for you and only for you, therapeutic writing might be enough. Keep the word counts coming.

But there are many women who, after writing about their traumatic births, decide they’ve discovered an invaluable message they want to get out into the world.

Who will read what you’ve written? That’s a key distinction between therapeutic and creative writing.

Lots of people use therapeutic writing as a jumping off point for creative writing. But once you move over to the creative writing process, new rules apply. 

Creative Writing:

This kind of writing encompasses fiction and non-fiction categories. We’re talking novels, memoirs, and poetry. It’s not academic or journalistic, but it is writing that has a goal of getting seen.

And it’s the type of content that seeks to tell a story. 

You may move from therapeutic writing to creative writing. Or maybe you skip the therapeutic side and go straight to the creative. Either way, the idea behind creative writing is that you plan to produce a finished product that will land in the laps of readers.

Who will read what you’ve written? That’s a key distinction between these first two types of writing.

In therapeutic writing, the audience is you and only you. 

With the creative process, you must balance the needs of your story with a reader’s expectations. Yes, you’re still providing your perspective, but you’ve got to make it relatable to an audience now. It’s never enough to just get your thoughts and feelings down.

There’s an undercurrent at work with creative writing. Universal themes, symbols, and motifs come into play. You’ll also need to construct strong characters and a solid plot line.

In creative writing, word counts are out and shaping a story is in.

In creative writing, both the writer and reader must get value out of the stories you tell.

This distinction matters because as soon as you decide to slap a price tag on your work, it becomes a commodity. People expect to get value out of what they’re buying. Like it or not, that’s how the system works. Writers also plan to get some value out of their stories, whether that’s in the form of money or showcasing their voice as an authority on a subject.

You might decide to write a story and stick it online for free. Lots of writers do that early on. Hell, I’m doing it right now as I write this blog post to you. But I don’t know too many writers who intend to spend a lifetime constructing copious amounts of material into well-crafted manuscripts for no one’s eyes but their own.

The goal is to tell great stories that have an intended audience. For both the writer and reader to get value out of the process.

I write a free weekly blog, but it serves a purpose for a specific audience. To generate interest among the right readers, so they may eventually be interested in investing in my services and digital products—several of which will be launching in the near future. 

Speaking of ads, the last type of writing I want to address is…

Copywriting:

Copywriting desires attention.

Like creative writing, copywriting also requires an audience. In fact, with copywriting the audience is the key.

This is the kind of writing you’re doing on your author’s website and when you market your writing. Whether it’s your website copy, your sales page, or a Facebook ad, copywriting desires attention.

Sure, your style and voice will still come through, but the focus is squarely on your reader. It’s a bargaining chip for getting a reader into your world. 

Copywriting is writing that sells.

And boy oh boy, is there copywriting advice aplenty online!

You’ll find this kind of writing attached to words like “quicker,” “smarter,” “sooner,” and “now.”

It’s not always listed as copywriting, either. Sometimes you’ll see ads for it as “content creation,” “online marketing,” or just plain ol’ writing. Or it might be stated as “one crazy trick to make you write faster.” You know the drill.

Copywriting is writing that sells.

If someone promises you they can help get your entire book produced in 90 days, they’re marketers, not editors. Their knowledge of the entirety of the writing process is limited. But I can guarantee you they know copywriting! Ask them to make you a sales page.

Copywriting needs an audience more than any other kind of writing, which is why it sounds showy or if done poorly, desperate.

Let’s imagine for a minute that these three types of writing were your matches in a round of speed dating:

  • Therapeutic writing— this is the guy who gets your attention immediately because he’s so mysterious. Dating him may turn you onto all kinds of creative pursuits. And he might spark some great ideas. But you know there’ll be no balance in the relationship. He’s self-centered—a narcissist—and your love affair will be a rollercoaster ride of random experiences. Like when he wants you to just keep writing instead of getting a day job to pay the bills. He provides nothing to anchor your love affair to your daily life.

  • Copywriting shows up to the table selling himself. He’s wearing a flashy suit and a Rolex. He spends his 5 minutes talking about his job, his car, and his bank account, but frames it all as stuff that can make your life a living dream. A part of you thinks you need someone like him, because money is important. But deep down you know you need more than materialism in a partnership.

  •  Creative writing—where have you been all my life?! He’s thoughtful and considerate. He’ll open the car door for you because he cares. But he’s no doormat. He stands up for his beliefs. Plus, this guy has a strong spiritual center. It may take longer to get to know each other, but eventually you two will be striving for the same things. You’ll have a balance in your conversations. He’ll encourage you to be creative, but you’ll have realistic goals that’ll keep you from ever going hungry. With him, you know his needs will get met and so will yours.

It’s this one group—creative writers—who struggle to find the right tools to edit a manuscript. 

As an author, you may eventually need to develop the skills of all three types of writing—just as most women will have dated all of the men above! That’s not uncommon. But your job of writing will change dramatically with each method.

If you’re working on polishing a rough draft to get published or moving from free-writing to structuring a story, therapeutic writing prompts and copywriting methods won’t get you where you need to go.

Yes, both therapeutic writing and copywriting can be creative, but developing a solid story takes time and requires its own techniques.

Trying to apply copywriting strategies to a creative writing process leaves your story without substance. And churning out massive pages of random thoughts is how creative writers never advance journaling to a fully actualized story.

It’s this middle group—creative writers—who struggle to find the right tools to edit a manuscript. 

How can you strike a balance between telling your story and making it relatable to a larger audience?

How can you strike a balance between telling your story and making it relatable to a larger audience? If you find that you’re in this category and don’t know how to shape your writing, you’re not alone.

My goal at The Naked Page has always been to help creative writers—writers who plan to tell the stories that get seen by an audience—find the best approach to self-editing. 

Sometimes, I create those tools, other times I’ll send you out to use someone else’s method. Either way, story is my heart and soul. More than that, it’s my bread and butter. So, before I get sappy and start to binge eat, let’s consider one introductory way you can focus on the needs of your audience while telling your story.

If you know the heart of your story’s message, start to think about your ideal reader. Imagine that you’re talking to your best friend. You can even post a picture of someone’s face on your computer. Or do a side exercise where you write some of your stories as letters to that one person. 

My friend Kelly is a comedienne. She was instrumental in helping me polish my improv skills many years ago. I took over for her as a burlesque emcee when she was pregnant. Back then, I was just getting started with my writing and I’d send her daily updates. I could say anything to her as long as it made her laugh. This kept my writing from getting too teachery.

To this day, I picture her face when I’m writing certain content.

How can you get comfy sharing your story with your ideal reader?

Can you choose a close friend or family member and imagine writing to that one person? 

How would writing directly to that one person shape the stories you need to tell?