Digital and other non-writing skills helpful to the modern writer

Writers need more than strong stories to succeed. They also need to utilize organizational, production, and promotional tools to gain an audience.

Non-writing skills
Writers have to have digital and other non-writing skills to be successful. Photo by by 24Novembers/Shutterstock

We don’t need much to start a story. At the minimum, a blank surface and a writing instrument. 

Now, we have more options to bring stories to life, but it’s certainly not the first time writers encountered the new and shiny. We once leapt from handwriting to using a manual – then electric – typewriter. Looking back, that doesn’t seem as drastic a change when you consider the speed at which the ways we create and consume content have evolved in just a decade. 

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Many writers of all ages readily embrace the latest tools and technology. Others are hesitant to enter the digital landscape, whether they fear learning a new skill or are simply comfortable with their routine. But because so much opportunity lies in these advances, writers seeking publication and profit must to be open to technology – not just for letting words pour onto the page but also for organization, production, and promotion.

Software and the cloud

Years ago, I’d often see freelancing friends struggle with sending an editor a proper, openable file, usually because they didn’t have access to Microsoft Word or a program that could save a file in the requested format, such as with a “.doc” extension. 

While I understand some software could be cost-prohibitive, it’s our tool of the trade, and not investing in the right programs could cause frustration – and delays – on both ends if documents were inaccessible, garbled, or had formatting lost in translation. This refusal to use the standard programs bewildered me; you would not typically see a professional graphic designer using a free tool, such as Microsoft Paint. You would not see most fine artists producing masterpieces without buying the proper brushes, canvasses, and paints needed for their desired result. Of course, creating text is not as complex, physically, as digital graphic design or tangible art, but it’s a decent analogy. Solid craft needs the right tools – not shortcuts. 

Thankfully, today file/version compatibility is not as much of an issue – PC users and Apple folks can finally collaborate seamlessly, especially with the advent of free tools like Google Drive (which offers documents, sheets, slides – nearly everything you’ll find in Microsoft Office). But these online programs present benefits beyond cost savings. 

Cory Brin, a San Diego-based screenwriter who by day works in quality assurance at GoFundMe, says that technology can “keep you from going insane.” He runs through some hypothetical scenarios: pouring hundreds of hours into a project, just to drop the USB drive that holds the file in water. Getting your computer stolen. Having a file corrupted. Brin says he experienced the latter eight years ago while working on a short story he’d hoped to submit to a contest. 

“I had just finished it, and the next time I opened it, the file it had been corrupted. A week’s worth of work – gone,” he says. 

He never returned to that story and says this wouldn’t have happened had his work been in the cloud – where “autosave” saves many. 

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“I don’t understand the magic, but it works. I can open an existing file in my Drive at work, write an idea down…and then go home for the day and open it up on my personal computer, and the change is there. No emailing files, no USB sticks, no floppy discs, just freedom to write,” he says, adding that cloud-based programs are perfect for moments of unexpected downtime, such as an airport delay – you just need an internet connection to get back to your draft.

Applications like Drive are perfect for collaborative projects – no longer must you email documents back and forth or compare multiple documents from multiple team members; it can instead all be done in one place. 

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Cloud-based software increases efficiency, accessibility, and even reliability. Consider making the switch – or at least getting familiar with the programs, as editors or clients may prefer to work with you in this environment. 

Websites & user experience

With ready-made templates and drag-and-drop builders, it’s easier than ever to create a website. In the November 2016 issue of The Writer, we talked extensively about the benefits of having a user-friendly, up-to-date author website. The main reason, though, is that it can serve as an online hub, a place to be found, a place to point to other entities, like a bookstore, social accounts, or news articles. 

It’s a good idea for writers to become familiar with platforms such as WordPress (WP), where knowledge of basic HTML is helpful but not mandatory. Proficiency with WP also holds value for those looking for freelance content work or a full-time job with an online outlet. Also beneficial is knowing how web hosting and domain renewal work (because it’s more professional and flexible to host your own site versus using a free platform that gives you a URL, such as MY-NAME.wordpress.com). 

