I wrote this as a tie-in to a panel I sat on for the Willamette Writers Conference in August 2015. I hope this is helpful to attendees at the panel and rest of you who run across it.
(deep breath, here we go).
Step 1: Write something that matters to someone.
Most of you know what that means because you have read beautiful, insightful, heart-breaking, hopeful books. Those tomes are on your bookshelves and in your devices. You wish you could read those books again for the first time to feel what you felt. You adore the audio and you curse the movie. You know what it is like to read something that matters.
You are somewhere on the journey to writing something that matters. Maybe you are figuring out voice or scene. Maybe the dialogue is stiff. Maybe the topic isn’t right or you need more research. I don’t know where you are.
What I do know is that you have a sense for what is good. You may not know how to make good, but you know what good looks like. That will be your beacon.
Step 2: Keep writing.
I have written over 1000 blog posts about business books, two ebooks about business, two books about books, and 7500 tweets about all sorts of things.
After all of that work, I still struggle with voice, syntax and knowing if the words will mean something to someone.
Over time though, I have gotten enough feedback from readers that some of what I have shared has been useful. They see the world a little different. They make better choices. They discovered something they didn’t know.
So, I keep writing, because I am a writer.
You are a writer too. Keep writing.
Amanda Hocking wrote 17 books while working full time in a group home.
Seth Godin started writing online January 2002 and has been writing a blog post every day for the last ten years.
Jerry Seinfeld kept a calendar with red X’s to make sure he wrote jokes every day.
Step 3: Share your work
Please tell me you are showing someone what you write. I don’t care if it is across a dinner table with a gracious friend or into the ethers of the Internet. We are terrible judges of our own work and what it might mean to others.
“You can never fully anticipate how an audience is going to react to something you’ve created until it’s out there,” Matt Mullenweg, the founder of Automatic, “That means every moment you’re working on something without it being in the public it’s actually dying, deprived of the oxygen of the real world.”
Putting your work out into the world will help people find you and it will naturally make your work better.
Step 4: The Equation
I appreciate the fact that you are still reading. We are 500 words in and many have left by now because I haven’t used the words ‘platform’ or ‘Twitter’ yet. We’ll get to tools, but bear with me just a little longer. We are going to do math.
Everyone who I have seen win in the post-Internet world of publishing follow this equation:
(Meaning)(Frequency)(Sharing) = Popularity
We already established that creating meaning is hard and unpredictable. This is the factor that you have the least control over. You should strive to create it, but never expect it.
Frequency is the factor you have the most control over. #DoTheWork. You are a writer. Write something every day. Writing every day is hard. Find a way to build the habit, because if you build a habit of writing, readers will build a habit of reading.
Sharing is a newly available variable to authors. Ten years ago, a relatively small group of people controlled what was shared. That is not true today. Nothing is stopping you from reading this blog post and sharing your latest thought, short story or photographic sunset in the next 15 minutes.
Each of these variables affects the each others. So, if any one of them is doing well, your popularity and platform will grow. If you can make all three happen, you’ll make big strides in building your platform.
What about fear?
Fear is natural. If you are feeling that, you are heading in the right direction.
When I get asked this question, I think more often people are talking about shame. Someone said their writing wasn’t good and they are now waiting for someone else to prove the shamer wrong and pick them.
You don’t have to wait to be picked but you need to courage to post the first piece. The lizard brain is going to do everything it can to keep you from doing it, but you HAVE TO PUSH through it.
What tools should I use?
You need three things.
First, you need a website that will serve as your home base so anyone can find you at any time.
Second, you need to build an email list. This technique is 10 times more effective than anything you will do online. Tim Grahl is the best at this. Read everything he has to say about it.
Third, I recommend you pick one social media tool and get really good at it. I suggest experimenting with several to start. Take six months and see what you like. The big audiences are on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. I happen to be a Twitter guy and it works for me. Most importantly, go where your audience is.
But how do I stand out?
Start by finding people to stand next to; people who like what you like. They will be at conventions, meet-ups, and writer conferences. You will find them in twitter hashtag searches and in the blog comments in your favorite writer’s website. You know a few already; ask them to introduce you to their friends and host a party.
Besides sharing your work, talk about what you are doing. You will have to do this a lot at first, because no one probably knows that you are toiling away during every available moment on your important work. When someone says. “What have you been up to?”, you need to talk about your art. Practice doing that. It will be hard at first, really hard, but it will get easier.
What is really going to set you apart is your ability to ask others how you can help. And when they say, “I am not sure how you can help?”, you need three things in your back pocket that you can offer. You know things that can help others. The coffeeshop with the best wifi? The quiet (and cheap) place on the coast to get away for a weekend of writing? Tips on writing the jacket copy? Think about how you can help and be ready!
And when someone recognizes the amazing effort you are putting in and asks how they can help, accept their offer. Period.
Be ready with the things you need help with. Ask them to read your work. Ask them to watch your kids so you can write more on next Saturday. Ask them to introduce you to another friend.
How many people do I need?
You need what Kevin Kelly calls 1000 True Fans. Go read his post about it.
I know that sounds like a lot. So start with 10 fans. You already have 10 fans.
Make your goal to find 25 fans in the next 60 days. And use the formula above to do it.
742 steps? Really?
You are going to need to take 742 tiny actions to get your platform built.
And YES, it is going to take that many small things to move the needle.
And NO, I can’t tell you which one is going to give you the big break.
For me, the big breaks came from:
- Cold calling a guy and getting hired for a job that didn’t exist.
- Taking the train to Chicago to see a friend and have coffee with her and another friend. In that random meeting, I found the designer that could visually communicate the ideas I have. That was ten years ago and I still work with her, because she is amazing.
- Taking the advice of an editor about writing the book that would sell versus the book I thought I wanted to write. He was right, I am proud of the book and we sold 50,000 copies.
- Taking 90 days and just writing about the stuff I really cared about. People noticed. Doors opened.
- Asking a friend to make an introduction to a business partner. They are now my business partner and I get to bring more value to the authors I work with.
There are more emails, meetings, and phone calls that I can count that lead me to those breaks. I always tried to bring passion to those interactions. I labored to thoughtful and honest in my feedback. And as much as possible, I offered to help and elevate the work of others.
So, there you go.
Share your work.
I know you can do it.