5 Things You Should Be Doing to Build a Platform as a Writer

A “platform” as a writer refers to the channels you use to engage with your audience. The more channels you use and the more people you engage with regularly, the bigger your platform is. So as a writer, you want to create a platform that is as large as possible so you have a great reach to lots of readers. To build that platform, here’s what to do:

1. Create your author website/blog.

This gives you a place to drop pieces of your writing so you can direct people to a portfolio. It also offers the opportunity to interact with readers through comments, polls, giveaways, or other fun events. Just about every publisher, agent, or editor will want you to have a website if you start pitching, so you might as well get it established early so you can show good history and activity.

But one of the most important parts of having your site/blog is the ability to build an email list. Putting a simple subscribe button on the site and linking it to a reliable email subscriber service (e.g. AWeber) means that you can contact your readers or followers any time you have something to announce. You also can send convenient newsletters and include social media buttons so people can follow you on those accounts.

2. Interact on social media.

This isn’t just logging in and dropping links to your blog posts. It means going in and posting things that show readers who you are and what you are up to in a transparent and authentic way. Find some good writing groups to join and post on their pages. Share links that might be helpful, such as an upcoming book sale on an online site, a book-to-movie trailer or a great video about storytelling. Share fan art or ask what people think about different books, conferences, or techniques.

The basic rule here is that, although it is OK to throw in a little self-promotion, always do it in a way that makes the value to your reader clear. Don’t only self-promote, because nobody likes to be sold to all the time. Focus on creating a relationship with people and they will read you by default. Make sure that you choose your groups selectively, as well, because the reality is you are going to do better checking into a handful of pages consistently than signing up for a bunch you never have time to go to.

3. Talk to people.

This might mean going to a conference or attending a group at your library. But it also means reaching out to other writers and professionals in the industry to share resources and gratitude. Once you have a little bit of a connection going, then you can ask for mutual favors, such as referrals, beta reading, or an introduction.

4. Publish cross-platform.

Ever hear that old saying, work smarter, not harder? As a writer, that means repurposing content across different channels. For instance, sites like Medium typically allow you to repost your pieces on other sites after a certain period of time. You simply copy some or all of the content into the new platform and include a little blurb about where it first appeared, along with a link to the original version. The only caveat is that you need to do some minor tweaks, such as swapping out your headline, so that Google doesn’t see the new post as an exact copy and drop the page in search results. Don’t worry too much about the duplication, though, because a lot of your new readers will discover your content through the specific channel’s main pages, feeds, or search features. Others will already be following you and thus will have opted in to see when you post something new.

Remember, too, that cross-platform doesn’t mean only writing-based activity. Lots of writers, for example, now have podcasts where they read pieces verbatim or discuss their original content on the fly. The same is true for video sites like Youtube or doing livestreams. It is a terrific way to expose completely new audiences to the same ideas and concepts and bring them into your community, AND it can allow you to reach people who have specific difficulties such as visual impairment.

5. Be a guest speaker.

You don’t have to get up in front of hundreds of people here, although you certainly can if that invigorates you. Options like webinars, podcasts, or hosting a workshop at your local library all are good opportunities to show others your expertise as a writer. The key is that you have to let others know you are available! Don’t be afraid to ask if people can use you, and be confident in yourself enough to sell your strengths and experiences well.

Platform building takes real effort. There’s no beating around the bush about that. But if you create real strategies around the points above (e.g., scheduling 20 minutes a day to interact with the social media groups you sign up for, aiming to cold email one person or organization every day), then slowly but surely, the foundation solidifies. Be patient, show your grit, and never put down your tools.

Should You Write in More Than One Genre?

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Relatively recently, I had the opportunity to attend the Northwestern Christian Writers Conference (virtually, thanks to COVID-19). In one of the panels, another writer asked a relatively innocent question: 

Is it okay to write in more than one genre as an author?

The host of the panel had a clear answer. If you are a new author just starting out and you want to pursue traditional publishing, stick to one genre. Doing so helps your publisher to market you well until you have a real following. After that, you can write whatever you like.

It’s not horrible advice. It makes logical sense, and people do choose books with an understanding of the expectations that an author has set. The trust you build with readers counts.

But I think it also is a little too simplistic. Some authors, such as J.K. Rowling, have used pen names quite successfully to write in more than one genre. You have to be willing to build separate (potentially smaller) followings and distinct brands if you take this route, but it is a viable way to explore and avoid feeling stagnant or too pigeonholed as a writer.

