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Should Writers Focus on the Craft of Writing or Building Their Audience?

Is it better for a writer to focus only on developing their craft, or also on understanding how to build and engage an audience? This is a debate that has been thriving online this year in the writing community, so I thought I would address the topic today.

The latter issue here: “building and engaging an audience” has been disparaged by using terms such as “branding,” “marketing,” “platform” and similar words. The implication is: Should Bob Dylan have spent his time in 1962 writing songs, or designing ads for his album? Does a writer corrupt their work by focusing on marketing instead of creating an amazing work of art and craft?

So for writers, I’ll also take the easy way out: For me, the answer is clearly to focus on both creating one’s work, and connecting their work to the world. Why? Because doing so provides two things that are incredibly powerful, and somewhat rare:

  • Confidence.
  • Turning intention into reality. That lots of folks TALK about having a writing career, but many of them treat their work as a hobby. That many other things take precedence to the millions of things it takes to become a successful writer.

That an inherent part of building and engaging an audience is sharing. That without sharing one’s work, it runs the risk of dying in a vacuum. Twenty years ago, that vacuum was a manuscript at the bottom of a desk drawer. Today, it is a lonely word processing file on your hard drive. Never shared, never improved based on the outside world, forever trapped in an endless and closed process of revisions. That, even a work that is only shared in writing workshops, and never “published” to readers, is a work that perhaps has no end. There is always another edit that can be made.

For many writers, that keeps their work “pure,” because it is not complete. So they don’t have to wrestle with the hard choices about publishing, marketing, connecting – because as they will tell you: “that is putting the cart before the horse.” But if a piece of writing is never completed, always in revisions, then how can it impact the world, and build your legacy as a writer?

While Bob Dylan did not spend 1962 designing ads for his work, he did spend his time in cafés, performing, speaking to those who had similar beliefs, exploring other musicians, and engaging in the world around him. He was intentional to get his music in front of others, to be where he needed to be, to meet the right people. When I speak about a writer building and engaging an audience, these are the types of activities I refer to. To be present in the community you hope that your work has an effect on. Not to be simplifying one’s work and exploiting it in exchange for money. (that’s just icky)

If A Book is Published in a Forest…
But the real risk is that once a work is ready to be shared, is if the author has no skills or foundation by which to get people to read it. So the work dies.

The act of “publishing” is not the critical part of being a writer, it is the act of being read.

The process by which their stories and ideas spread, and truly impact the world.

I have heard this chant at writing conferences and writing blogs again and again: “Write the best book possible.” “Focus only on your craft, and the world will eventually find your work and reward you.”

Bullsh*t.

I’m at the age where I remember a world before the internet. A world where it wasn’t assumed that everyone would have “followers.” Where people wouldn’t complain at “only” having 48 followers, a world where that would be INCREDIBLE to have 48 followers!

When I was a kid I was an artist. When I was a teenager I began writing poetry and other forms of what was called creative writing. I got into photography. In college, I published a music fanzine, which occupied far more of my resources than college work did. (sorry mom and dad) In my twenties I became (a very poor) musician, and created a series of (unpublished) pop up books. Since then, I have gotten more and more into nonfiction writing.

Through each of these projects, I remember how hard it was to not just create the work, but to connect it with others who may appreciate it. That for many writers, artists, and musicians I knew, their work only got polite attention from friends and family. Is that enough? If you are a writer who has written for four decades, is that enough for you? That when you die, your legacy dies with you because your work never found an audience?

What is This Dreaded Word “Branding,” Anyway?
To me: “branding” is about learning how to communicate one’s purpose, the value of their work, and connecting that to the world. Not to change one’s work because of the world, just connecting to it. That many creatives stumble when asked about their novel, their art, their music. They give long convoluted explanations, half-apologizing along the way.

When you know what you are about, when you know how it taps into what others are passionate about, then you are able to make powerful and meaningful connections.

No, I’m not afraid of the word “branding” because it’s just a word. What you make of it – something restrictive or something empowering – is up to each individual. When I work with writers to develop their “brand” – it is never about putting a fake surface on top of their work. It’s always about cutting to the heart of their purpose, of the power of their work, and how that resonates in others – how it connects to the hopes and dreams of those they intend to connect with. It’s not about creating “fans.” That is a one way relationship. It’s about becoming a part of something. Together making a whole.