Finally, it’s important to understand how people react when they encounter your website. User experience, often referred to as UX, takes into account things like navigation, readability, presentation of visual/interactive elements, accessibility, and organization. Simply put: Visitors should not be frustrated trying to find information on your website. 

Search engine optimization (SEO)

Mandy Pennington, a director at an internet marketing firm, explains “the vast majority of people on this planet start off their internet journey with a search.” 

Keep in mind that many people do not know you exist, so they won’t be searching for your name or book title – instead, they may be looking for work like yours. This is where SEO comes in. When people Google (or Bing) what you do, would you appear? How can you be discovered as someone who has what a potential reader is looking for? Pennington says that if you do a good job with your web content, you’re on the right track.  

“Talk about the themes [in your work] naturally, in a contextual way,” she explains, adding that working in terms people may search for is important, similar to book meta data. “It’s all about keywords. Provide valuable content and context.”

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She adds that one of the greatest benefits of SEO strategy is that “it opens a world of possibilities for what you can market.” This means you should know what your readers are searching for, and then build content around that – for example, write blog posts answering questions you know readers of your genre may have. 

Pennington explains how web and SEO knowledge go hand-in-hand: “[Writers] benefit from the basic understanding of what makes a website good and how people use the internet to find things.”

Social media marketing

Danielle Poupore, a fiction writer who by day works in higher education marketing, reminds us that writers have always sought ways to connect with readers, such as at bookstores and other appearances, even through fan mail. “The audience has just moved,” she says. 

Social media is where you’ll likely find a large chunk of your audience – you probably already know that. But establishing a presence and steady following takes time and hard work. Find the platforms that best fit your core audience, and focus on advancing your skills on those. (Example: Are you a cookbook author? You’ll find foodies on Instagram.) 

Poupore cautions against waiting too long to dive into social media. She says that if someone lands a book deal and asks when they should begin building a digital presence, she’d say, “A year ago.” She adds that if someone is writing now, or planning to in the future, they should establish their social accounts. 

Also, Pennington and Poupore agree that marketing and communications principles have not changed but tools, mediums, and reader expectations have. 

“The key to being successful in marketing today is to remember that it’s not about you. Think about what value you can provide someone – before you ask them for something,” Poupore says. 

Also crucial to marketing today is social proof: People want to see endorsements from friends and family members, they want to see what they’re sharing on social. Get them talking about you!

Facebook pages

To boost your professional digital presence, you must open a Facebook business Page, which is absolutely different than a personal Profile. The short of it is this: People “friend” a Profile and “like” a Page. Accepting friend requests is a manual process, whereas “liking” Pages is passive – no extra work required here, no “Should I let this specific individual into my personal space?” You could also think of it like this: A Page is inclusive while a profile, since we hand-approve friends, is exclusive. 

More importantly, Profiles simply aren’t designed to support a business, whether an individual writer, small business, or big brand. Pennington points out that Pages allow you to create calls to action (like an email sign-up), add an event or store tab, and access analytics and advertising tools. Pages also do not have follow limits.

One argument against Pages is the notion of pay-to-play. It’s a misconception that posts only show up if they’re promoted. Rather, Facebook rewards well-maintained accounts that share useful and relevant information and that engage an audience. It makes sense: Facebook wants its users to enjoy the content they see. 

I’ll be frank: Many of the people I see complain about this have pages with little-to-no recent activity, no original content, and no regular interaction with their followers. Some accounts look pretty much automated. It is NOT just about posting. If you engage with your fans, your Page can perform better organically, I promise. 

This is not to say promoted posts and Facebook ad campaigns aren’t valuable. Pennington highly suggests allotting even a small budget, like $20 a month, to help Pages get traction, especially until a following is built. Poupore agrees. “People put time, money, and resources into what they value,” she says. 

She has a stronger, more urgent reason for separating personal from professional matters, though: safety.

“[A business page] puts up a little bit of a wall,” Poupore says, reminding us that we often share photos of our friends, family members, children, pets. “You can protect the people in your personal life, too.” 

And if these reasons aren’t persuasive enough to make the switch or learn more about Pages, know that promoting a business/product via a personal profile violates Facebook’s terms of service.