Secondly, readers like all kinds of stories. And if they don’t already know who you are, then it’s the story that is going to compel them to pick up the book, not your reputation. When you are first starting out, there aren’t any preconceived ideas about what your writing should be like. That makes it a great time to dabble and convince multiple audiences you are worth a shot.

The third point is, what if what you have been writing and selling is doing well but really isn’t what you really prefer (hey, if it pays the bills…). Gaining a following or selling x copies is not the only reason to write something. If it fills a need you have and grows you, nothing says you cannot put it to the page, even if no one else ever reads a word. In fact, some of the most well-known writers have done this–John Steinbeck, for example, who wrote the masterpiece Of Mice and Men, wrote a werewolf novel that only came to light a few months ago.

So in my mind, you don’t necessarily have to stick to one thing, even for a little while at the beginning. You just have to be careful how you market, if you choose to show the writing to anyone at all. That said, be honest with yourself. Know where you shine, what you want, and the purpose the writing is going to serve. Then just make a plan and go after it.

7 Ways to Build Your Writing Confidence

Writing can be an incredibly rewarding job, but it’s not for the faint of heart. It takes patience and tough skin, so you have to be confident in what you’re doing to be successful. That confidence isn’t necessarily automatic. But you can develop it with real intention.

1. Go bite-sized.

Don’t worry about how long your session goes or how many words come out. Just write until you don’t feel inspired or natural anymore. At the end, identify a section or sentence you’re really proud of. If you only wrote a single sentence, identify your best word. There is always something to celebrate.

2. Revisit your work.

Once you have some bite-sized text pieces to work with, start your session by rereading them. Remind yourself why you felt good about that work. Alternately, start reading a few pages before the end of your manuscript. This will give you a sense of flow so you don’t feel like you’re starting cold.

3. Get some feedback.

This could be from a mentor, an online community, or even a group hosted at your library. In any case, you’ll get clarity about what you do well as a writer, and that those providing the group can help you develop a plan to improve your weaknesses. Seeing your draft change and get better can prove to you that you are learning, growing, and making progress.

4. Write where the stakes are low.

This doesn’t mean that you never submit work to your dream publications or competitions. It means that you write regularly in low-pressure platforms just to help the process of writing and publicizing your words feel natural. Normalizing the writing process in this way can make taking the next step and submitting to a slightly higher tier feel doable. You also can use those platforms to do more experimenting with your writing and see what readers really respond to.

5. Know the purpose.

Any time you have a real motivation for writing a piece, you’ll feel less compelled to bail. Ask yourself what the message really is and what you want to achieve. Take the time to connect and become emotionally invested in what you’re doing.

6. Use some facts.

Even if you’re writing fiction, you can use facts as a foundation for what you put on the page. Facts do not lie and can’t be argued with. Let them give you a foothold so you know your scene or thesis is solid from the start.

7. Celebrate!

So often, because we compare ourselves to other writers, we always stay in learning mode. We assume that we can’t celebrate because we’re not on their level yet. But celebrating ensures that you give your brain a healthy dose of dopamine so you can feel good about what you’re doing and stay motivated to keep going. Treat yourself, share your work and why you’re happy about the milestone, and shout it from the rooftops any time you get a byline or an award.

Why Every Writer Should Keep a Gratitude Journal (and How to Make One Work)

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You’ve heard the buzz, right? About gratitude journals? Keep one and your fairy godmother will magically appear, boop you with her wand *boop!* and make all of your woes go poof.

At least, that’s the impression I get from reading a lot of articles online. To a big degree, I think some of the claims about gratitude journals are a little overrated. But I don’t think they’re useless. In fact, I think everyone who writes should keep one.

Writing is by nature a lonely affair. Most writers I know spend most of the day, if not all of it, in front of their screens with only a beverage or snack for company. (The lucky ones might have a cat, but still.) Rejections can come into the inbox in an endless stream that chip, chip, chips away at confidence. And pay isn’t always predictable, either.

A gratitude journal lets you go back and capture all the good stuff that happens with your writing so you keep perspective. For example, maybe you can note how free you felt with your laptop in the park. Or maybe you can note that, even though you got another rejection, you conquered your fear of sending it out in the first place and are getting better at your query process. Maybe you only wrote 200 words today, but within them is a sentence you are wildly proud of. Or maybe you just found the PEFECT pen and got to enjoy its glide over the page.

