Sarah Morgan

Healthcare Geek.
Professional Communicator.

Social Marketing

Writing: Public or Private?

My thesis advisor, the irrepressibly brilliant Paul Levinson, wrote an article on how tablets have helped his publishing career. There was a line, though, that gave me pause. He said,

“the act of writing is intrinsically a public act, a move to get your thoughts out into the larger world, in contrast to speaking which is usually more private.”

He’s smarter than I’ll ever be, so I won’t disagree – but I will say that that’s upside-down from how I’d ever thought about it. A lot of my writing isn’t for an audience. Never has been. Reams of pages and drives of data attest to this.

Of course, I know that logically that’s silly. Writing is lasting. It is written in order to be read. And, after all, when I’m done with this, I’m going to click a big blue button that says PUBLISH. Writing is, about as obviously as anything could be, public.

It feels different, though. I don’t get shy when I write. It’s my comfort level – to me, speaking feels public and writing private, which is why I think I’m better at the latter. It’s a trick I play on myself.

Generations ago, public writing outside of school often required permission – a book deal or some other sort of platform – or was done in an outlaw sort of fashion – as a leafleteer or a graffiti artist. Today? It’s what we all do all the time. It can backfire on us, though. We do it so often that often there’s little thought or consideration about the truly public nature of our work. Hence the regretted Facebook status.

In regular Google hangout sessions with the inestimable Matt Hall, we chat a bit, then set a timer and buckle down to our projects. To me, it’s the height of the luxury of the digital age. Working around him (mentally “around,” if not geographically) makes me smarter. It gives me new ideas and influences the ones I have. This sort of semi-public atmosphere (virtual or otherwise) in which to do public writing is irreplaceable. You have to get out of your own head sometimes.

There’s something to be said, though, about the bareness inherent in getting your thoughts down, on paper or on screen, alone. Whether it’s flowing, or whether you have to force it, whether you’re surrounded or whether you’re alone. We don’t spend enough time with our own thoughts these days and it matters.

What do you think? Does writing feel public or private to you?


Paul Levinson

Good point, Sarah. A better way of putting my position is that, at the outset, speech is usually more pubic than writing, because earshot goes further than what can be read on a page or a screen. But after this, writing has intrinsically much more public potential, because it can be read by anyone in the world for millennia.


To me it’s private. I am happy to talk in front of a huge group of people and share my ideas. What I write i guard much more.

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