How to build a better writing platform by being yourself

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
On top of the ... polephoto © 2011 linda | more info (via: Wylio)

Today we continue our short series on writing with a look at platform—a favorite buzzword at writing conferences and an absolute necessity for writers hoping to bring their voice to the competitive marketplace of publishing. 

For a lot of writers, particularly those who write faith-related material, trying to “build a brand” can feel a bit manipulative and fake. (Doesn’t developing a marketing strategy for a book about materialism seem a bit hypocritical?

But it doesn’t have to be. I’m convinced that if you build your platform by being yourself, it can not only help you snag a book deal and establish a writing career, it can help make you a better person! 

 What follows are some suggestions, based on my own limited experience, that I hope will free you to be yourself as you embark on this adventure. I know they have helped me. 

1. Make your voice your brand, not your topic.

Unless you are absolutely certain that you never want to write about anything else, avoid chaining yourself to a single topic like church planting, parenting, doubt, travel, leadership, worship music, social media, etc.  Some folks say that topic consistency is important for branding, but I’m not convinced. My favorite writers—Anne Lamott, Donald Miller, Barbara Kingsolver, Sara Miles—can write about anything and I’ll read it. Why? Because I like how they think. I like how they see the world. I am loyal to their voice, not their topic.

I knew from the get-go that tying my identity as a writer to a single topic would lead to burnout fast. I’m just the kind of person who gets inspired by new projects and bored by old ones. So Dan and I took special care to avoid tying the design and content of the blog to a single book project or topic. Instead I’ve tried to develop a familiar and consistent voice that is reflective of my personality, hoping to draw readers who connect with that. Sure, I may lose some folks between topics, but at least I’ll have the freedom to write about what I want to write about, which will ultimately make me better at what I do. 

So even if you’re interested in writing nonfiction, try to maintain a level of separation between yourself and your topic. The most sustainable “brand” is your true self, so write about what genuinely inspires, challenges, and tickles you. Chances are, you will find readers who relate. 

Some practical points: Be sure to make your name clearly visible on each page of your blog. (I noticed when I was linking to syncrhoblog posts for the Rally to Restore Unity that a lot of rookie bloggers were failing to do this.) Bonus points if you can snag a domain that features your name. Also, try to be consistent in the identity you use for your twitter handle, Facebook page, article bylines, and comment username. You can’t establish an online presence if you’ve divided yourself between three different identities.  

2. Let your readers help. 

Without a doubt, what I love most about this blog is the conversation that follows each post.  You guys are amazing! I’ve been so inspired, encouraged, challenged, and impressed by what you’ve had to say that sometimes it brings me to (happy) tears. 

In addition to providing direction and insight related to the subject at hand, you’ve also taught me a lot about what you like to read—not simply regarding topics, but regarding writing style.  If you’re not sure how to develop a unique voice as a writer, simply listen to what your readers are already telling you. For example, based on comments and emails, I know that  my readers like it when I’m honest, when I’m funny, when I’m introspective, and when I address controversial subjects with grace. So I try to play to those strengths, and they’ve developed into a sort of “brand.” This “brand,” is a polished version of my true self, of course…(we’d be using a different word than “grace” if you heard my initial reaction to Tim Challies’ post about beauty!)…but trying to exhibit these qualities in my writing actually inspires me to exhibit them more consistently in my life. I want to be more like my “brand.” It’s a win/win! 

Some practical points: Try to engage in the comment section of your blog as much as possible, and try to create a safe and constructive atmosphere there so that people will return. Ask good questions at the end of each post. Delete comments that are inflammatory or off-topic. If you have time, email readers whose comments made a big impact on you to let them know how much they helped. And unless you are super-famous, don’t shut down comment capabilities. It makes you look like a snob! 

3. Say yes to opportunities that genuinely interest you and no to opportunities that don’t. 

This is a hard one for me because I’m the kind of person who thinks that if I can do something, then Ishould do something.  The result? Lots of wasted time on projects that didn’t inspire or challenge me and that didn’t advance my career. 

I am convinced that our odds for success increase dramatically when we love what we’re doing. (Plus, when we love what we’re doing, our definition of “success” is more versatile!) So my advice for writers is to work smarter, not harder.  Pursue opportunities that genuinely excite you, and don’t be afraid to say “no” to those that don’t. This strategy will protect you from burnout and from spreading yourself so thin that when a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity comes along, you’re too overcommitted to take it.

Some practical points:  If you’re just starting out, some opportunities that make a lot of sense for platform-building include: writing guest posts for popular bloggers who share a similar audience, writing a regular column for a newspaper or online magazine, seeking out speaking gigs (paid or unpaid), participating in conferences (for networking opportunities as well as exposure to new, inspiring ideas), using social media to share your message, and requesting interviews with popular authors/speakers/leaders to feature on your blog. As soon as you start to get busy, though, avoid booking speaking gigs that don’t pay. As enticing as they may be, they suck your time and energy away like a black hole…and rarely result in big books sales or higher blog stats.  

4. Watch out for jealousy! 

Everyone knows that jealousy is one of the occupational hazards of being a writer. But these days,  all our tracking devices for blog stats, twitter followers, Facebook friends, and book sales can exacerbate the problem to the point of obsession. My jealousy gets so bad at times that I have to intentionally avoid looking at my Google Analytics page and Amazon rank for several weeks. 

Try to remember that your fellow writers are your friends! If you feel a pang of jealousy counting someone else’s blog comments, try to turn that jealousy into admiration so that you can figure out what this blogger is doing right and then apply it in your own way to your own blog. Ask questions. Compliment. Retweet. Listen and learn. When we approach fellow writers with an attitude of openness, we help foster an environment of collaboration that benefits everyone. 

Some practical points: Marry, date, or befriend someone who will tell you when you’re being obsessive, and listen to him when he tells you to step away from the computer. 

5. Cultivate confidence.

As it turns out, the trick to building confidence as a writer is a lot simpler than I originally thought: It’s all about practice.  

The longer I write, the more comfortable I become with my own voice. The more often I speak, the more confident I become in my ability to communicate. The more interviews I do, the less fearful I am of totally screwing one up. The more risks I take, the more fun I have taking them. 

If you build a platform based on being yourself, your confidence will only grow over time.Negative comments won’t sting as much. Challenges to your authority won’t send you into despair. Successful writers won’t intimidate you like they used to. And setbacks will make you want to work harder instead of quit. 

Some practical points: Be honest when you make a mistake, but try to avoid slipping into self-loathing. Readers love to laugh along with a writer who has a self-depreciating sense of humor; but they’re not as crazy about serving as your unpaid therapist. 


So, what has been your experience with platform-building? Does it intimidate you, excite you, make you feel like you're "selling out"? Got any questions for someone whose platform is still under construction?

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