As a writer, I’ve made a lot of mistakes. After five books, more than a thousand blog posts, and over a decade of blogging, I still mess up. And making mistakes is a good thing, because it means I’m still writing.
If you’re not messing up, then you’re not doing your work. You’re not pushing yourself to the utter limits and testing what you’re capable of. You’re just playing it safe.
Furthermore, most mistakes don’t matter as much as we think they do. A typo here or there doesn’t break a career. A blog post that falls flat isn’t the end. Even a book that doesn’t sell is more of a speed bump than a stop sign.
But there are four mistakes I see new writers making over and over again, and these mistakes actually can end a career. What’s worse, they’re completely voluntary. Writers choose to make them, often unknowingly, and then their career suffers.
So here are four don’ts every new writer does — and what to do instead.
1: Don’t choose a niche
Writers are often told to choose a niche before they start. The advice is to pick a thing you’re interested in, know a lot about, and can teach to others. This isn’t terrible advice. But it’s incomplete.
Because here’s the thing about choosing a niche: eventually, it’s going to bore you. You might love wedding planning or philosophy today, but your interests will change as you further chase mastery.
And one day, you will want to write about other things.
This happens to all of us, even the masters:
- Edgar Allen Poe wrote first about youth before pivoting to the macabre.
- Roald Dahl wrote a celebrated wartime story before deciding he was actually a children’s author.
- Ernest Hemingway wrote poems and short stories before penning his first novel.
What would our libraries and English classes look like if these writers had stuck to their original niches?
The danger of choosing any one niche is that when your day of boredom comes (and it will), you will find yourself with a frustrated audience. If they’re there to read your posts on pet training, they will drift away when you start writing science fiction. If you’ve built a tribe around the topic of global travel, you risk a mass exodus when you pivot to online marketing.
Fortunately, there’s a way around this limiting advice to choose a niche.
What to do instead: Choose a worldview.
A worldview is the state of mind you write from. It is not topic-based at all, but perspective-based. It asks that you share how you see the world, and how you and your readers can join forces to either celebrate that world or change it.
A worldview allows you the freedom to chase what fascinates you, write about it from your unique vantage point, and connect with your readers in an enduring way. It allows you to find a connection with your audience that goes much deeper than any one topic.
In the last few years on this blog, I’ve written a lot about writing. But that’s not my only topic. I’ve also written about losing friends, hosting conferences, and productivity. I’ve written about my family, business, and health. What I’ve learned is that when I write from my worldview, the topic doesn’t matter as much as I think it does. The same is true for you.
So how do you find your worldview? It’s a simple formula, actually. Fill in the blanks in this sentence:
Every [BLANK] should [BLANK].
The first blank is where you define your audience (in my case, it’s creative people). Whom do you want to write for? Who is your audience, your tribe? Whom do you want to serve?
The second blank is where you fill in what that audience can expect from you – your expertise, insight, or area of focus. For me, it’s resources and guidance about finding the attention your work deserves.
In my case, the complete sentence reads, “Every creative should care enough about their work to help it spread.” Yours will be different. Here are some examples:
- “Every parent should teach their kids to cook” is a worldview that gives both freedom and structure to a food writer.
- “Every entrepreneur should build a personal brand” is a worldview my friend Chris Ducker has used to write books, host conferences, and build a tribe of over a million people.
Whatever it is, your worldview should be broad enough to include all the topics you want to write about, but focused enough to attract only the right readers.
Action step: Fill in the above statement to define your worldview.
2: Don’t hide your talent
Recently, my friend Jon Acuff tweeted,
“Authors, if someone says you talk about your book too much, ask them if they show up for their job Monday-Friday too.”
I love that.
As writers, we must acknowledge our job description. We are not so lucky as to just write masterpieces and then wash our hands of them. In fact, that’s never been the case for creatives throughout history. We sometimes think those who came before us had it easier than we do. They didn’t.
It is part of your job to promote and share your work so that others can find it. Because more than a million books are published worldwide every year, yours will get lost if you don’t do the work of being an author. I’m not talking about the writing. That’s a given. I’m talking about regularly sharing your work. Too few writers do this, and too many suffer as a result.
What to do instead: Establish your platform.
Establishing your platform is new writer code for “build an email list.” You can do this for free starting today, and I hope you will. Email is still the most powerful way to communicate online. I get more “mileage” out of my newsletter than any other platform I have — including my blog. If I send a link, people click it. If I ask a question, people answer.
Your email list is your dedicated group of readers and followers who will be more engaged with your worldview than any other group. They are the ones you’ll turn to when you have questions, want to connect, and are ready to start offering your work for sale.
It is part of your job to promote and share your work so that others can find it.
