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How to Grow Your Writing Career

Today I want to talk about how we will each grow this year, and how to actually make that happen. How will you move your career forward, how will you change direction professionally, how will you pursue a dream that has been sitting on the shelf for far too long?

A lot of my focus is with writers and creators, and I will frame my comments to them, although I think this topic is useful for anyone. So if you are a writer – how will you pursue your goals in 2011. How will you move your writing career forward?

Dan Blank This is the nitty-gritty stuff. For those who choose to find room for growth, it is the bleary-eyed decision to wake up a half hour earlier to do some writing, to put off doing the laundry, in order to grab coffee with a colleague to get advice on something.

This is not the sexy stuff of feeling empowered, of innovating, this is the hours and hours and hours of work pursuing something that those around you could care less about. In all likelihood, your friends, family and colleagues like things how they are, they like you how you are. They define you as you are now, as you were yesterday – and that is enough for them. They don’t mean any ill-will, but they probably don’t feel that drive to redefine you or your life. In fact, likely, no one will push you to do that, but you.

Now, companies talk about ‘growth’ all the time. Typically, they mean make 20% more profit than last year. I’m not talking about that kind of growth. I mean, sure, money may be a byproduct of your growth, but that’s not the goal. Are you making room for growth? Are you putting resources towards it? It’s not enough to just hope that you make incremental movement towards a successful writing career. That’s what I want to talk about today.

You need two things in order to find the growth you are looking for this year:

  • A talent or skill of some sort
  • Hours and hours of focused hard work

Too many people have one or the other: either tons of unfocused hard work, or a talent that is never properly developed, never honed. Acknowledging the need for both is essential for growth. To not be complacent in your past accomplishments, in your present skillset. And likewise, to think critically enough about how to target specific areas for growth – knowing where to focus, and what to let slide.

Talent is not enough. Experience is not enough. You need to challenge yourself, to take those innate talents and push them hard. That it is about DESIRE and MOTIVATION. To make space in your life. And to be really particular about how you will find the resources to grow.

I do a lot of reading, researching and listening to music. I find the same story again and again behind great works by writers, creators and musicians. For instance: I bought the box set for Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ last weekend and made a small update about it to Facebook. Dean Horowitz left this comment:

“Writing 70 songs for a single album demonstrates that genius is as much about focused hard work as it is about realizing ones gifts.”

In the documentary that accompanied the set, you saw how Bruce and the band pushed their talent, spend hundreds of hours shaping and crafting. They rejected enough finished material for well more than a single album. They judged their work at a very high bar: greatness.

How will each of us get on the path to greatness? Let’s explore some ways to frame our growth this year:

  • Set Goals
    I’m not talking about vague resolutions, but specific goals with a real plan behind them. This means setting benchmarks and milestones, it means defining the difference between failure and success. Don’t be too safe about it, take a risk. Scare yourself into action.

  • Write It Down and Tell Someone
    Make yourself accountable. Write down your goals and post it somewhere. Even better: tell people. Post it to Facebook, talk it over with a friend. Accountability is a big factor here. That is why weight-loss programs that require group activities tend to work more often than those that are just a solitary experience. You are more likely to stay on track, to feel good as you progress and have a support system when you stall. It’s also an important step, taking the dream out of your head, and sharing it with the world. In some ways, you are planting that seed, and giving it a chance of growing.

  • Do Your Research
    Ask people questions. I’m so shocked at how infrequently people do this. Too many people ASSUME they know how to do something, what its value is, the hard parts and the upsides of whatever they are pursuing. But instead of guessing, ASK people who have done it. They will tell you how hard it was, what’s its really like. They will also likely help you get started. Don’t start down a path only to turn back once you realize it wasn’t for you. Do your research. It’s easy, buy someone coffee, and ask questions.

  • Listen With An Open Mind
    Don’t just listen to others, waiting for them to support ideas you already agree with. Challenge yourself. If you are pursuing a goal that you have not yet reached previously in your life, there is a reason for that. Something needs to change, something in you, in order for that goal to be achieved. Listening with an open mind is a key way to get there. Step out of the echo chamber that you may live in every day, step out of your comfort zone. Talk to people you wouldn’t normally have access to, that are outside of your circle of friends. You might be surprised at what they say, and how easily their insight can remove barriers that exist only within you.

  • Structure Your Learning
    Inherently, there are practices and skills that you may need to build here. A process that could be all the difference between putting your goals on the backburner vs actually achieving them. Don’t be afraid to structure that process – to make a commitment, be it financial or with other resources such as time. When you join a class, hire a writing coach, or something similar, you are putting a framework together for reaching your goals. This is often where you separate the dreamers from the doers – those who will put resources towards realizing their goals vs those who merely hope their goals magically happen.

