Selfishly Writing for Others

I started Commonplace Book Blog because I wanted a space to write personal essays, be reflective about my reading, and engage with others in a meaningful way. Blogging made sense to me. But I knew that if I wanted to have this online community in which to talk about reading, writing, and books with others, I would first have to create it.

I was new to the blogosphere – had hardly so much as clicked on a blog before starting my own. So before publishing my first post (a little less than three months ago now), I did some research.

I found, read, and otherwise was given copious amounts of advice on how to create a blog that would attract readers, and started an ever accumulating, mental list. It included the following points:

I was told that I needed to fulfill my readers’ unmet needs. Make my blog posts practical. Regularly include “how to”s or “tips.” Provide a number to get more clicks, as in “3 Tips on How to Start Writing.”

That I needed to write on a focused subject. That nobody reads book reviews anymore. That I should be able to write almost endlessly about my subject. That blog posts should be short – 750 words max. That I should use lots of headings so people could scan.

That frequency attracts new visitors. That consistency keeps old ones. That I should post three to five times per week at the start. That once I got a sizable following, I could cut it down to twice per week (maybe).

That I needed to be vulnerable.

That I needed to make money. That banner advertising on blogs was a thing of the past. That “native” advertising was where things were at now. That I should not advertise. That I should sell my services instead: offer classes, create discussion groups, edit manuscripts. That I should offer some of these for free. That I needed to otherwise give things away.

That the best posting days were Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. That the best posting days were Mondays and Thursdays (different study). That 9:00 a.m. Eastern Standard Time was the best time to post because most people are on the blog. That 9:00  EST was not the best time because of competition.

That I needed to ruthlessly use social media, of diverse kinds, to promote my blog. That I needed to become proficient at said social media (which I did not have accounts for), and maintain these nonexistent accounts properly. That I needed to include at least one photograph for every post, preferably Pinterest-worthy.

That I needed to be “real.”

That I needed to respond to every comment made by my readers, and quick! That I needed to visit the blog of every person who commented on mine. That I needed to leave a comment on their blog in return for a “like,” something like, “Thanks for stopping by my blog @commonplacebookblog and liking a post!”

That I needed to initiate a comment on other people’s blogs so they would come to mine. That I needed to “follow” other people’s blogs so they would follow mine. Essentially, that the number of followers was the key to successful blogging.

That people didn’t so much read blogs anymore. That I should start a vlog instead.

No one mentioned anything about the need for quality writing, about producing good content, or about writing for oneself. At least, if they did, these were such low priorities, such a slim mentioning, that they got swept away from my memory.

I resisted and felt uncomfortable about most of the things on the list, mainly because they felt disingenuous to me.

I just wanted a place in which I could write essays and discuss books.

But I also wanted to gain a little following. And so, I tried some of the ideas. Some have been genuinely beneficial. Others, less so. Many that I’d tentatively tried, I’ve outright abandoned.

There’s a scene in a film adaptation of Little Women in which Jo interrupts Frederich’s violin practice by bursting into the room to share with him the good news of her short story publications. He holds up the presented newspaper to read, then looks at her with some puzzlement: “Lunatics . . . . vampires . . . This interests you?” There’s a definite change in the room’s feel.

“People like thrilling stories, Friedrich,” Jo says (defensively). “This is what the newspapers want.”

“Yes. Yes, I suppose. I suppose that is true.”

I’m not saying that Jo has sold out because she decided to write in a genre that would pay. Nor am I saying that I’ve done the same – how could I? I don’t even make any money from my blog!

Later in Little Women, Frederick likewise gives his “honest opinion” about Jo’s writing. He says, “You must write from life, from the depths of your soul! . . . There is more to you than this, if you have the courage to write it.”

Previous to making my blog live, it seemed like — from what I’d read — my best bet for generating traffic was to write practical writing tips. So I included a “Resources for Writers” section on my blog, mainly to attract readers. In essence, I began to write for others — what I thought they wanted to hear — so that I could build up my own little following.

I was selfishly writing for others.

Jo wrote for others and received money and a little fame for their efforts (if also pointed criticism by a loved one). I have received no money, and discovered that (surprise, surprise!) the things I wrote “for others” were largely unsuccessful! (If you count success by engagement — like the number of comments and likes and overall traffic.)

While my “Resources for Writers” posts have attracted a few followers, these posts are my least viewed, liked, and commented on, overall.

I have a following — a very modest one — who I am grateful to and for. But in the end, it’s impossible to write for them.

As a blogger, your audience is an ever-changing flow of readers. There are some who subscribe and read almost everything you write. Others come and go, and will continue to do so. How can you write, then, for this ever-changing audience?

You can’t, really. You can only write for yourself.

My personal essays have received the most engagement, something for which I had really hoped — I wanted to talk with readers about ideas about books and writing and reading, after all. But surprisingly, my book reviews have also gained some attention as well  (surprising, because had I not been told that no one would read them?).

The most rewarding part of my blog has been the interactions with my readers: some comment directly on my blog, others on social media, and still others, privately in an email or in person. Some of these exchanges have been with friends, acquaintances, family members, and even bloggers I’ve only met online. It’s been deeply satisfying to hear from others that what I’ve written has been meaningful to them.

And yet, some of my favourite (and I thought most well-written) essays have received little engagement. But I’m okay with that. I may be a little disappointed initially, but I wrote those pieces for myself, because I wanted to. The only time I really wonder if I’ve wasted my time writing a post if I “wrote it for others” (i.e. to get a following). . . and then the others never show up to read it.

I’ve found, for myself, that it’s selfish to write for others; and paradoxically, altruistic to write for myself.

Because in the end, when I “write for myself,” I am both writing for myself and the reader.

I’ve tried to negotiate between what I want to write and what I think you, the reader, may want to read. What I think I lost sight of is the need to write for myself first. Readers who are interested will follow.


Question: How do you find the balance between writing for others and writing for yourself?