We often look to successful writers to show us how to be successful, too. We read the books they write, pick their brains when we can, try to emulate what works for them. There’s nothing wrong with that, obviously. But we can make an error in judgment when we assume that what makes someone else successful will also make us successful. The truth is, people who aren’t as successful as they’d like do many of the same things successful people do, but they wind up with different results.
For example, if I learn that one writer sends out five pitches a day, I may set that as a goal for myself, and get in return for my efforts only echoing silence. The key isn’t in the sending of x number of pitches (or at least that’s not the only key), but in how the pitches themselves are crafted, in the writer’s background and experience, in the people to whom she’s pitching. All of these are variables that will affect the end result.
You can come across as a pale imitator if not a downright idea thief if you follow someone else’s road to success too closely. I love how Havi Brooks talks about her process, and she certainly has many good ideas for connecting with your Right People, but if I started talking about my duck (naming her Thelma in a clever effort to set her apart from the original), people would roll their eyes and keep on walking. That’s Havi’s thing, not mine.
Sometimes it’s helpful to look at people who aren’t as successful as they’d like to be in order to understand that the difference between success and not-success isn’t some huge pit of incompetence and laziness. Many writers who would like to be more successful bring lots of intelligence and effort to the table. That’s not the problem.
For the next couple of blog posts, I’m going to talk about some common pitfalls writers encounter that restrict their success, based on my experience as a writing coach. Today’s point:
They don’t find their own thing.
I never meant to become the queen of martial arts writing, but when that’s what editors and readers ended up wanting from me, that’s what I focused my attention on doing. I see a lot of writers who trumpet: “I can write about anything!” Setting aside the fact that it probably isn’t true, it isn’t exactly a selling point. How does claiming “I can do anything” set you apart from any other writer? At that point, you’ve made yourself and your writing a commodity, and if you were paying attention in Econ 101, you’d know that commodity prices sink to the cost of production.
Claiming to do everything may seem like you’re leaving the door open to whatever opportunity walks by, but this is the same mistake non-fiction writers make when they say the audience for their book is “everyone.” How do you find everyone? Personally, I can figure out where to find middle-aged female martial arts instructors way easier than I can figure out where to find “everyone.”
The same principle applies to the work we do. It’s far easier to find editors or clients when we’ve defined what we can offer. This doesn’t mean you can’t write about lots of different things. It just means you need to think of yourself as having multiple areas of interest or specialties, not as someone who can do anything for anyone.
What special experience and expertise do you bring to the table?
What do you love, and who else loves it?
What makes you different from other people? For example, a lot of writers want to write about parenting when they become parents. How are you going to set yourself apart from all the other people writing about diaper changes and breastfeeding?
What have colleagues/teachers/mentors praised you for doing well?
What have editors/clients paid you to do in the past? What aspects of that do you do well and enjoy?
Writers, help me out here: what are other questions you’ve asked yourself as you’ve tried to find your own thing?