Break out of your box
Published: February 22, 2005
|When you're starting out as a writer, you may dream of getting published, or of making enough to live on to quit your day job. Then when you do it, you set a new goal for yourself--to make a six-figure living, maybe, or write your first nonfiction book, or publish an essay in one of your favorite markets. But, at some point, you may realize that you've met your initial goals, probably even exceeded your expectations. So, what's next? How do you sustain your writing career for the rest of your life without getting burned out? |
Even if you don't write full time, you may discover that writing for a lifetime means discovering that there's no finish line. You never hit the mark, and think, "That's it--the end of the road." You re-create yourself and your career along the way.
That may mean writing in a new genre, covering different topics, teaching or switching forms--say, writing books instead of magazine articles. Full-time Chicago freelancer Margaret Littman had been writing for magazines and newspapers for years. She hadn't aspired to be a book author, but when she heard about a book that would be perfect for her, she took the plunge.
"To be honest, I was kind of scared of doing a book," says Littman of her book, The Dog Lover's Companion to Chicago. "But it was a fit for me and I thought it would be a good starter book because it was a lot of little articles ... and I thought it would let me find out if I like books." The biggest challenge was overcoming her fear that she wouldn't be able to produce a book-length manuscript, but Littman loved the challenge of working on a bigger project and is now at work on her second.
To stay fresh, Littman also makes an effort to vary the types of writing assignments she works on. "Honestly, I don't know anyone in the world who can do the exact same thing every day for 10 years, and if there are people like that, don't introduce me!" Littman says. "What I do every day is not exactly the same. Even though it's still journalism, writing a one-day story on deadline for a newspaper is completely different from writing a book or magazine feature. Not just the pace, but everything about it is different."
Simply taking the time to determine your writing priorities can breathe new life into your writing career. Leah Ingram of Pennsylvania has been freelancing full time for years but recently decided she needed a new approach. "For the longest time I've felt like I've been machine-gunning it. I knew what I liked to write about, I knew where to look for story ideas, but I felt like everything was 'cart before the horse,' " says Ingram, who writes books and articles. "I didn't feel like there was a focus on what I was doing, and there was no way to measure my investment on my time or on anything."
Ingram took several weeks to write a business plan that included writing a personal mission statement. That forced her to consider her experience and expertise, and hone in on where she wants to go long term. It has changed the way she approaches her business. Instead of scattering different ideas to a variety of markets, she's positioning herself as a wedding, gift-giving and celebrations expert. "It's almost like I'm back to square one but with a very different focus," she says. "The whole idea is that everything has got to feed into everything else."
Deciding what's next
It's natural to become a bit disenchanted when you've achieved your original goals. "I think it's true for all businesses. For us solo people, there's something in that. You have to ask, 'What would get me excited again?' " says freelancer Bev Bachel of Minneapolis. "I've been writing since I graduated from college, and more and more I think that one of the great things about writing is that I can do it forever, but that's also one of the bad things about it." Bachel's solution was to begin pursuing projects she was interested in personally, in addition to continuing her work for corporate clients. While writing her first book on goal setting for teens, What Do You Really Want? How to Set a Goal and Go for It, she discovered that she enjoyed writing about goal setting. Now she's working on a series of "Idea Girl Guides" designed to help women achieve their goals.
If you've reached the point in your career when writing is starting to feel like a drag, it may be time to set some long-term goals. Even if you're newer to writing, it never hurts to have some kind of plan for the future. Consider, for example, what parts of writing you find most--and least--satisfying. Imagine your perfect "dream life" as a writer. What kinds of projects would you be working on? How does that differ from how you're spending your time today?
Think back to when you first started writing. What were your goals then? Have you achieved them all? Did some goals fall by the wayside? What are your goals now? Are they meaningful to you?
If you've been freelancing for more than a few months, you're likely to discover that your goals have changed somewhat. Maybe your original goal was to get your work in print--and now your goal is to make enough money to write full time. Maybe you're itching to change gears from writing nonfiction articles to short stories--or vice-versa. Or maybe, like Ingram, you realize it's time to reformulate your career plan.
For example, recently I realized I was getting a bit stale churning out service articles. I wanted to spend more time pursuing more personally satisfying work, like essays and fiction. I knew that would help me improve my writing skills but wouldn't pay off financially in the short run. I've adjusted my goals to reflect that. It may mean that in the short term I'll make less money, but it's likely to improve overall satisfaction with my writing career. After all, if you want to write for the rest of your life, it's not enough to simply make money from your work. You should enjoy what you do, at least most of the time, as well.
Contributing editor Kelly James-Enger is the author of Ready, Aim, Specialize! Create Your Own Writing Specialty and Make More Money (The Writer Books). She can be reached at email@example.com.
--Posted Feb. 22, 2005