My very first published article went live in 2008. I was an undergraduate student still trying to decide what I wanted my life to become, and I had just picked up a print journalism minor alongside my English/creative writing major. Entitled “Mining your obsessions,” the piece contains quotes from fantasy and science fiction authors I met at a convention on how to write your passions into stories. While I’m surprised the article actually still exists on the Internet, looking back, I can see that building on this very early career advice is how I began to create my personal brand as a writer, and more recently, as an editor.
“Finding connections between what you’re writing and what you care about can sometimes be a challenge for writers, no matter what format or genre you write in,” my exceptionally clunky, first-ever lead reads. I doubt this is news (pun intended). You’re all writers—some more established than others, but students and teachers of the craft nonetheless. Even though you know it to be true, though, have you managed to get around the problem and master your own personal brand?
If not, I have some tips—along with more links to my early writing, because we can all use a laugh.
One big thing college taught me was that being a fiction writer likely wouldn’t pay my rent (and now mortgage) right away, if at all, so I decided to figure out other ways to earn a living with words. Back then, all I could find to write for were content farms. For a low level of commitment, I was able to knock out short articles for $3–$15 a pop on such enlightening topics as natural rat poison and hooking up an Xbox 360. (In-hindsight career advice: For the love of all that is good and holy, use a pseudonym if you ever go this route. And try Skyword first.)
It wasn’t long before I gave up on this particular money-making venture. Yes, it put a few bucks into my bank account, but it did nothing to further my brand. Instead, I decided to write for free in order to build a portfolio I could be proud of and that would hopefully lead to some paying gigs.
Not getting paid wasn’t all bad. I was still in college and, later, graduate school, so writing articles was simply that cool thing I did after work (as a writing tutor and literary magazine intern, and later, as a proofreader at an educational publishing company). The pieces I published during this time focused on literature, arts, and culture, whether that meant reviewing literary journals or interviewing local artists and authors. This period of writing represented my personal brand’s roots—I wasn’t yet creating thought-leadership material, but I was writing what I knew and working my network and community.
Something happened when I started my first full-time job. I was a copy editor for a fashion retailer, and being on the creative team meant blogging. Regularly. About fashion. If you’ve known me for any length of time, you know that my idea of fashion isn’t exactly Chanel-worthy. I’ve only just started wearing dresses regularly, and I’ve never paid more than $25 for a handbag.
If I could give you one piece of career advice, it would be this: When faced with a challenge, don’t ever back down. When I began to approach this situation as a learning opportunity, I was able to use my background in culture and review writing to tackle the Food and Entertaining column and recap episodes of Project Runway. I even turned my lack of fashion sense into an article when I hired a personal stylist to help me overhaul my wardrobe. By the time I left this job, I’d learned so much and amassed a number of clips I love, including a piece on assembling a cheese plate and a major interview with Project Runway designer Alexander Pope. While not necessarily contributing to my personal-branding goals in a tangible sense, these pieces gave me the practice I needed to embrace my niche.
My writing grew up along with me, and I’ve become more of an editor in my day-to-day life. (I edit every day, whereas I haven’t touched my novel in three years—but that’s a story for another time.) And that’s what my writing has evolved to reflect: My brand now focuses on helping content creators, whether through slaying zombie grammar rules or sharing my editing experiences. This theme also carries through to my social media profiles; my Twitter bio states that helping writers is my favorite part of the job, and my freelance business’s Facebook page and website both promise “full-service creative care.”
What about you? Which types of stories are you happiest to write (or edit), and which make you recoil with dread? Which subject are you enough of an expert in to provide thought leadership? Once you can answer these questions, you’re well on your way to locking down your own personal brand.
The life of a writer, editor, or other content creator is a long and winding road. Don’t expect to nail your brand in your very first—or even tenth—article. If someday you look back and see that your early publications were pointing you in the right direction all along, then you can feel confident that you’ve taken the path of most potential happiness.
And truly, what more can any of us ask for?
To read more stories like this, subscribe to the Content Standard Newsletter.