Article: Journaling or Memoiring: Private Vs. Public Writing


Writers write for all kinds of reasons: therapy, publication, and, perhaps, a navigation of combined private and public writing, a delicate balance between keeping private and opening up.

A writer might originally begin a journal strictly for personal reasons and then decide to revise for possible publication. At that point, the writer will need to decide which details to include, omit, and change to protect the privacy of family, friends, and, yes, even enemies, for example, changing names of people or places (possibly for legal or ethical reasons).

This article shows four phases of how private writing can develop into writing suitable for public consumption.

Phase 1: Private Writing as Therapy and/or Catharsis

There is nothing inherently wrong with expressing private writing in a journal, which is a good way to express emotion without worrying about the typical “writerly” concerns, such as form, structure, originality, and avoidance of trite language and clichés. The writer should not be concerned with the artistry of private writing. The writer’s primary purpose is to get the emotion down on paper, to express it, and, perhaps, derive some therapeutic value from the exercise. The writer knows not to share this draft of the piece with others (except, perhaps, a trained psychologist who is working with the writer in therapy), although the writer may use the private writing as a jumping off point for a semi-public or even a public piece. A creative writing teacher should not be asked to evaluate private writing, unless the writer is prepared to hear a critique (from an artistic standpoint) and is willing to revise it into public writing*. Otherwise, submitting such writing is an exercise in futility and a waste of time.

Phase 2: Semi-Public Writing for Possible Revision

The writer begins to consider artistry, but most semi-public writing doesn’t move past this level. Writers should expect many false starts. The writer may show his/her the semi-public writing to one particular person, perhaps the subject of the piece. Also, the writer may show the piece to a close circle of friends, a writing group, or a therapist. The writer who shows a semi-public piece to family, lover/spouse, and close friends should not expect an objective critique because the people who love the writer are usually biased. Generally, psychologists are not trained to judge therapeutic writing from an artistic standpoint, and probably wouldn’t address such concerns anyway. On the other hand, the writer should expect an objective critique from a writing group. The writer may submit, as a draft, a semi-public piece to a creative writing teacher, but, again, the writer must be prepared to hear a critique (from an artistic standpoint) and be willing to revise*. Otherwise, submitting a semi-public work is an exercise in futility and a waste of time.

Phase 3: Revised Public Writing for Submission

The writer has revised the piece for a final portfolio and/or publication submission, paying special attention to form, structure, originality, and avoidance of trite language and clichés. The piece is ready to make its public debut. If the writer submits the piece to a creative writing teacher as part of a final portfolio, the piece should be ready for a final grade. The writer may submit the public piece to a creative writing teacher for an opinion, but, again, the writer must be prepared to hear a critique (from an artistic standpoint) and, perhaps, be willing to revise it. If the writer feels the piece is finished, then he/she should not submit the public writing as a draft. Otherwise, submitting it as a draft is an exercise in futility and a waste of time. The writer, keeping in mind that the publication game is a crap shoot, may submit a public piece to a publication, but should be prepared for three possibilities: acceptance, rejection, or an editor’s request for a revision. At this point, it’s up to the writer to decide whether or not to revise.

Phase 4: Published Work for Critique and/or Possible Republication

The published piece has already made its public debut, having been published in a national or regional glossy magazine, anthology, or literary magazine. The writer should not submit published work to a creative writing teacher for a critique, unless the writer (1) discloses the piece’s publication history, (2) is open to critique, and (3) intends to revise the work for republication. Otherwise, submitting such work is an exercise in futility and a waste of time. The writer should not submit a published piece to another publication, unless the writer knows that the publication is open to reprinting previously published work. The writer must disclose a work’s previous publication(s) history in the cover letter, even if it appeared only in an undergraduate literary magazine. In short, it is unethical to submit work without disclosing its previous publication history.

In closing, should a writer reveal highly personal and/or controversial information to others?

That is the question the writer must wrestle with by considering the possible harm to others and negative effects to personal relationships with family and friends. This is a decision that must be carefully thought through because once it is out there in the public arena, there is no going back.


*Important note: creative writing teachers are not therapists, so the writer cannot expect blanket non-disclosure protection; should the content exhibit troubling behavior – such as harm to others or self (suicide ideation) – the teacher is obligated to report this to the appropriate authorities. Teachers who teach courses requiring personal writing need to disclose this limitation in their syllabi and reiterate it to their students.


This article, in a slightly different form, appears on the author’s academic website:


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