On growing your writing career

In my inbox:

I was recently asked a question on how to continue a writing career that has gotten off to a promising start. You can’t throw a rock without hitting someone who has written a book on how to break into publishing, but maintaining a writing career? Being a mid-career writer? Being a midlist writer? Those concerns are skated over. Why? Because there are a lot fewer people in this group, and the information is less standard.

If you want to publish a novel, then you have to write the novel, polish the novel, find some agents to query, write a query letter, and see what happens.

That’s pretty much it. There are other things you can do, but if you don’t do those things, in approximately that order, you’re not going to get anywhere.

But when someone says, “I’ve written some books, and I want to take my career to the next level,” there’s no obvious procedure you can point out. It’s a lot easier to talk about query letters.

Even so, here are, forthwith, my thoughts on taking an already established writing career to the next level. This is for nonfiction, since these are the writers I work with most often, but much of the information is also applicable to novelists.

1. Figure out what you want. Do you want to make a living as a writer? Do you want your books to bolster your main career and showcase your expertise? Do you have ideas you want to share with people, period?

Your answers will guide your decision-making. If you just have ideas you want to share, there’s nothing wrong with starting a blog and putting together some e-books and seeing where that goes. If you want to make a living, you have to be more strategic: who buys writing, what kind of writing do they buy, how will you find these people? If you want to be the go-to expert, then writing books is just one part of the platform-building that you need to be involved in. Speaking at conferences, doing radio interviews, and otherwise spreading the word about your brilliance should all be part of your strategy.

2. Join more advanced writers’ organizations. It’s one thing to go to the local writers’ group when you’re just starting out, but if you hope to get to the next level, it helps to have mentors who are already there—people already doing what you want to be doing. After I’d published a couple of books, I joined ASJA (the American Society of Journalists and Authors), the National Writers Union, the Authors Guild, and several others. I don’t belong to any of them now, but I’m glad I did when I did. The only organization I’m still a member of is Freelance Success (FLX) because I still get a lot of value from that membership.

3. If you don’t have an agent, get one. But make sure it’s a good one (yes, I know, how do you know if an  agent is a good one? Here’s some information to get you started.)

4. Network with other writers and editors. Online, there are many opportunities for this: LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and more. Probably 90 percent of my income comes from referrals these days. Sometimes it’s a direct referral: a writer has a client with a project said writer can’t do and so recommends me. Sometimes it’s more along the lines of, “Did you see this ad?” (Which is how I got my current full-time editing gig.) Networking is a two-way street: you have to give to get. It isn’t a scored game (you give me one and I’ll give you one) but it is a numbers games: the more you’re out there, the more you’re likely to be remembered. People who ask me for help, then piss all over my help, don’t get more help. You wouldn’t believe how often this happens.

5. Specialize but diversify. I’ve been in the position where I need to hire writers on any number of occasions. I almost never need to hire a writer who can write about anything. I almost always have to have a writer who can write (and has written ) about a specific niche or area of expertise. That is true of most editors in the world. You can certainly have more than one niche, but it makes life much easier to be able to say, “I write about x.” That’s not just for editors, by the way, that’s also for you. “I can write about anything for anyone” doesn’t give you any idea of what your next step should be. “I write about tech issues businesses face” gives you a lot more information about what you should be doing right about now.

The “diversify” part of the plan means that you should look for more than one kind of outlet for your writing. For example, I found early on if I wanted to keep writing books, I had to promote them, and one way I could promote them was to write articles based on the material, for which I got paid. It’s a nice little racket once you figure it out.

Now more than ever you have plenty of outlets: blogs (your own and others), podcasts, traditional book publishing, traditional magazine publishing, trade publishing, online magazines, etc. That’s just the surface.

I have a full-time editing gig, plus I write regularly for a couple of magazines, plus I write a book or so a year, plus I teach for the University of California, San Diego, plus I teach my own online classes. All of these work together to give me a certain amount of security. If one disappears tomorrow, I am not dead in the water.

These are the places I would start—and I’d love to hear from established writers (even if you’re only recently established)—about what’s working for you.

A few of my favorite things

LESSONS IN MAGIC
A CERTAIN KIND OF MAGIC
THE IMPROBABLE ADVENTURES OF A MIDDLE-AGED WOMAN
DOJO WISDOM FOR WRITERS

3 Comments

  1. Right on, Jennifer. Thank you so much for writing this. I could relate to so many of these points even though I still have a long way to go to get to where I want to get.

    But I thought I could add one point and that is: Get out of your comfort zone. As part of building your skill, push to do other kinds of things.

    It turns out I had to work on shooting and editing video as part of a social commitment. But I learned a tremendous amount (worked probably 100 hours on the first one) about the writing and editing process because the transitions we do on video teaches us a lot about how to improve the way we do transitions in writing.

    The other thing is the work I've been doing alongside in fiction. My nonfiction has improved with my work with fiction. The techniques I've learned in fiction are invaluable to the nonfiction narrative. But for that I had to get out of my comfort zone. I was uncomfortable doing fiction at first. To push myself to do this, I got on to Nanowrimo and wrote a new story everyday (just needed 1600 words on a daily basis) and now I have a collection of pieces to mine over the next few months.

  2. Just to fix my typo:… the transitions we do on video TEACH us a lot about how to improve the way we do transitions in writing.

    How I hate it when I this happens

  3. Great post, Jennifer. I think what makes longtime freelancing so challenging (or one of the things that does) is that you have so many options; there's no one set path to follow the way there is, say, in private practice as a lawyer. (You start out as an associate, then make senior associate, make partner, eventually senior partner, etc.)

    With 14+ years of fulltime freelance experience, I agree with the concept of specializing *and* diversifying. I choose to concentrate on a handful of subject areas, for example, but do a lot of different kinds of work in those areas–articles, books, ghostwriting, speaking, etc. Just today I was contacted to ghostwrite a newsletter in this area, something I haven't yet done but it "fits" into the kind of work I do.

    I also agree on the writing articles *and* books (what I call double-dipping) and try to do this (get paid for writing basically the same thing) as much as possible. As advances slide, the only way I can make decent money on my own books (as opposed to those I ghost) is to write articles as I'm writing the book as well.

    Now that the majority of my work/income comes from ghostwriting and collaborating, I'm trying to be better about thinking about who my potential clients are, what they want and need (e.g. someone who can help them determine whether POD or traditional publishing is a better fit for their books), and how to reach them. Even with social media, etc, I'm still finding that the majority of my work comes from referrals from people I've had "real" contact with (whether I've worked with them, interviewed them for an article, etc). That's one of the advantages of longterm freelancing–the longer you've been in the biz, the more connections you've made and (hopefully) the more sources of referals you have as well.

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