Without this focus on the positives, it’s all too easy to lose motivation to write. It can feel too much like the hamster wheel is spinning without taking you anywhere. And you can lose sight of just how much you really are improving and getting done. So if you don’t have one, it’s time to start.

To make your gratitude journal work,

  • Set aside a specific time of day to make journal entries so you know you’ll have a chance to reflect and record your thoughts.
  • Be flexible to ensure you’re genuine. If you’re not in the mindset to journal at the time you’ve set aside, it’s OK to use that time toward self-care that will support your writing instead. It’s overall consistency that matters. Don’t make an entry just to keep up appearances.
  • Find a medium you love. Some people are old-school pen and paper. I’m a keyboard gal. You can even voice-to-text on Google Docs if you want. It just has to feel comfortable so you don’t resist the journal practice.
  • Summarize your journal point on social media if you feel comfortable doing so. Seeing your positives will encourage other writers, and you can attract other writers who will support you if you show a positive mindset yourself. Knowing you’ll use your entry to interact with others can be a great motivator to keep the entries coming and not quit.
  • Connect your entries to other areas of your life. For example, if your significant other took the kids so you would have an hour of quiet to write, you can be as thankful for that relationship as you are for the pages you wrote in those 60 minutes. Seeing how writing touches other points will help you see it as more valuable or as a more natural part of your identity.

Gratitude journals won’t make your life perfect. But they can help you see the positives you have in your life as a writer in a way that encourages you to keep up the craft. Try it out and let me know if it makes a difference for you in the comments!

Querying? Here’s How to Speed Up the Process

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Regardless of whether you’re sending off a short 300-word article or a novel, querying is a major part of a writer’s life. The trouble is, it can take an ungodly amount of time if you don’t create and use a strategy. Here’s what you can do to speed things along and get good results.

1. Create a drafts folder in your email.

For every piece you have, create a query letter in your email. Place the drafts in a separate folder that is clearly labeled, and unless the submission guidelines state otherwise, place “[query–[Last Name]–Title of Piece] in the subject line. The only blank areas should be the recipient’s name and the date. This allows you to search for the draft within your email client, and when you send it out and get responses back, you can see at a glance which submission you’re getting messages about.

Once you have your query drafts, when you find a publication, editor, or agent you want to send it to, copy the text into a fresh email. Then fill in the name and date details and add any information you can to personalize it, such as similar titles the publication has run.

2. Set up auto-reminders.

Tasks like sending follow-up emails or noting that an agent is past their typical response time can be difficult to keep track of. Use a system like Query Tracker or even Google Docs to set reminders about each task. This way, you don’t have to spend extra time double-checking whether you’re up-to-date–you can just follow your reminders as you go and get ‘er done.

3. Use color coding.

If you’re tracking everything in a spreadsheet, color coding will allow you to quickly sort your rows and columns by the status of the query, type of query (e.g., fiction), or other factors.

4. Summarize guidelines. 

For every publisher, agent, or editor you want to submit to, create a spreadsheet row with all pertinent information you’d need to submit, such as the agent’s name or the query email address. Include a cell in this summary row with a link to the submission guidelines for later reference. Then, in a final cell, list all of the pieces you plan to submit to that publisher, editor, or agent. This way, you don’t spend time looking up website URLs again, and you quickly can cross off agents, publishers, or editors for each piece after a query is finished.

5. Schedule time.

Many writers query whenever they have a moment, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But scheduling time in advance allows you to get in the frame of mind to work with real focus, and you can set yourself up to work when you know you’ll have quiet or won’t get interrupted. It also makes it less likely that you’ll push the querying to the back burner, as it’s an official calendar event.

Remember, no matter what hacks you use to make querying go a little faster, it’s still a process that’s going to take a few months at a minimum. Most publishers, agents, and editors have a standard response time of eight to 12 weeks, although some will respond in two to four weeks. So no matter how many queries you can get out, you’ll have waiting to do. Since you’re going to have time on your hands, my advice is always to have multiple irons in the fire. Work in batches, tweak based on the feedback you get, and then try again.

9 Ways to Know It’s Time to Stop Adding Detail to a Piece of Writing

 

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Details can make or break a piece of writing. They allow people to get a clear picture and can trigger all kinds of emotional and mental responses. At some point, though, you simply don’t need more. How do you know when you’ve reached this point?