Building one’s platform is not about marketing. It’s NOT about creating an engine to constantly pitch others. It’s simply about being present. For me, it’s about real connections. I post my cell phone number all over the web and social media when connecting with others. Why? To show that I am a real person, and I want to connect with like-minded people. That there isn’t a barrier between us called “social media.” That I am not using social media how some people use their cars: as a barrier between themselves and others that allows you to assuage the guilt of cutting others off, speeding in a school zone, and honking.

If you call 973-981-8882, I’ll pick up. But please, I have a 1 year old at home, so call at reasonable hours!

Confidence and the Creative Process
What I believe in is a process of iteration. Where you create the best work you can, and then share it. Then you learn from that process, and create a new work as best you can, and share it. If you are forever trapped in the process of creation without sharing, without publishing and building the skills to do so, you jeopardize your entire legacy.

You don’t build a legacy based on intentions, but rather on actions.

The process of iteration challenges you in ways that are uncomfortable. But if you are open to it, you develop confidence. The confidence of a creator, and the confidence of someone who can clearly communicate the purpose and value of their work with the right people.

The reasons for this are best described on page 30 of Steve Jobs’ biography, as Jobs describes how creating and selling little illegal pieces of hardware called “Blue Boxes” to college students gave him the necessary ingredient to build a company that would change the world:

“If it hadn’t been for the Blue Boxes, there wouldn’t have been an Apple,” Jobs later reflected. “I’m 100% sure of that. Woz and I learned how to work together, and we gained the confidence that we could solve technical problems and actually put something into production.” They had created a device with a little circuit board that could control billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure. “You cannot believe how much confidence that gave us.” Woz came to the same conclusion: “It was probably a bad idea selling them, but it gave us a taste of what we could do with my engineering skills and his vision.”

Why do I advocate that writers, artists and creators put their work out there? To focus on connecting with their audience? Because it validates. Because it teaches. It educates. Because it – sometimes slowly – builds confidence.

It also gives you a fuller view of the complexity and value of your work in the world – not just in your mind. That sales is a part of a book’s lifespan. That reaction is an important part of a work. That this inherently challenges the writer/artist/creator. That it takes your work out of the locked bedroom, and sees if it has wings – a chance to grow beyond ourselves.

Is this true for every creative work? No. Some books, some albums should be created in a pure vacuum. But the critical thing is that they are shared, and the artist goes back to the studio to craft something new. I do not think that Dylan’s early career would have improved by committee, or by responding to polls and research of his audience. He pushed others in ways that were uncomfortable, and forced them to evolve in the process.

In fact, many are huge fans of his early work, but his later work (after he has put in Gladwell’s 10,000 hours) resonated with a much more limited audience. Is this bad because he didn’t create popular work? Is this good because he followed his own artistic vision? Not an easy question to answer. If you go see Dylan live, do you want to hear “The Times They Are A Changin” or do you want to hear his 1988 album ‘Down in the Groove’ in it’s entirety, ignoring all of his work from the 1960s and 70s?

Many say they don’t care about popularity, but are they saying they don’t want to be appreciated either? This answer is different for every writer, artist, and musician. And we can’t assume one person’s answer holds true for others. But what keeps someone continuing to create even when they have found no real success with their previous work?

I was lucky that my early creative work was supported and encouraged by friends, family, and the community I was a part of. Their support gave me the confidence I needed to continue to create. I think that is a major hurdle for most writers, musicians and artists. We covet. We fear. We find excuses. We get trapped in revisions. Trapped in waiting for just one more thing to do before we share it.

Create, Publish, Learn, Evolve, Repeat
I’ve talked in the past about principles of the lean startup movement, and it 100% applies here. Of not just developing your brilliant idea, but developing a feedback loop, and getting comfortable putting your ideas out there – of making creation a social process where the needs of others are built into it. You need to develop a process that helps you work past points of failure. Any story of greatness is often riddled with moments where it easily could have all fallen apart, but they had the skills to move past it to find success. You need that. We all need that!

Should the Beatles have never released an album until Sgt. Pepper? Until they had created a masterpiece? That is how some writers approach their career. All of their eggs are in one basket, instead of building a variety of skills, including learning how to share your work to find readers, not just an agent or publisher.

You have to launch to grow.

