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Craft vs. platform: which comes first?

Today I want to talk about how to prioritize working on your craft vs. developing your platform: when to do it, how to manage it, and what steps I recommend you take first.

Two authors reached out to me recently sharing their biggest challenges:

  • Anne-Marie asked: “My biggest challenge is to prioritize my time. How to manage all that needs to be done? What else should I be doing? Who to connect with?”
  • George asked it this way: “I am new to creative writing. Is there an interim step – for example, start writing and publishing creative content on elements of the concept or do I plow forward with a draft of the novel? For example, I thought about writing a blog. Or do I continue my research and stay heads down until I have a draft and then request feedback?”

To be clear up front: when I use the term “platform,” I simply mean your ability to connect in a meaningful way with people who would appreciate your creative work. It means having a sense of who may resonate with it, why, how to reach them, and ways of doing so that feel as though like minded people are connecting in ways that are positive.

Okay, let’s dig in.

Craft Always Comes First

I’ve seen plenty of blog posts and webinars promising to give you ways to craft a book in a weekend, edit it in a day, and publish it on Amazon the following Wednesday.

Bleh.

I believe in craft. In honing one’s skills, in slowly creating work that elevates the experience you create for your readers, or whoever discovers your creative work. I grew up as an artist, starting art school at age 5, and spending the first 25 years of my life in a string of (sometimes misguided) projects with drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, writing, cartoons, music and so much more.

In working with writers and creative professionals, every day of my life is spent interacting with people who are fueled by a drive to create. You wouldn’t be reading my newsletter or blog if that didn’t describe you as well.

Craft comes first. Period. Not only because it makes your work better, but because I believe that being an artist is about transforming yourself as a person. It is about pushing your own boundaries, asking hard questions, and being open to going where the answer takes you, even if it is sometimes someplace new, and perhaps, terrifying.

The art and the artist are intertwined, as it should be. Many “shortcuts” to make it “easier” or “quicker” comes at a price that diminishes the work, and limits the journey of the artist themselves.

You Can Skip “Platform” Entirely

There are two easy situations in which you can entirely skip even the slightest thought around developing a platform, of understanding who your ideal audience is and how to reach them. That’s right: forget about it entirely. They are:

  • You create only for the self-satisfaction of creating. You create for yourself and no one else. You have zero aspirations of the work needing to connect with others. Now, I deeply believe in this. Back in 2011, I told the story of how I spent three years developing a series of pop up books, which now peacefully sit in my attic. I created them for me and no one else. Not everything you create needs to be shared. If you write music for yourself; craft stories for yourself; make art for yourself, I think that is wonderful. Keep creating.
  • You are a creative genius. Your work is so good that it immediately resonates with others in a way that is almost shocking to them. It infects them, they can’t help but fall in love with it, to tell others about it. An aura surrounds you because you are just that good. No, you don’t need to have an ego about it, but wherever you go, you can’t help but notice that people are drawn to your creative work. It just happens, as if a force of nature. Go on, keep creating. The world needs more of what you do.

If either of these conditions apply to you, stop reading. You are entirely off the hook. Be the creative genius you are, and entirely let go of any pressure you feel about considering how to connect your work to your audience.

Balancing Craft and Platform

If you have any familiarity with my work, you likely already know that I believe that the work of “platform” has nothing to do with social media hacks, and everything to do with having empathy with those you feel will love the work you are creating. It is about forging meaningful connections with these individuals, and the communities in which they congregate.

I feel that you should start this work as soon as possible, long before you consider publishing.

Just as the craft of writing or other creative work takes time, so does the craft of understanding who your ideal audience is, what resonates with them, where to find them, how to connect with them, and how to infuse this in the “professional” side of being a “creative professional.”

You should hone your creative craft concurrently to considering how to develop an audience for it. No, you don’t have to write to an audience: There is a difference between knowing your audience and writing to one.

Knowing who your audience is shouldn’t change your work away from your core vision, but it can help you ensure that your stories reach an audience that cares.

Too many authors spend years on their creative craft, and mere weeks on understanding how to connect it to an audience. The result? Their work never connects to anyone.

I want to share my advice for how you can balance these two things — creative craft and understanding how your work can reach an audience — amidst your already busy life. Yes, I know you likely also have many other responsibilities that may include a day job, kids, relationships, attending to physical and mental health, and so much else.

