Updated May 25
If you write for a living—if you make a penny from your writing, or hope to—you have a brand. Maybe you have a logo, maybe you don’t. Either way, you can’t help but have a brand: a “name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature [my italics] that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.”
You have a brand because no one else writes the way you do.
I can’t believe I’m talking about personal branding. The term gives me the willies. I picture a sizzling iron rod, headed my way. I don’t want to be on the same planet with books like U R a Brand! and The Brand Called You. But I can’t argue with the searing power of association. Take a value-neutral image, like a green square. Now, give people good experiences whenever they find themselves near that blessed green square, and watch them gravitate toward it. Or jab people with a stick whenever they look at that blasted green square, and watch them avert their eyes.
Marketing departments spend billions creating associations with green squares. Coke is a green square. Where’s the beef? is a green square. The Nike Swoosh is a green square. The Cornell University red square is a green square.
We are all, alas, green squares. For those of us who write professionally, our work does the marketing for us.
I have worked with a few writers who don’t seem to get this, or to care. They avoid revising. For that matter, they avoid writing. They say, “It’s close enough” or “People will know what I mean” or “Customers will figure it out.” And I have to believe that those unlucky customers do figure it out—they figure out that they’ve been left to figure it out. Who hasn’t been that customer, struggling to make sense of slapped-together assembly instructions, or unhelpful “help” topics? Who hasn’t felt jabbed with the stick of careless writing? Who hasn’t caught a glimpse of lackluster four-cornered greenness behind such writing and pledged (if only it were possible) to avoid further encounters?
How much better for a writer to ask, “Will customers figure this out?”—and then do what it takes to make sure the answer is Yes. Let that be your brand. Or choose something else. Whatever fires you up, take a stand for it. Find the things that make your writing your writing. Explore ways to articulate your brand to yourself—to create your own green square—and then share that brand with the world through what you say and do.
You’ll know that you’ve built a brand (or maybe multiple brands) when people say about you, “Oh yes, I know James. He’s the guy who _____.” Unless your name is Susan.
Consider the following ideas:
Write a mission statement.
The mission statement that I developed years ago, distilled from many paragraphs over the course of several days, applies broadly to not just my writing career but to all aspects of my life: Grow continually and help others do the same. You might want your statement to focus on commerce, maybe zeroing in on one market (like healthcare writing) or a specialized skill (like XML authoring or humor). The form of mission statement you choose matters less than the thought you put into it.
The payoff comes when you face a big decision or set a major goal; your mission statement keeps you headed where you want to go. As a bonus, if you share your mission statement with others, they’ll think of you when they hear about opportunities you’d want to know about—like a hospital down the road that’s looking for an XML-authoring humorist.
Sum up your writing strengths and interests in one phrase.
Make sure that your phrase conveys a benefit to hiring organizations and differentiates you from others who apply for the same kind of jobs. I sometimes use the phrase “Detail-oriented technical writer.” Put your phrase at the top of your résumé, business card, LinkedIn page, e-mail signature, or other professional profiles.
Prepare an elevator speech.
When you find yourself in an elevator with your next company’s CEO, who turns to you and asks, “What do you do?,” you want to deliver a killer answer before you get to her floor. My elevator speech used to be, “You know your VCR manual, the one that makes you feel so stupid that you’ve given up on recording movies? I write the other kind of manual.” Of course, no one knows what a VCR is these days. Guess I need to follow my next piece of advice…
Keep your elevator speech up to date.
Hmm. How about this: “You know those boring books on writing that your English teachers subjected you to? I write the other kind.”
You might not see yourself as a “joiner.” All the more reason to join something. A brand does you no good if no one knows about it. Join a writer’s group, or a local chapter of a business association, or some other bunch of people who share your interests. (If you can think of it, someone has started a Meetup for it somewhere near you.) Volunteer for a role that uses your writing skills—and that lets people see what you can do.
Got an elevator speech that won’t quit? Turn it into a real speech, and present it at a meeting. Take great notes? Sign up for secretary. Did you solve a problem on the job recently? Turn your solution into a newsletter article. Born to persuade? Offer to run a membership drive or create killer promotional materials.
My involvement in groups like this has helped me find writing jobs—and fill them. I’ve made friends, seen fascinating demos, gained skills, and discovered excellent places to eat. Bust out of your comfort zone, and volunteer. See how it pays.
Blog about something important to you.
If you don’t want to start a blog, find a blogger you like, and ask about contributing a guest post. Bloggers want well-written content that appeals to their readers, and some of them appreciate breaks from having to produce it all alone.
