Do we really need to do all the things to be a writer these days? Are all those extra activities and tasks required for a successful career?
Do we really need to vlog and launch social media campaigns on five different platforms? Are we required to blog and guest post? And is it true we have to be prepared to step on a stage and speak?
Emily Dickinson’s Focused Writing Life
Why can’t we model our writing life after Emily Dickinson, who wrote poetry, including one that begins, “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” She felt free to write in isolation without worrying about all the things.
Emily Dickinson never bothered with an Instagram account. Emily Dickinson never vlogged. If Emily Dickinson had pursued all those non-writing tasks, she might not have had enough time to craft her masterpieces.
Emily Dickinson focused solely on writing. Why can’t we?
Of course we can, my friend. Of course we can stay secluded, never leave the house, and focus on writing without messing with other activities.
I’ll admit, as an introvert, it sounds kind of nice. And to be honest, many days I myself am secluded and never leave the house!
But even Emily Dickinson maintained correspondence with friends, family, and publishing professionals. Even in her isolation—even as she penned hundreds of poems—one could say she “networked,” as she connected with people who read and, in some cases, published her work.
Some of All the Things
If we want to pursue traditional publishing today, if we want to be discovered and read by people, if we want to avoid obscurity and move toward a more professional writing life, well, we’ll want to consider pursuing at least some of all the things.
Some activities like speaking will take us out of the house, but what’s fascinating about the 2020s is we live in a day and age where we can do a lot of the things without even leaving the house:
- social media updates
- guest posts
- admin work
We can do a lot of that right where we’re sitting.
So, yes, we lose writing time to pursue those tasks and activities, but at least they can be done from home.
High-Value, Reader-Connecting, Platform-Building Activities
We can reach a wide audience if we’re willing to experiment, learn new skills, and connect with people using tools and technology that Emily Dickinson could not have fathomed.
These efforts position you for a more successful career as people who would never have met you otherwise now recognize you and read your work. Over time, these efforts can lead to decision-makers recognizing you and offering to publish your work.
Some of these ideas could be considered platform-building efforts, but they’re also simply great ways to connect with readers—which is kind of the same thing, and a healthier way of framing it.
High-value, reader-connecting, platform-building activities include:
1. Get a Website Up and Running
Every writer needs a home base—a website under your control where you send people. I recommend a self-hosted blog if at all possible, so you have more control and so you can even sell things someday. But self-hosted blogs require you to pay for hosting, so this may not be financially feasible at first.
Keep It Simple
Whether it’s a free or self-hosted website, the look can be super-basic at first—or forever. For inspiration, check out James Clear’s website. As of the time of this writing, this New York Times bestselling author has a simple, clean site without any bells or whistles. He doesn’t have a logo or even a special font for his name. At jamesclear.com, It’s all about the content.
Control Information About You
Having a website means you have a hub for all your other content and communication. There, you can control at least some of the information about you that exists on the web. So write an “about” page that aligns with your writing and author brand, and you’re on your way to being known for whatever it is you want to be known for.
2. Publish Content Regularly
Publish content on a regular basis at your website—twice a week, once a week, even only once/month is still regular. This starts to train search engines that yours is an active website known for a particular topic. In fact, if your content goes live at the same time on the same day like clockwork, most search engines will begin to swing by and see what’s new. A few human beings may do the same.
Run Your Own Media Company
Call this activity blogging if you like, since you’ll probably be using a blogging functionality on your website to publish, but I like to reframe it and simply think of this as publishing articles at your own website.
That way you don’t have to think of yourself as a blogger, per se; you’re a writer publishing quality articles (and perhaps other kinds of content, as well). It’s like you run your own media company, and you’re in charge: you get to choose what’s published (and when).
Focus Article Topics Based on Keywords and Phrases
As you write, think about keywords and key phrases associated with your primary subject area. Make a list and one at a time, those can be the focus of your articles. This helps search engines connect your name and website to those topics and ideas.
If you want to be more savvy about it, look into SEO, or search engine optimization, and follow what experts say. The basic idea is that over time, as you publish ongoing content that reinforces your themes and topics, you may eventually come up in relevant searches.
Share What You’ve Written for Others to Enjoy
Finally, be sure to let people know about the pieces you’ve published by sending out a note on social media—it’s what magazines and publishers do. Don’t be shy. People who follow you would hate to miss some great content you’ve created, so tell them where to find it.
3. Build an Email List
List-building is another high-value, reader-connecting activity for writers. Build an email list and treat those people as your VIPs. They did, after all, invite you into their inbox.
Start List-Building ASAP with an Enticing Opt-in Offer
This activity may not seem urgent, but it’s wise. List-building is one of those things everyone wishes they started earlier.
To build the list more rapidly, you could offer readers a gift they receive if they fill out a form. The idea is to offer visitors something related to the main topics you write about (and something that addresses an issue they need help with) so they trade their email for that “freebie.”
To give you an idea from my own offerings, look in my sidebar. You’ll see a free mini-course called “Make Your Sentences Sing: 7 Sentence Openers to Add Music to Your Prose.” People sign up and gain access to a free video course; in exchange, their name is added to my email management service, ConvertKit.
Create Something as Alluring as the Offers That Enticed You
I’m sure you’ve signed up for plenty of these goodies on other people’s websites. What enticed you to make that trade? Could you create something of your own that offers the same allure?
