We are acquaintances who bump into each other in the grocery store – we know each other fairly well and like speaking with each other, but don’t spend time together regularly. You say to me, “Hi, Jessica, how are you?”
I reply, “I’m good – I’m just a little frazzled because I was supposed to be home about 30 minutes ago and I can’t find the one thing I ran in here for. How are you doing?”
I reply, “Oh. My. GOSH. I am freaking out. I can’t find any store-made cookies that I can pass off as my own when we have company tonight. I know it’s dumb, but I don’t want anyone to know I can’t bake. And I already feel like a loser around these people, y’know what I mean? Plus – hello – I’m super pregnant and don’t feel good. I feel like I’m going to barf all the time, even after eating the tiniest amount of food. It’s like it sits right in my chest! Anyway, I better run – call me later and I’ll tell you all about it!”
In the first scenario, I get a little personal, sharing that yes, I’m struggling a bit in the moment, but I don’t go into details and I make sure to turn the conversation back to you.
In the second scenario I get overly personal or confessional, telling you things that you probably don’t need (or want) to know, given that we aren’t that close to begin with. And then, I take off without asking about you, but instruct you to follow up with me later so I can rant some more.
When we write – either as a hobby or professionally – it’s important to toe the line between personal and confessional. While sharing information about yourself has its advantages, TMI in certain situations can end up completely undercutting your message.
I always tell my student clients, "Good writing is honest writing." But I also explain the importance of self-censoring, so as not to detract from the overall goal of conveying a point or argument.
CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING
If the second scenario described above happened between sisters instead of mere acquaintances, it wouldn’t seem so ridiculous. Your sister probably knows you don’t like baking, won’t be put off by hearing about your insecurities around your others, and knows you feel pukey when pregnant. Nothin’ new there.
Similarly, with writing, it’s a matter of both setting your own boundaries and knowing your audience.
For example, on my business website I maintain a blog for students and parents where I discuss all things higher education. My posts cover topics ranging from how to write a college-level essay, to the importance of getting enough sleep, to sexual harassment and assault on university campuses. I weave in my own experiences when relevant, like some of the mistakes I first made when writing as a college freshman or my years-long struggle with insomnia.
I do not, however, post pictures of myself pregnant or dissect conversations I've had with my husband. It doesn't make sense to for this audience. So while I get personal, I avoid being confessional about my personal life.
However, here on my personal writing website, I explore how there might be a story in anything, even (especially) the seemingly mundane. So it’s not out of place or inappropriate to discuss my feelings about impending motherhood or recovery from a decade-long eating disorder.
PROTECT YOUR PRIVACY
Sometimes bloggers, especially those with large followings, share details of their personal lives. Readers love knowing who you’re dating, seeing pictures of your dog, and want to know where you got that skirt from. Fair enough.
Except you don’t actually owe anyone anything in terms of private information. You can choose to share details about the elaborate proposal your fiancé planned and executed, or you can simply tell readers, “Over the weekend, Boyfriend and I got engaged.” You can go into how sad you were attending your grandmother’s funeral or you can grieve privately and keep that information off the internet. If you’re getting a divorce, you can use it as an opportunity to seek out support from other single parents, but you don’t necessarily have to divulge why the marriage didn’t work out.
Just remember, when you share information, it cultivates a sense of closeness between you and the reader. Decide how “close” you want to them to be.
THE ADVANTAGES OF GETTING PERSONAL
There are plenty of reasons to share personal information about yourself.
- Whether you are a business coach, therapist, food blogger, or hobby makeup artist, you ostensibly are claiming some kind of expertise. The worst thing would be to alienate your audience by coming off as pretentious, superior, or sanctimonious. One of the best ways to engage the reader or viewer is by disclosing enough about yourself that people feel connected to you. You are an authority on a given topic, but you aren’t putting yourself on some kind of pedestal.
- In addition to seeming accessible, sharing some personal information about yourself – minor to major struggles, some initial self-doubt, the inability to spell “business” without thinking to yourself “bus-I-ness” – makes you someone easy to relate to. You’re not perfect? Phew! You’re likable, or at least trustworthy.
- Want an easy way to demonstrate your credibility? Share with your audience how you cultivated your knowledge through both trial and error. Let them know what you learned from your mistakes. Give anecdotal evidence for why you really can empathize with someone in their position. By anticipating people saying, what makes you qualified to teach someone how to make a gluten-free pumpkin pie?, you might share your experience growing up with a gluten allergy, wanting to eat pie at Thanksgiving with the rest of your family, and the 47 recipes you went through before finally landing on a winner.
Remember – context is everything. Sharing personal information is a fantastic way to forge connections with people online and in person. But be careful about being overly confessional – which can range from being mildly off-putting for the listener to undermining your own credibility in a professional setting. And finally, you get to make and enforce your own boundaries when it comes to personal privacy. You choose what to share, with whom, when.