Writing for self vs. writing for others

I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to folks interested in writing publicly (on a blog of their own, Medium, Linkedin, etc.) over the years. As you might imagine, I’m a huge proponent of writing regularly in public as the act of doing so can have a transformative effect on our life by pushing us to be more accountable to ourselves, to think more clearly, to reflect more often, and to synthesize what we learn.

While most of the questions at the beginning of these conversations tend to be tactical, the place where I think the rubber hits the road is the conversation around purpose – is the writing intended for oneself or for others?

This is a fundamental choice because the process and rewards vary significantly.

When you write for yourself, the process takes a lot less time. Since you are writing primarily to clarify your thinking, you don’t need to worry about polishing or distributing your content – you just start a blog in a small corner of the web and get on with writing. As part of the thinking process, you focus entirely on optimizing your learning versus trying to figure out what your audience would be interested in.

So, you focus on iterative shipping by writing to think and improving how you think over time. As a result, you get to treat everything you write as a hypothesis and don’t worry about the consequences of being wrong. Finally, sharing what you write on your favorite social network is strictly a choice if you feel the social pressure + time to benefit trade-off is worthwhile. Even if you do decide to share, you don’t need to obsess about notifications and feedback. If it isn’t a “hell yeah,” you can choose to not share it.

Like all decisions, this choice has accompanying consequences. The consequence of writing for yourself is that the rewards are almost entirely intrinsic. You might earn yourself a few subscribers over time – but, your subscriber count, follower count, website visit count, monetization (if any), fame, etc., will likely never be anywhere as good as someone who focuses on writing for others.

Conversely, if you started out writing for others, expect less intrinsic benefit. The correlation between popular content and valuable/learning filled content isn’t high. :)

Like many things in life, I find that this misalignment between expectations of process and outcome drives most folks to quit after writing publicly for a couple of months. While they might have set out to write for themselves, there often are unsaid expectations about building a massive subscriber base – or vice versa. The end result is disappointment.

So, if writing publicly is on your list of new year themes/resolutions, I hope you’ll take time to clarify the purpose and your expectations on process and outcomes. While I can’t speak for writing for others, if these are aligned for the purpose of writing for yourself, I can say with reasonable confidence that the long term benefits of doing so are extraordinary.