That’s exactly what happened for my friend Stephanie Halligan, whose email list was still very small and new when she pitched her first motivational cartoon print for sale a few years ago. She didn’t expect anything, but she was wrong. Stephanie made her first sale in just 24 hours, and she’s been making a living with her creativity ever since.
You can do this, too.
To start building an email list, you need only three things:
- A good email service. There are free and paid options available for people at every budget level. A great one that a lot of my friends are using lately is ConvertKit.
- An awesome signup form. You’ll find walk-through tutorials right in your email service to help with this. Your signup form needs to be obvious and not hideously ugly. If your website doesn’t have a clear opt-in form, I promise that you’re missing out on a lot of potential new readers.
- An incentive. You need to give people a compelling reason to give you their email address. This can be an eBook, a video, or a free MP3 download —whatever will help your readers. It’s an “ethical bribe” that allows you to reward subscribers with something other than just your content.
Action step: Pick an email service provider, create a signup form, and develop an incentive.
3: Don’t wait for people to come to you
Once you’ve defined your worldview and started an email list, you’re only partway there. Many writers think they’ve arrived by this stage, then wonder why their work isn’t getting the attention they think it should. They send out sporadic emails to a list of family and friends, and never bother to learn about the broader opportunities available to them.
This third step involves real, hard work, and it doesn’t always feel creative the way we think our lives as writers should. Sometimes, we’d rather settle for whatever humble success we have than risk it all for the chance to help more people.
What to do instead: Expand your reach.
Expanding your reach starts with finding a tribe that needs a leader. Perhaps your audience of food writers needs someone to write honestly about cooking for seniors. Maybe the readers of your thriller series want to read more about your creative process.
You’ll find the first members of your tribe by following step 2 above, but the truth is that’s much too passive to be sustainable. You cannot just “build it and they will come.” You have to build it and then go find the tribe that needs it.
There are a variety of ways to do this. The good news is that tribes tend to hang out together, both in person and online. When you find a few, it’ll get easier to find more.
Action step: Start guest posting.
Guest posting is still the most powerful way to get your words in front of new audiences. And if you have an email list with some kind of lead magnet (an incentive for joining your list), you can link back to that, driving traffic to your website and converting those visitors into committed readers.
4: Don’t call yourself an aspiring writer
So you’ve found your worldview. You’ve established your home base and outposts to share your message and draw people in. You’ve learned how to choose and use tools to expand your reach, and you’ve served your way into guest posting opportunities and relationships with influencers. If you’re like many authors, you’re about to make the most critical mistake of all. You’re about to assume you’re done.
Honestly, it never ends, this cycle of serving, building relationships, and growing as a writer. And that’s a good thing. It means you’ve earned the right to do this work for one more day. That’s all success really is.
It's easy to settle for good enough.
Author Steven Pressfield says you have to turn pro in your mind first. At Tribe Conference this year, his editor, Shawn Coyne, went on to explain that being a professional writer has nothing to do with external markers of success, but everything to do with how you define yourself. If you’re committed to mastering this craft and doing the work every day, you’re a pro. If you get up to write again after a day of rejection and failure, you’re a pro. And that’s all there is to it.
My friend Tim Grahl was up on stage with Shawn at the time. A successful marketer and author in his own right, even Tim struggled with this at first. Are we really pros if we have nothing to show for it? he countered. What does it matter if I say I’m a pro but can’t write a story that works?
Shawn was adamant in enforcing a point that even I have written about extensively: action follows identity. You’ll never be more than an amateur if that’s all you ever call yourself.
What to do instead: Go pro.
All writers have an endgame in mind. At least, they do if they’re smart. You want to publish a message that matters. And you can do that only if you’re committed to the work.
Decide you are more than a hobbyist. Commit to calling yourself a professional writer, then take the necessary steps to prove you are one. Seek out the resources you need to master your craft and promote your work. If you stop now, all your work will be wasted.
Action step: Decide you are a pro. Do it right now. Write it down, and say it out loud. You are when you say you are.
Educate yourself about finding your tribe, building a platform, and mastering your craft. I may be biased, but I think this site is a pretty good (and free!) resource for all that information.
Make friends with the business side of creativity. Money is a part of life. And there’s nothing wrong with getting paid for your words. In fact, building a business around your writing is the only sustainable way to keep doing it. When your art solves a problem in the world, you bring value. You can offer a course or an event. A book or an experience. Something people will pay for. And when you do this, you have peace of mind and the freedom to be even more generous.
So get creating.
If you’ve made any of these mistakes, it’s not too late to course correct. You can get the attention your work deserves if you immerse yourself in the action steps throughout this post.
Have you made any of these four mistakes? Share in the comments.