Make a hash(tag) of your tweets.
A hashtag—a # symbol plus a text string, like #ThisIsAHashtag—is a powerful symbol for getting your words seen. Even if you’ve never sent a tweet (a brief message on Twitter) in your life and think you never will, you ought to know what hashtags can do. If you tweet without hashtags, you limit your visibility. Add a hashtag to any tweet, and you instantly reach many more people.
Here’s an example similar to a tweet I posted about this very essay that you’re reading:
What #Brand R U as a #writer? [URL] #branding #writing #bloggers #xml #writetip #amwriting #writers
People who were following any of these hashtags at the time could have seen this tweet even if they didn’t follow me. One follower of the #xml hashtag picked up my essay and posted a link to it in his newsletter “The #XML Daily.” I was thrilled to see that my item had been selected. Then I noticed the item below it. I can’t say for sure, but it looked like Japanese. Clearly, the curation of this daily involved less discernment than I had allowed myself to suppose.
You can use hashtags (with or without capitals) with Twitter, Google+, and probably other social media channels that I know nothing about. Hashtags come and go. No one controls them; people use them by unspoken agreement because they work. They give people a way to slip off into side rooms, away from the bustling party.
To find out which hashtags to use, observe. Search. Make up your own. Creative tweeter Aaron Gray says, “My fave use of hashtags is as metacommentary on the post itself. Yesterday, I used the tag #peopleplease, and giggled.” Even if you make up a hashtag that few people will see, those who see it will #TakeNoteAndSmile.
Caution: Don’t spam the universe with hashtag-heavy messages, though. As Gray warns, “One person’s humorous metacommentary is another person’s hashtag pollution.” Consider these delightful messages, which turned up when I searched to see what people were doing with the hashtag #HASHTAG.
#Not #Everything #Needs #A #HashTag. #Remember #That.
You don’t have to add #HashTags to Every tweet you Tweet C’Mon Grow Up it looks tacky.
In general, use social media wisely—not as a megaphone, but as a tool for conversation and engagement and listening—if you want it to help you build your brand. According to Gary Vaynerchuk, “the first wine guru of the YouTube era,” if you’re out to build a brand, you need to get social-savvy. “Right now,” Vaynerchuk wrote in 2011, “social media is a bit like a kidney”; businesses can survive without it. Eventually, though, social media will be more like “a strong heart.”
Start a “Funniest Typos” bulletin board at work.
Go low-tech too. Analog. I’m talking corkboard. Tack up pieces of paper (small, recycled pieces) that sport amusing typos or grammar errors, like “Support Our Scolarship Fund.” Raise awareness and spirits at the same time. Colleagues’ examples not allowed. Rating system optional.
Start a radio show or podcast series, or get on someone else’s.
For inspiration, tune in to Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett on A Way with Words, “public radio’s lively language show,” or Kristina Halvorson’s series of podcast interviews, Content Talks.
Write a book.
Anyone can self-publish now. Figure out how much time you’ll need to pull your book together, double that estimate, and add a year.
Venture into merchandising.
Selling stuff isn’t for everyone, but some writers do it to build a brand and have fun along the way. Martha Brockenbrough, establisher of National Grammar Day (March 4 as of 2008) and founder of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar (SPOGG), peddles proofreader-pleasing mugs and tee shirts at “Shop SPOGG.”
Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty also has an online shop, where she sells tees, holidays cards, bags, and mouse pads that sport her ponytailed persona and lines like “I’ve got a preposition for you,” “Squiggly’s head is about to literally explode,” “To infinitives and beyond,” and “Talk grammar to me, baby.”
Invent a drink.
Brockenbrough calls hers The Grammartini.
Be green and square.
You’re stuck with being a green square, so be green. Be square. Be proud.
Anyone for an XMLonball Splash?
 American Marketing Association Dictionary, under brand., http://www.marketingpower.com/_layouts/Dictionary.aspx?dLetter=B.
 The #XML Daily, http://paper.li/aramanc/1329738333.
 Gary Vaynerchuk, The Thank You Economy (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), 50.
 A Way with Words, http://www.waywordradio.org.
 Content Talks, http://5by5.tv/contenttalks.
 Shop SPOGG, http://www.cafepress.com/spogg. (Don’t miss this SPOGG logo created with latte foam by my favorite barista: A Mug Shot We Love, http://grammatically.blogspot.com/2012/03/mug-shot-we-love.html.)
 For the Grammartini recipe and all kinds of other grammar-related goodies, see National Grammar Day, http://nationalgrammarday.com.