Understand the Difference between Personal and Public Writing


I’ve lost track of all the manuscripts that have come to my editorial desk from people who survived tragedy, who processed the experience through writing, and who then came to feel strongly that their written accounts would help others dealing with a similar tragedy. We editors dread the arrival of such manuscripts because we know that (1) 98 percent of these are not publishable and (2) regardless of their quality, they needed to be written. That is, people often need to process their lives by writing about their experiences, but needing to write is not the same as writing something that should be published.

That sounds cold, but honesty will take people further than polite denial will, and my desire is for people to move forward whatever their situation. So, for anyone out there who wants to understand the difference between personal and public writing, here’s what I’ve tried to communicate through more than a few carefully written rejection letters. 

  • Personal writing is for the person doing the writing.
  • Personal writing is too specific to one situation to translate well to anyone else’s situation. 
  • Personal writing helps those close to the event make some sense of it.
  • Personal writing has a specific purpose and needs no other justification.
  • Personal writing is usually emotional, passionate, and tunnel-visioned.
  • Public writing requires time to gestate and develop from the initial writing that generated it.
  • Public writing is shaped for the readers, not for the person writing it.
  • Public writing takes the concrete details of a single, personal experience to generate a discussion of the more universal experience readers will relate to. 

from “The Art of Spiritual Writing” by Vinita Hampton Wright, Loyola Press