The Myth of Quality
Another part of this discussion that is often overlooked is that quality is subjective. That what one person loves, another hates. I have been to writing conferences where an author in the audience proclaims that their book is indeed the best it can be, and is better than anyone else could write it. But the topic was somehow repellent to others; there was nothing offensive about their work, it was just a topic that didn’t resonate, a cover design that didn’t resonate. I saw others actively trying to get away from conversations from this particular author. So here this person had a book they felt was great, but people were running for the hills. Was that due to the quality of the work, or their inability to communicate it’s value?

When you can’t communicate the value of your work, how can others experience its quality?

Likewise, we tend to equate the amount of time we spend honing something with the level of quality we are instilling in it. But quality and time have nothing to do with each other. Great works can be created in a moment, and no amount of editing and revision could have improved them. The hardest decision an artist makes is knowing when to put down the brush, when one more stroke will not bring to life their creative vision, but begin to destroy it.

Build the Bridge Before You Need It
One other way I want to look at this topic – considering whether a writer should focus on how they communicate their message, not just develop their craft – is to consider how they manage their writing career. So let’s consider how non-writers tend to manage their careers. You know: regular people you see day to day. This is how most careers are managed:

Someone works hard to find a job.
They get the job.
They work hard to ensure they don’t get fired.
They do good work.
They get comfortable.
They have no time for anything outside of work.
They build relationships ONLY within their company.
They build skills ONLY applicable to a very specific role within a very specific company.
They never learn to communicate to others outside of the company what they do. They rely on a business card and a title to say it all.

But then…
They get laid off.

And suddenly, they dust off their resume that hasn’t been updated in years.
They stop making fun of how boring LinkedIn is, and try to build their connections there.
They start calling people they haven’t spoken to in years.
They go to meetups in their industry that they have never even considered going to before.
They send out hundreds of resumes.

They panic, they get depressed.
They lose their identity.

But then…
They get a new job, and repeat the entire process above again.

That, oftentimes we eschew things like “branding” and “marketing” because we don’t need them at the moment. We feel pure without them. But… when your perfect work is finally done, finally published, and [if] it languishes on the shelves, suddenly, marketing becomes an interesting topic.

But is it too late by then?

Getting read and finding an audience is not about branding and marketing – it is about communication.

We See What We Want to See
We each have different heroes, and different worldviews. In the end, we will all see exactly what we want to see. I imagine Joe Konrath will tend to see stories in the world that prove self-publishing is the answer. Others see their own story – perhaps that the writer should never ever consider the marketing or business aspects of publishing. And you know what, everyone is right. What is right for you, is wrong for someone else. There is not one answer in publishing. Should you let branding and author platform kill your creative process? Of course not. Leverage them if you want. Ignore them if you want. But make a personal choice, not a black and white view of what is right for others.

So let’s all just hug and get on with writing, reading, and perhaps sharing some good conversation over hot cocoa.
-Dan
973-981-8882 | Twitter: @DanBlank | dan@danblank.com

Get Read: Find Readers and Build Your Author Platform

  • dbryan

    Excellent article, Dan! Thanks for putting things in perspective. Very timely.

    • http://www.wegrowmedia.com Dan Blank

      Thanks!

  • http://laura-e-kelly.com Laura E. Kelly

    By equating “communicating the value of your work” with “branding,” I don’t see how any author can dismiss branding as not being a key part of their job. However, I’ve noticed writers have at least two big qualms about using all the great tools and resources for communicating today.

    TIME The big fear for writers is time suck. The fear is that you’re going to spend time writing something that’s not your writing, taking away from your “real” job. The way to think of it, though, is that this audience building or “branding” is like an extension of your writing, NOT something unrelated to it. It’s a chance to explain your writing more, put it into a different form by excerpting, expanding, or relating it to current events. You’re increasing your chances of connecting, which is a large part of what writing is about, right? If you think of it that way, branding is a very valuable use of a writer’s time.

    QUALITY Writers think of themselves as reflective, they want to write slowly, refine what they’re putting down, shape it into their literary voice. They sense that blogging and social media are not about any of that—and they balk about even trying it. Authors need to realize it’s a different medium. It looks like writing but it’s not—it’s conversation, with all the breeziness, informality, and off-the-cuffness that signifies. No one expects literary gems online—in fact, the opposite. That should free authors: Don’t worry about the quality; just worry that you and your work aren’t part of the conversation.