What problem could you solve or tool could you provide that’s valuable enough to entice someone to make that exchange? Maybe it’s a free email course or a novella. Maybe it’s a spreadsheet they can alter and update with information that transforms some area of their life or work.
Stay Connected with Your Subscribers
When they’re subscribed, stay connected by sending ongoing email correspondence (call these newsletters, if you like, but they can be quite simple and sent as basic emails in terms of design—after all, these people just want to hear from you).
Start building a list as soon as you can to create a marketing asset. One day, when you pitch agents, that list will be one of the first things they flip to on your book proposal. They’ll want to see how many people have invited you into their email inbox—people you can email about a book release in the year ahead.
4. Speak at Events
If you’re a nonfiction writer, speaking at events on the topics you want to be known for helps listeners view you as an expert or influencer. If you write fiction—short stories or novels—you could do readings at writing conferences.
Many writers cringe at the thought of speaking on any stage, though. So I understand if this sounds like torture. Emily Dickinson would have wilted, I suspect, given that she eventually never left her house.
If this is you, start really small:
- ask a book club to invite you in for a short reading and Q&A
- propose a presentation at your local library
- ask to be a breakout speaker at a small workshop or local writing event
When you can position yourself as a speaker, you stand apart as a writer. You’re viewed differently. Plus, it forces you to hone your ideas in order to present them from a stage.
Build Your List
Speaking engagements are a great place to build your email list because those people already know they want to hear more from you. So when you’re there, be sure to pass around a clipboard and have everyone write down their email address granting you permission to send them information.
You could send speaking notes or your slide presentations if you have one…or that fabulous opt-in freebie that’s available at your website.
5. Experiment with Video
Like speaking, appearing on video can feel unnerving for a person most comfortable behind a keyboard. But if you’re willing to take the risk, this is a high-value activity because the percentage of writers bold enough to publish videos is small.
Experiment and Improve
And the sooner you start producing video—even simple, low-budget clips—the better and more comfortable you’ll get with the whole process, from what you’ll say to where you’ll stand and the equipment you’ll use.
Use Equipment You Already Have
And when I say “equipment,” this could simply be your phone. Heavens, video quality on most smartphones will give you a great place to start. You’ll figure out the best window to sit in front of and more importantly, the kind of content that will make a difference in people’s lives.
Or turn the camera away from your face and spotlight other things. I’ve shared video to my Instagram story that shows my computer screen or the view from my office window.
Repurpose Video Content into Written Form
Plus, a bonus tip is that all the ideas you share on video can be converted to written format later. You’ll get a free article out of it for your website!
6. Be Social
Even if you’re as shy and retiring as Emily Dickinson, you can be social from the privacy of your own home using social media.
Publishing and Distribution Tools in the Palm of Your Hand
I think of these platforms as simple but powerful publishing and distribution tools that sit in the palm of my hand and make my content instantly available to the world with the click of a button.
My Instagram feed is full of images of books, papers, and writing utensils, and I use the captions to offer additional coaching input. Some people call this microblogging. It’s another way I can help people and stay true to my brand.
Use a platform like Twitter and you don’t have to incorporate video or images at all—just words. The brevity required to squeeze content into 280 characters offers great writing practice and a fun way to connect with new people. I also share links to the work I’ve published elsewhere.
Honestly, you could publish flash fiction or a brief article directly onto Facebook, if you wanted to, because it allows more words. Or you could publish a short piece you’ve already made live at your website—almost as if you’re syndicating your content.
Be Social and Support Others
While you’re in those spaces, visit others and encourage them. Read and like their pieces. Leave a comment. Share their work. Curate great writing you find online by sharing an excerpt and linking out to their articles.
That’s part of being social on social media, and it’s a high-value activity that is part of all the things that lead to a successful career in today’s publishing world.
In that Emily Dickinson poem—the one that starts “I’m Nobody!”—she invited readers to join her as a fellow Nobody and ended that poem poking fun at platform-building efforts of her day:
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
Emily’s right: it would be dreary to tell one’s name the livelong June. That would feel as unappealing as a bog.
The Fear of Self-Promotion
I’ve talked with a lot of people wary of these tasks associated with our writing lives today. They view platform-building and social media activities as me-focused and fear they’ll be expected to toot their own horns and seek the spotlight the livelong June.
I wish those who resist all these things could see them as I do: opportunities to share our truth, if only slant, and bring to light—our friends.
Others-focused, we can retweet and like and share the posts and projects and poems of our colleagues and peers and friends.
We may have stepped into social media, launched a website, and built an email list with a successful writing career in mind. But before long, I hope we realize the potential of supporting others and having fun.
Pursuing all the things can be about helping all the writers, and a successful career can be simply a natural byproduct.
Serve and Support Readers
At the core remains our primary motivation: to use words to serve and support readers, whether solving their problems, lifting them up, or making them laugh.
So in all these things, I see possibility. One might even say I dwell in possibility.
Anyway, if only wrote quietly, privately, reclusively, without experimenting with new ventures, venues, and media, I might never have met…you.
- You Can Impact Readers Right Now through Social Media (Ep 87)
- Your Writing Platform series
- James Clear’s simple website jamesclear.com
- I’m Nobody! Who are you? Emily Dickinson
- I Dwell in Possibility, Emily Dickinson
- Neil Patel is a good source to learn about SEO
- Topic Clustering is one way to write, link, and organize content on your website using an SEO approach