  1. Imagine you were summarizing or creating an abridged version. Is including the information necessary for the reader to understand what you meant? If not, you probably can leave it out. Many details are simply “nice to have” or asides, rather than foundational.
  2. Ask yourself what narrative service the detail offers. For instance, does it somehow provide a plot clue? Evoke an emotion or symbolism? Give a glimpse of a character’s past? If it’s not providing a service, then it’s dead weight in the draft.
  3. Consider balance. Does adding the detail put too much weight on one character or plot point? Does it throw off the pacing of the piece by keeping the reader in one place?
  4. Instead of focusing on every word of your draft, read it fast a few times. If you find yourself skimming over the same details each time, then they’re probably not adding value.
  5. Consider your technical limits. Maybe you could write a 200,000-word behemoth, for example, but if your genre standard is just 80,000, let yourself type a final period and move on.
  6. Think about norms. Writing for a specific audience usually means you include some “insider information” by default. If you’re just reiterating what your audience already should know, then you’re not doing them any favors by including the detail and might even come off as condescending.
  7. Ask if the detail refreshes what’s common. Anybody can say “The girl had brown hair.” It’s new to say “The girl’s hair was the color of the sturdy walnut trees, fringed by wisps of willow that grew around her ears.”
  8. Consider the reader’s imagination. If you’re laying out everything to such a degree that the reader can’t visualize anything for themselves, back off. Get them started with just two or three brush strokes and then get out of the way.
  9. Ask if the detail is your best option. The best details usually tell something unusual or specific.

6 Easy Ways to Improve Your Writing

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I want to get better as a writer. Most other writers I know have that goal, too. They feel obligated to improve, not just because there’s a better chance they’ll make more money, but also because they want to show everybody else just how rich the craft can be.

By far the best thing you can do to get better at writing is just to practice. But there are other easy ways to improve your ability to write well, too.

  1. Read

The more you read, the more you get exposed to different writing worlds, voices and vocabulary. You also get more general information, which helps you make decisions about what to include or exclude in the world you craft.

One sneaky trick here is to include a lot of reviews and comments in your reading. These will give you invaluable insights about what readers thought worked and didn’t work in the given content. You can avoid their mistakes and incorporate tricks writers used well with your own unique spin. As a bonus, familiarizing yourself with reviews and comments–which can be harsh, I’m not going to lie–can help you develop a thicker skin so that, when people say something about your own work, you have a better understanding that it truly isn’t personal. That keeps your confidence high so you can continue to write your best.

2. Subscribe

Your options here are far-reaching–podcasts, word-of-of-the-day texts or emails, and masterclass videos on Youtube or other sites are just some of the ways you can educate yourself and hear what other writers think and do. The best thing about subscriptions is that, once you’re signed up, everything comes to you directly with no extra research effort. All you have to do is come up with a system to keep the incoming episodes or other materials organized for later.

3. Make to-do lists

It’s OK if you’re more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writer and like spontaneity in your day. But writing any kind of to-do list teaches you to prioritize what’s important to you and to see the chronology of time better. That can help you hone in on what writing tasks deserve your time for the day so you stay out of the weeds. It can transfer over into general, loose outlining, as well.

4. Set boundaries

No, I’m not talking about telling your family to scram while you work on a draft, although doing that in a kind way certainly isn’t going to hurt. I’m talking about knowing when to stop researching, drafting or tweaking. At some point, more information just isn’t relevant, the draft is too long and all your editing is just making the work different, not better. So whether it’s saying that you’ll only Google medieval swords for an hour or that you’ll create a more digestible series if your book crosses 100,000 words, create your rules and stick to them.

5. Cross platforms

No, you don’t have to be a Twitter star or podcaster or do a million interviews. But a little fun on different platforms can get you more comfortable accepting your identity as a writer. You have to promote yourself and your work in more venues and really have to own it. Platform crossing also teaches you to present your writing in lots of ways and gives you the opportunity to interact with different audiences. You also can have opportunities to share your insights, and teaching is one of the best ways to confirm for yourself whether you really are sure of what works for you and what your philosophies behind writing are.

6. Let go

I’m a firm believer that good things can come from hanging on to unfinished drafts or ideas. The reality, however, is that you don’t need to hang on to everything. Some concepts really are *cough*….yeah. Some days, you just know it’s not right. So let those words go. Identify what really energizes you and ditch what doesn’t. Remind yourself that crossing out words, paragraphs or entire paragraphs is normal, and that it’s necessary to get an end product that’s engaging, lean and true to who you are at your best.