    • http://www.wegrowmedia.com Dan Blank

      Smart! Thank you Laura!

  • http://www.designkompany.com Dipika

    Well put, Dan. 

    I recently met the musician John Darnielle, quite randomly at a birthday party. John is The Mountain Goats. I had that blank look you have when it dawns on you you’re talking to someone, well, famous. The nicest part was he was honest about how he just started doing his thing, making lo-fi tapes and giving them away. 

    Being “published” really didn’t take away from the spirit of making art. He cared about saying something, and he did it his own way. 

    Inspiring.

    Dipika

    • http://www.wegrowmedia.com Dan Blank

      Dipika,
      LOVE that story. Thanks so much!
      -Dan

  • Clarawriter

    Thanks Dan. I’m tweeting this awesome meassage for writers.

    Clara

    • http://www.wegrowmedia.com Dan Blank

      Thanks!

  • Joanne Wiklund

    Dan: This was very thoughtful. I was reminded of a quote from Thoreau: “A man should not sit down to write until he has stood up to live.”  I believe if writing is a part of your life, you value it. You assign your own value to it by how much you do with it. It is wonderful to be in the presence of others who value writing as much as I do. Thanks for your insights. Joanne

    • http://www.wegrowmedia.com Dan Blank

      Thank you so much Joanne!

  • Carol Tulpar

    Great post, Dan.

    You’ve hit the nail on the head. To get our work done and out there, we have to face ourselves.
    Love the line “Create, publish, learn, evolve, repeat.”
    All the best.

    Carol Tulpar
     

    • http://www.wegrowmedia.com Dan Blank

      Thank you Carol!

  • Lynne Spreen

    I’ve spent 4 years writing my first viable novel, and years before that on 2 that weren’t. It’s been valuable in that I’ve learned the process, and how to write for myself and my community (and who IS my community), and how to not feel inadequate every single time I consider platforming. I finally decided to enjoy the ride, even if I look ridiculous. As in: http://www.youtube.com/user/LynneMorganSpreen?feature=mhee#p/a/u/0/UFnplIZbGWI

  • Lynne Spreen

    I’ve spent 4 years writing my first viable novel, and years before that on 2 that weren’t. It’s been valuable in that I’ve learned the process, and how to write for myself and my community (and who IS my community), and how to not feel inadequate every single time I consider platforming. I finally decided to enjoy the ride, even if I look ridiculous. As in: http://www.youtube.com/user/LynneMorganSpreen?feature=mhee#p/a/u/0/UFnplIZbGWI

    • http://www.wegrowmedia.com Dan Blank

      Thank you Lynne!

  • Anonymous

    Wonderful! I look forward to reading other posts of yours involving the publishing industry and its rapid evolution. This article has got me also thinking, if I manage my own publishing and branding/marketing, than should I still actively seek an agent? I’m not even entirely clear on what an agent does. what are your thoughts on this?

    • http://www.wegrowmedia.com Dan Blank

      Don’t dismiss agents too easily! Their role is still very valuable, depending on your work, and their experience/expertise. An agent can be a CRITICAL link in the career of an author.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for this. I’ve been having a rather heated internal debate with myself over this issue. You’ve provided some really great insight.

    • http://www.wegrowmedia.com Dan Blank

      Yay! Thanks!

  • Anonymous

    Dan, you have such a gift for balancing two realms that are normally held in tension—writing and community-building—and revealing their underlying unity.

    • http://www.wegrowmedia.com Dan Blank

      Thank you Doug. That means a lot to me.

  • Mary Moylan

    Thanks again for another insightful article! I shared your information today with my local writer’s group-SFWC. As well, I just accomplished my first publication- a book review for the IDA, and started my blog/author platform. Thanks for all of your support! Mary M.

    • http://www.wegrowmedia.com Dan Blank

      Congrats on the first publication! And thank you for the kind words.
      -Dan

  • Mary Moylan

    Also, love the Bob Dylan connection! i recently had a dream that Bob and I were married-totally blissed out! lol!

