Let me tell you a story.
Eight years ago (has it been almost a decade already?) I graduated from college with a degree in creative writing — a degree most people in my life thought was a fast-track to a barista job at Starbucks.
I loved to write. And I was determined to find a way to turn writing into a viable career.
My last class of senior year, my teacher (a published and “successful” author himself) said, “The publishing industry is dead.”
This had become our mantra all throughout college: nobody makes a living as a writer.
My peers hung their heads, defeated.
I had grown up on the Internet.
At 17 years old, I was one of the highest ranked World of Warcraft players in North America. I had one of the first e-famous gaming blogs, with around 10,000 readers per day. I had always believed the Internet to be the gateway to turning dreams into realities. This ended up being the subject of my first book, Confessions of a Teenage Gamer.
“What about self-publishing?” I asked. “What about social media?”
My peers threw their arms into the air and started a great debate. They, they with their chapeaus and tweet jackets and naked cigarettes in their front pockets, they saw the Internet as a threat to their beloved H.P. Lovecraft.
In my Adidas sweatpants and Nike t-shirt, I saw the Internet as my only hope.
“The Internet is going to change everything,” my teacher said. “The writers that can adjust will be the ones who succeed.”
The class went quiet — and I leaned in close to listen.
Over the past 4 1/2 years, I have devoted myself to solving this mystery.
How does someone in this day and age take what they love and turn it into a full-time career?
How does someone become a full-time painter?
But more importantly, how do they do what they love on their own terms?
Before I had even graduated college, I began an internship at a digital marketing agency downtown Chicago. There, I was mentored by the Creative Director, Ron Gibori. And while I bounced from role to role, learning how to manage client social media pages, run email campaigns, design newsletters and billboard ads, and even ghostwrite for a handful of different clients, I was pocketing all my lessons learned and applying them at night to my grand question:
How do I become a professional writer?
I’m going to skip to the end here and give you the answer.
You have to build a personal brand.
Each year, I would learn a variety of lessons, and each year I would put them into practice on my own.
When I started managing client social media pages, I stopped treating my own social media as a place to post funny memes and random status updates.
- I made myself a content calendar.
- I wrote out pages and pages of “mission statements.”
- I researched other influencers in the space and made a list of my “competitors.”
- I started treating myself like a client. A brand.
When I started doing content writing for clients, I took to a website called Quora and started authoring my own content on a daily basis.
I wrote an Answer per day for over a year straight.
I started having Answers republished in major publications like Inc, TIME, Forbes, Fortune, Business Insider, etc.
After 3 months, I had my first viral hit: an Answer with over 1M views in a matter of days.
When I started running paid advertising campaigns and working on lead generation for clients, I implemented the same things I was learning during the day to my efforts at night.
I spent hundreds of hours reading about email captures and automated sales funnels.
I followed the recipe, launched my own website, created free downloads for email captures and wrote a series of eBooks — my first real step into the Internet world as a “digital author.”
These were all very tactical steps along the way.
The real leap came when Inc Magazine gave me my own column.
I had already been writing on Quora daily for two years straight. The moment they let me in the door, I didn’t kick back and say, “I’ve made it.”
I pushed the pedal to the floor — and my first year writing for them, I wrote over 300 columns and accumulated over 1,000,000 page views on my content alone.
Companies started reaching out: We loved your article on social media branding and positioning. Do you do consulting?
CEOs started sending me emails: I love your writing style. Would you be willing to help me write content for myself?
And it wasn’t just from Inc. These were people coming from Quora. And guest blogs I’d written for other websites. And then podcasts, as I started to get invited to speak about my knowledge of writing on the Internet.
All of a sudden, it hit me.
Becoming a professional writer (a professional anything) wasn’t about content calendars or paid advertising, eBooks or getting millions of views.
Those were just tactics that played their part in a much bigger strategy.
