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Next Steps: How to ‘Do More’ with Your Writing

Today’s article is written by regular contributor Sarah Baughman.

A friend recently wrote to ask for writing advice.

“I’ve been thinking I might want to try to do more with writing,” she said, “and I truly have no idea of best next steps.” This friend already has a personal blog she uses mainly to keep in touch with friends and family, but she has a flair for essay writing as well. She wants to gain a wider audience, but isn’t quite sure how.

I’m not sure I have an easy answer, but my friend’s question got me thinking. The internet opens up a world of publishing opportunity that, while helpful, feels overwhelming too.

How can you “do more” with your writing?

Decide what “more” means to you.

Determining your ultimate goals for writing is an important first step. Don’t be afraid to dream big, but start with specific, manageable goals. Do you want to build readership on your blog? Get published in magazines? Finish a novel?

Next, consider how much time you can devote to writing. Is your writing time limited to occasional evenings and weekends, or do you have a flexible schedule? Do you hope—or need—to make extra money with your writing, and if so, how many non-paying assignments are you willing to take on in the early stages to build your resume? These are important questions because most of us struggle with having less time than we’d like, and it’s important to hone your focus.

Determine your preferred sub-genre(s).

Every genre has specific niches. Writing nonfiction is a lot more complicated than just writing “what happened.” Do you see yourself as a popular blogger? An online magazine journalist? A memoirist? If you’re a fiction writer, do you specialize in flash fiction or short stories? As a poet, do you write sonnets or free verse?

Many writers see themselves working in more than one category. You might write for a website and blog on the side, or craft personal essays with the hope of publishing a novel one day. Balancing these different pursuits can be tricky, but they’re important to identify and to prioritize.

Don’t force this question too much. It’s of course OK to enjoy different types of writing—I still write poetry sometimes even though it’s not my main genre—but you’ll know instinctively what kind of writing warrants your keenest focus.

Read widely.

The best writers read, but more specifically, the best writers read the kinds of writing they want to do themselves. My friend Shirley Showalter, who wanted to write a memoir, set a personal goal to read 100 memoirs before attempting to write her own. She established a successful blog around the 100 memoir concept and is now under contract to finish her own memoir, due to be published by Herald Press in 2013.

Reading online makes connecting with the right kinds of writing—and publications—relatively easy. Begin with one publication whose writing you enjoy. Google the names of some of the writers. Find their blogs or websites, and check out where they’ve been published and what blogs they’ve linked to. Build a rich but manageable reading list of publications—online, print, or both—that include writers whose voice or topics are similar to yours. Keep reading, and become familiar with their submission guidelines. Eventually, submit your own writing.

An instructor at a writing workshop once advised me to submit writing first to regional and then statewide publications before attempting any kind of national readership. The internet has changed this process somewhat since publications don’t always have a specific geographic tie, but for the most part his advice still holds: start small, then build. If you write literary nonfiction, fiction, or poetry, you should check out the Duotrope database for an extensive listing of publication markets as well—and it goes without saying that reading the journals where you hope to submit your writing is a wise use of time.

Get online, but wisely.

It seems really important these days for writers to have blogs. Without an “online presence” or “platform,” how are you supposed to develop any kind of audience?

For the most part, I agree that it’s good for writers to get themselves online. But I also think you don’t have to do everything it’s possible to do online, and you still have to establish limits. To help with these limits, go back to your original goals, and your time constraints. Nothing’s set in stone–you can change your goals anytime–but bringing clarity to your writing routine will up your productivity.

Know what you can do. I, for example, just can’t be a once-a-week blogger and write the literary nonfiction I enjoy most. I also struggle to keep up with my Twitter feed. I’d like to publish some poems one day, but I just can’t focus on that right now. However, I can update my blog once a month and have plenty of time to work on my essays.  Nina Badzin, who maintains a blog, writes fiction, and publishes personal essays online, wrote last spring about choosing to focus on blogging instead of writing a novel. You really don’t have to do it all. In fact, it’s probably better for you–and your writing–not to try.

If you decide to maintain a blog, however, keep this in mind: writing that you do on your blog is considered “published.” Many publications shy away from publishing writing that has already been published elsewhere. So, while you can publicize work that’s been printed elsewhere by putting a link to it on your blog, it’s risky to post pieces of writing on your blog that you hope to publish elsewhere someday.

Also, if you hope to build a web presence as a writer but still maintain a personal blog, consider the extent to which you want to blend those two pursuits. Jill Smokler, the writer behind the popular Scary Mommy website, began her blog as a virtual baby book for her children, but it quickly grew into a vibrant online parenting community and eventually a book.

Not all blogs make it that big, of course, and it takes a lot to transform a personal family blog into a book. Therefore, think carefully about how to develop your writing identity. Blogs that gain loyal readership usually move beyond the family anecdote into a broader reflection that people can relate to, and successful bloggers generally spend considerable time reading and commenting on other blogs. Decide how much publicity you want on your blog, how much time you have to spend on it, and how your blogging self relates to your writing self.

Editor’s Note: No matter where you are in your writing journey, there are always ‘next steps’ to be taken. My blogging is already going well, and I’ve had some success in publishing short fiction over the past couple of years. My next steps are to focus on improving my craft, which I hope to do through workshops, extensive reading, and plenty of practice. ~Suzannah

How did you take ‘the next step’ with your writing ? What advice do you have for writers who want to move forward, but aren’t sure how?