    • http://www.wegrowmedia.com Dan Blank

      :)

  • http://www.thefutureofpublishing.com Thad McIlroy

    Dan: This is the best post I’ve yet seen on this very challenging topic. Another take:

    When I began in publishing it was as a bookseller in a large chain store in Toronto called Coles (this was 1974). Fiction was divided into several sections. “Classics” and “Literature” were set off from the rest of “Fiction” (there were also separate sections for Romance, Mystery & Science Fiction).

    Of course I’d signed on as shipper/receiver at this store because I loved “Literature” and hoped one day to create it. I admired bestselling Fiction writers who were bestselling authors, even though I KNEW that their writing was of a lower order than those who wrote even scant undecipherable work shlefed in the Literature section. Publishers we admired were mostly from New York: Grove Press and New Directions topped the list.

    We need to see the current reluctance to promote one’s work as a vestige of this age of literary mysticism. There are no doubt some good studies out there of how the “literate” public came to divide written work into the high-brow and low-brow, and what purpose that had once served.

    I remember my surprise when I learned that Shakespeare was a popular artist of his period: How could that be? I was taught Shakespeare, taught that it was “high literature”: complex, significant, to be scrutinized word by inscrutable word. What, people used to go to his plays just to have a fun afternoon of public performance? How could that be?

    To authors I say: No, you do not need to sully yourselves by engaging in the act of promotion via the Internet. Yes, you can spend all of your time writing. But your readership will suffer. If you feel that reviews in literate journals are a substitute for readership, by all means, maintain your isolation.

    To those authors who say: I’d like to participate but I’m just not cut out for it my advice is: Although you probably think that it’s far more difficult and terrifying than it is (as you may conflate it with public speaking, a very small and optional component of the routine), it is possible that you truly are not cut out for this sort of thing. In which case you will have to enjoy the solitary act of creation (which many do), and forego the rich rewards of allowing your readers to be part of the process.

  • http://www.thefutureofpublishing.com Thad McIlroy

    Dan: This is the best post I’ve yet seen on this very challenging topic. Another take:

    When I began in publishing it was as a bookseller in a large chain store in Toronto called Coles (this was 1974). Fiction was divided into several sections. “Classics” and “Literature” were set off from the rest of “Fiction” (there were also separate sections for Romance, Mystery & Science Fiction).

    Of course I’d signed on as shipper/receiver at this store because I loved “Literature” and hoped one day to create it. I admired bestselling Fiction writers who were bestselling authors, even though I KNEW that their writing was of a lower order than those who wrote even scant undecipherable work shlefed in the Literature section. Publishers we admired were mostly from New York: Grove Press and New Directions topped the list.

    We need to see the current reluctance to promote one’s work as a vestige of this age of literary mysticism. There are no doubt some good studies out there of how the “literate” public came to divide written work into the high-brow and low-brow, and what purpose that had once served.

    I remember my surprise when I learned that Shakespeare was a popular artist of his period: How could that be? I was taught Shakespeare, taught that it was “high literature”: complex, significant, to be scrutinized word by inscrutable word. What, people used to go to his plays just to have a fun afternoon of public performance? How could that be?

    To authors I say: No, you do not need to sully yourselves by engaging in the act of promotion via the Internet. Yes, you can spend all of your time writing. But your readership will suffer. If you feel that reviews in literate journals are a substitute for readership, by all means, maintain your isolation.

    To those authors who say: I’d like to participate but I’m just not cut out for it my advice is: Although you probably think that it’s far more difficult and terrifying than it is (as you may conflate it with public speaking, a very small and optional component of the routine), it is possible that you truly are not cut out for this sort of thing. In which case you will have to enjoy the solitary act of creation (which many do), and forego the rich rewards of allowing your readers to be part of the process.

  • http://juliecatherinevigna.wordpress.com/ Julie Catherine Vigna

    This is an excellent article.  As an aspiring poet and writer, I’m just learning the processes of blogging, tweeting, and building that bridge before I need it.  I jumped into the blogging a couple of months ago, and am just now beginning to see the benefits of communicating and sharing with people from all over the world. I’m learning about the differences of traditional and digital publishing, although I don’t know yet which way I will go when my first novel is finally finished.  I do agree that this part of writing takes a lot of time out of my actual writing time – but I do intend to learn how to effectively make time for both.  Now, if I can just manage to get this first draft finished …..

    • http://www.wegrowmedia.com/ Dan Blank

      Thanks Julie!