The real difference between people who turn what they love into a career, even a legacy, and those who don’t, is a personal brand.
This is what so many dreamers don’t understand.
As a dreamer myself, I’d like to take a moment to plant your feet into the earth and give you a wake-up call.
If you want people to read your work, you have to put yourself out there.
If you want people to pay attention to the things you say and share with the world, you have to do things worth paying attention to.
If you want people to buy your stuff, your stuff has to be good — and it has to be validated by a lot of other people.
If you want to become a successful, independent creative person in this day and age, you have to also become an entrepreneur.
- You want to keep the rights to your work? Don’t take a pathetic advance to a publishing house that isn’t going to help you do any of the heavy lifting (if you even get that far).
- You want to build an audience for yourself? Put something new on the Internet every single day. (I publish an article somewhere every day.)
- You want to monetize your work? Give away 99% of it for free.
- You want to open new doors of opportunity? Get to know as many people as possible in your industry (FB groups, Skype coffee sessions, Slack channels, go find the people worth knowing).
- You want to have your website rank on the first page of Google? Write hundreds of guest blogs for sites all over the Internet. Reach out and offer to write something of value for free.
- You want to have credibility? Get your social stats up (Quora and Medium are great). Get your work placed in major publications. Appear on notable podcasts. Collaborate with other well-known influencers. And climb up the ladder, just like everybody else.
- You want to prove you can write? Reach out to people who can provide you massive opportunities and offer to show them your skills for free. (I still do this.)
- You want to stop writing articles for $20 a pop? Then spend a few weeks building a website that doesn’t look like a 2011 Wordpress template, find a photographer friend and update your image, and don’t put your name on anything that makes you look like you’re worth $20 articles.
- You want the right people to know who you are and what you do? Reach out to podcasts that speak to your target audience and tell them why they should have you as a guest — what value can you provide them?
- You want to do what you love, on your own terms, for the rest of your life?
Then be prepared to learn every aspect of the business: branding, positioning, marketing, distribution, design, partnerships, and more.
But at the end of the day, building a personal brand is about doing 2 very opposite things, simultaneously.
I’ve done both in this article.
PROVIDE SOME SORT OF VALUE TO THE READER x SHARE YOUR PERSONAL STORY
I started this article by telling you what I majored in college. I admitted to being a hardcore World of Warcraft gamer in high school. I gave you a glimpse into my fear as a senior in college, uncertain as to how I would make it in this big world of ours. And I let you know what was driving my decisions.
Those are personal details — and all too often, they get sacrificed by those who think building a brand is about wearing a suit and tie and being “professional.”
At the same time, I gave you tactical answers. I told you the things I started implementing on my own that began to move the needle. I told you how I started to think about myself and my work differently — and what I decided to change. I told you what I would do if I was in your shoes, now.
That’s value. And to you, the reader-and-aspiring-writer looking for guidance as to where to start, this probably resonates on some level.
A personal brand is not about press.
It’s not about one big feature in a major magazine or digital publication.
It’s not about going viral.
It’s not about any of the things brands and businesses and those aspiring get distracted by.
Anyone who has been in the trenches and climbed their way to the top knows those things are icing on the cake — but they’re not what builds a sound foundation.
Google my name.
What you’ll find is years of investing.
- Investing hours and hours in thousands of pieces of content.
- Investing in design and photography.
- Investing in copywriting and landing pages and email courses and eBooks.
- Investing in guest blogs and podcasts and YouTube shows.
- Investing in holding my own workshops.
- Investing in myself.
But building a personal brand, and doing it the right way (the hard way) eventually pays off.
Some of my content pays me directly.
Some bring me consulting clients.
Some opens new doors of opportunity — more podcasts, more speaking gigs, more guest features.
My personal brand is how I was able to build a successful company in less than a year after leaving my 9–5, called Digital Press.
But most of all, building a personal brand is how I have been able to take this thing I love called writing and make it my life.
And you can too.