Writers are always growing and improving. But this isn’t just something that happens only because we get older and get more experience that can shape our content. It’s also because we make a conscious choice to grow and improve. Decide right now that you’re going to take action, and then let your ideas lead you wherever they might.

5 Things Writers Never Should Say

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Writers are supposed to be great with words. But there are a few phrases I sometimes hear from those in the profession that, in total honesty, drive me up the wall. These are the ones I hope you scrape from your vocabulary.

1. I don’t know.

Come on now, people. We have Google. If you don’t know something, you can look it up. If you can’t look it up, you can ask someone, such as a mentor or your librarian. Remind yourself that good sources give authority and credibility to your writing, and then go research and find out. If someone won’t answer your questions, or if you discover there really is no data, then report that.

2. I never read…because…

Ever heard the saying that the best defense is a good offense? Well, you can’t refute what you don’t even know. And the more familiar you are with what’s out there, the more you can pinpoint what you personally want to avoid, what works, and what inspires you most. Educate yourself and explore so you can have a real, justified, and experienced opinion.

3. The editor/publisher/agent just has it out for me/doesn’t know good writing!

Most editors, publishers, and agents have spent years in the field and learned from seasoned professionals in the industry. They also have a fiduciary interest in helping you, because without you, their jobs go poof. So even though it never hurts to get a second or even third or fourth opinion, trust that they know what they’re talking about and be open to the fact you have the opportunity to learn something.

4. Writing is easy.

Writing might come naturally to you, but it also requires tons of hard work and dedication. Don’t dismiss that, or others are more likely to dismiss what you do as fluff stuff not worth real support. Always tell people what the experience is really like, warts and all.

5. I want to be like [Some Writer]!

It’s fine to aspire and appreciate what someone else has accomplished as an author. But your path is uniquely your own. Strive for your own voice and way of accomplishing, because the odds are you’ll never have the exact resources or opportunities another writer has had. If there’s someone you look up to, pinpoint the traits they have that you value and find practical ways to develop them in yourself. Always define success on your own terms, not someone else’s.

Why You Should (and Shouldn’t) Use Chapter Titles in Your Books

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Every fiction book has a title. That’s a given. But chapters? That’s messier.

The case against chapter titles…

Most fiction books I’ve read don’t use chapter titles. They use numbers. More specifically, writers generally put those numbers on the page as digits (e.g., 29), rather than writing out the words (e.g., twenty-nine). But every writer is a little individual about it.

Some readers like that chapter titles can give a sneak peek at what’s ahead in the next section of the book. But personally, I find that chapter titles usually give away too much, which ruins my anticipation. If an author only uses the chapter number, then I have clear start-stop points in the book, but the author hasn’t given anything away, and I still have a better sense of mystery and excitement.

From a technical perspective, chapters are meant only to break your book into smaller sections. And it can become hard to know where to draw the line with section labels. Paragraphs or pages, for example, are small sections, too, but you don’t title those. You just assume the reader will flow from one to the next and use the line break / indenting to understand your organization. So in this sense, I see chapter numbers as much simpler and less invasive.

…and the case in favor

But chapter titles have their benefits. They force you, as a writer, to have a clear sense of what the content in that section does or is about. If you outline before you write, then you can stay better focused so you don’t get into the weeds too much. You know exactly what purpose the text has for the reader. And if you place titles after drafting, then it still can help you see what to put in or cut. There’s also a fantastic creative challenge that can improve your writing overall. Instead of one title to come up with, you could have dozens. Many readers appreciate all this extra flavor and effort.

Chapter titles also can create a sense of unity through a book. Some readers need to see or how the chapters are related, because those associations help them make better sense of the book as a whole. And if you use a chapter title that includes something the reader is familiar with or that provides a good curiosity gap, then you can create some empathy to connect better and create intrigue without giving too much away. It’s possible to set the mood right away so that your reader more easily can settle in, imagine the world or scene, and feel invested.

In the end, the reader is most important

Ultimately, chapter titles are always forward-oriented. So if you’re going to use them, they need to give clear clues about the journey the reader is going to take, and they need to do it in a way that’s not distracting. If you don’t want to use them, though, then you don’t have to. There are all kinds of other writing strategies and techniques you can use to create anticipation (e.g., a classic cliffhanger chapter ending), help one section flow to the next, or offer clues. But in either case, think about your reader, both in terms of what they expect–some genres use chapter titles more often than others, for example–and what they personally are going to need. Create a truly immersive experience, and make conscious decisions at every step about how to present your story in a positive way that they’ll respond to.