In fact, this is what I have been working on in my mastermind group for the past month: how do we focus more on our individual creative visions, while also connecting it to an audience.

What they want is a transformation not just in their work, but in their identity. I asked the members of my mastermind about the transformation they have experienced in the past 30 days, and these are some of the replies:

“My transformation has been on two fronts. First, I’m feeling more confident about being a writer. Second, I’m actively working on my book with much more energy than before.”

“I feel I’ve shifted from the feeling that I was in a holding pattern into one of forward motion. [The Mastermind], has made me more confident about being a writer.”

“I feel a subtle shift (like a door slowly opening) in sharing my work. Writing the mission statement also helped me feel more grounded and validated.”

“It feels like I’m “settling into myself”. Makes it feel less like something that you can get wrong.”

“I have a tendency to fall into that scared little girl mode, and I am not that person any more. I am a strong (in will if not always in body), intuitive, creative, problem-solving woman and I’m really going to need all of that to deal with all the questions that are flying around me right now.”

“My biggest transformation is beginning to see my work as experiences I craft to help [others] make memorable shifts in their lives.”

“I was feeling so confused about my creative direction at the onset, and through the exercises Dan has led us in and insights you all have shared, things clicked back into place.”

My advice for you to experience the transformation in your craft and in developing your audience concurrently is to:

  • Prioritize what matters to you. In my mastermind group, each person did an analysis of what matters most to them, and then crafted a personal mission statement based on this. This is the statement that you hang on your wall in big block letters — statement that focuses on the effect you want your work to have in the world. It is a gauntlet to be thrown down, and for you as the artist to live up to. The simple act of claiming your identity is a powerful one to double down on your creative vision.
  • Get collaborators. The mastermind is collaborative by nature, so each of the members have already taken that step, and it is magical to watch a group of strangers become supporters and advocates for each other. In 30 days, it feels like a group of people who have each other’s backs.

    Find a mentor. Create your own mastermind group, even if it is just you and one other person. Consider how you can develop relationships with colleagues — those who do creative work similar to yours. Connect with these people regularly, once per week of possible.

  • Develop a literacy of the marketplace and who your audience is. If you can’t answer these questions, you have work to do:
    1. “Someone who would love my book (or creative work) already loves theses three books: ____, ____, and ____.”
    2. “My ideal reader loves this person: ______ and reads everything they write, would see them speak in a heartbeat, and really respects their opinion.”
    3. “Where to find my ideal reader? This conference or event: ________, and this online blog/community: ___________.”
    4. “What resonates with my ideal reader? What gets them to stop and take notice? This: ________.”
    5. “What repels my reader? What gets them fired up? This: _________.”
  • Start building creative habits and audience building habits. If you want to be a professional, then you have to develop habits as a professional would. You should up every day for your craft in some way. For instance, I am working on a new book, but I didn’t have time this morning to really devote to it because I had to write this 1,800 word post that you are reading. Yet, when I arrive at Starbucks at 5:30am, the first thing I did was open up Scrivener to work on my book for a solid 15 minutes. Then I closed it and moved on to this post. Each day I am sharing a photo of myself on Instagram working on my book, simply as a way to ensure I stick to this habit. Every day: create.

    Likewise, the best way to consider who your ideal audience is and how to connect with them is to do so each day via a series of small habits. Ask yourself: “How can I have a tiny interaction each week with someone who loves the kids of books that I write?” No, you are not promoting your work, you are simply seeking to understand one new thing about these readers.

How can you attend to your craft and those who you hope to connect with your work each week?

Thanks.
-Dan

  • Dawn Downey

    There’s an aside in here that shifted my viewpoint 180 degrees. “this morning I had to write this 1800-word post you are reading now.” I read something in here. You write your Friday post on one day. I’ve been trying to work on my Friday post all week. If I get to Thursday and I haven’t started it, I beat myself up for procrastination. But lately I’ve noticed that even when I end up doing the whole thing on Thursday, to meet my Friday a.m. deadline, it gets done. It gets done. There’s nothing to criticize myself for. Writing the post on Thursdays is my writing rhythm. The rest of the week, I write my book. This morning, (Thursday as I write this) inspiration hit at 6 a.m. I channeled all my energy into writing the post. I used none of my energy for beating myself up. The post was done and in the Mailchimp queue by 11:00! Thanks, Dan.