  • Judge Yourself by Outputs, Not Inputs
    Don’t judge the quality of your effort by how much you put into it, but by the work that comes out of it. I mean this in two ways. First: you are likely very busy, and any work you do this year to pursue goals you have will come at a great effort. So it will be easy to feel that any amount of effort you make justifies successful movement towards a goal. EG: writing 100 words a week, not 1,000. And yes, these little efforts add up, and SOME progress is better than no progress. But don’t judge the quality of your work just by what you put into it, but by what you share with the world – your outputs – and how well the quality of your work fits into that context. The second point here is the need to actually share your work, that you are driving towards a goal of releasing material, not just creating it. That in the end, if you don’t publish work in some form, if you don’t share it in some form, then the world will question whether it really happened. If tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it really make a sound?

  • Commit
    This is what will separate those who look back on 2011 with an amazing sense of pride, and those who simply added another digital to the number of years they have worked the same job that they aren’t happy with. Do you think your life is more than a resume? Prove it. Commit to it.

So much of the year ahead for me is about pushing myself in exactly the ways I mention above. But mostly, I am focusing on helping others pursue their goals, to move their careers forward as writers and creators. If you think I can help you, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

Thanks.
-Dan
973-981-8882 | Twitter: @DanBlank | dan@danblank.com

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  • Todd Toler

    Dan, this resonates strongly with the fine book Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin. I was very taken by the book earlier this year and it’s notion of “deliberate practice.” As someone who wants to focus on their writing in 2011 and beyond, I really appreciated your post. Keep up the good work! /Todd

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1591842247

    • http://www.danblank.com Anonymous

      Todd,
      Thanks so much for the feedback and the book recommendation, I’ll check it out!
      -Dan

  • Tamararoyal

    Thank you for validating my outputs and inputs! After hours and hours and hours and hours, I taught myself how to set up a blog-then submitted some work to a local paper. You motivated me to think back on 2011 now…
    Thanks.
    Tamara

    • http://www.danblank.com Anonymous

      Thanks Tamara!

  • http://twitter.com/rbtlowe Robert Lowe

    Great words of wisdom here Dan. Thanks for the wonderful expression of these thoughts. I have passed them on to all of those I know who could use this wonderful perspective at the start of a brand new year!

    • http://www.danblank.com Anonymous

      Thank you!

  • http://web.me.com/stevespringermd/Smart_Medical_Systems/Professional_Info.html Steve Springer MD

    Dan,
    Incremental achievement of goals is often overlooked. I think the crowd of want-to-be novelists, bloggers, etc… including myself, want the unfinished novel in their prefrontal cortex now… not 100 words at a time. Great point! In order to dig up my mojo I started writing small medical blurbs for a local magazine here in Lake Charles, LA…”The Jambalaya News” in a column called “House Call” (http://www.thejambalayanews.com/regulars/index.cfm?ID=22) My ultimate goal is the continuation of medical freelance writing plus the slightly more infectious dream of finishing the factional novel I’ve been researching and “writing” over the last 2 yrs. I’m curious as to your thoughts on how much of a novel has to be finished before you actually go with a pitch?

    Thanks,
    Steve Springer MD
    @stevespringermd
    stevespringermd@mac.com
    http://web.me.com/stevespringermd/Smart_Medical_Systems/Professional_Info.html

    PS: Hope you have a great WD conference this month… desperately trying to rationalize attendance.

    • http://www.danblank.com Anonymous

      Steve,
      Thanks so much for the comment. Replying via email.
      -Dan

  • Laura K. Cowan

    Hi Dan!
    I’m jumping in a little late here as a friend just recommended that I check out your site this week….

    I love what you say about inputs and outputs. This encourages me in a way that you didn’t mention: I am a stay-at-home mom running a blog, publishing a nonfiction book, AND working on my first novel, so I love being reminded to judge my novel writing by the quality of the output rather than the hours spent on it, since I don’t have that many hours! :) I’ve also discovered that even though this is an intense schedule, being at home redefines the number of hours needed to achieve certain goals (no meetings, no interruptions since I work while my daughter is napping), so the output is really the only way to judge if I’m moving forward toward my goals. Thanks for the reminder! I’ll be following your blog.

    Laura K. Cowan
    founder of 29Diapers.com, author of Ecofrugal Baby: How To Save 70% Off Baby’s First Year

    P.S. I also took some advice on goal setting from Erica.biz recently, by writing down my goal and then stepping backwards to my current position, to see what realistic steps i need to take to achieve it. It really helped me see the specific steps I can take every day and how much work it will be to reach my goal.

    • http://www.danblank.com Anonymous

      Laura,
      Thanks so much for the reply and the details of your journey. I definitely think that a lot of our culture values the wrong thing… hours spent in a cube, not the actual benefit they create for the world.
      -Dan

  • Grace Elliot

    This is so true – lots of unfocussed work is a trap for us all.

  • ArkhipBaranov

    To become a writer, you need to know many important thing including important and those who are not because they can help you create wonderful piece of writing that is really wonderful.