Earning a living from writing is challenging. You will earn more if you challenge yourself instead of waiting for the challenges to come to you. Many good writers don’t succeed commercially because they don’t have a game plan and they wait for luck to send a break their way. You’ll have better luck if you stack the odds in your favor by following a personal development strategy for your writing business. Here are seven strategies you can use to increase your writing range and boost your income potential in the process.
1. Develop a Writing Business Plan
If you just want to write for fun without making money, that’s fine; but if you want to earn a living writing, you should treat your writing as a business. This means you should develop a business plan for your writing.
Some of the most important items your plan should cover include:
How much income do I need to generate from my writing to meet my overall financial goals?
What type of writing can I do to generate that level of income? A few examples of writing specialties: business writing, copywriting, grant writing, medical writing, and technical writing. There are dozens more that could be listed.
What kind of writing job do I need to reach my target income level? Will I be a regular employee or a freelancer? If I’m going to be a freelancer, how many clients and projects will I need per year and per month, and what will I need to charge?
How many hours a week do I need to write to meet my income goals? What will my daily schedule be?
Job hunting plan (if seeking an employer) or promotional plan (if seeking freelance clients)
If I’m seeking a regular employer, where will I apply, what will I include in my portfolio and resume, and what communication tools will I use to approach prospective employers? If I’ll be freelancing, who will I promote myself to? What will I emphasize to communicate my expertise? What promotional tools will I use? How much will this cost?
What office equipment and other resources do I need to meet my goals, and how much will this cost?
What writing skills do I need to acquire, develop, or improve, and how much will this cost?
How will I finance my writing business expenses?
What tax forms will I need to file? What do I need to report? Can I claim any deductions?
You’ll get the most out of your business plan if you keep it short and update it periodically. When you first write your plan, you should be able to briefly cover most of the items listed above in about three pages or less. You can always expand points you need to develop (for instance, you will probably want to add some pages to develop your promotional strategy in more detail). But keep your main points short so you don’t get overwhelmed and you’re not inclined to let your plan gather dust once you finish it. Refer to your plan periodically to renew your focus, and update it quarterly and annually to reflect any new information or changes to your situation.
2. Set Writing Goals
To implement your plan, it’s important to set specific writing goals. Three of the most important goals you should set when you start out are:
- How many job applications or prospecting contacts will I make per week in order to get enough interviews for jobs or clients?
- How many hours a week will I write?
- How many hours a week will I train to improve my marketable writing skills, and in what areas?
The rest of this article will focus on the third goal by suggesting some ways to expand your writing skill set.
3. Read Inspiring Authors
Almost every good writer started off as an avid reader and learned by imitation. Today I earn an income as a nonfiction business writer, but my original inspiration to write came from reading things like DC and Marvel Comics, the novelization of Star Wars, The Hobbit, and Stephen King novels. Fiction remains my preferred mode, and I go back to certain authors periodically to draw inspiration and study techniques. Read authors who can motivate you, teach you, and refresh you when you need a break from commercial writing.
4. Expand Your Vocabulary
I grew up in a home where card games and word games were war, and a Scrabble board was a battlefield. I don’t like to lose, so I hit The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary early. I set a goal to increase my scoring average to 20 points a play, then 30, then 40. My record before I quit playing for points was 212 points for one word (“SERVICED,” crossing two triple word squares with the “V” doubled plus a 50-point bonus for a bingo) and 605 points in one game. Today I play only for fun, so my family now has a rule that I’m only allowed to play four letters a turn.
This handicap has actually made me a stronger player, because it forces me to be more alert to word opportunities inherent in combinations of four letters. I look at the first letter on the rack and study all the words I can make starting with that letter. Then I move to the second. I keep going until I find the word that will make the most points.
- Playing word games like this is one way to practice expanding your vocabulary. Other ways are:
- Reading older authors who used words that are less common today
- Studying Greek and Latin root words
- Writing poetry
- Making puns
- Writing summaries of others’ ideas in your own words
- Rewriting your own sentences using different words
When you’re expanding your vocabulary, keep in mind that learning new words is only part of the big picture. Learning new words is good, but it’s even better to learn to make better use of the tens of thousands of words you already know. I usually avoid using esoteric vocabulary when I write, because on most business writing projects, my goal is to communicate and persuade, not to show off my creative writing ability. I find that plain English usually works best for this. “SERVICED” is not an uncommon word. I just used it in the right place at the right time. A big part of expanding your vocabulary is simply spotting more opportunities to use words you already know.
5. Stretch Your Stylistic Range
Just as you can practice expanding your vocabulary, you can practice stretching your stylistic range. This will make you a better writer, and it will also make you better equipped to take on different types of writing projects that can earn you more money.
How do you stretch your style? One way is to practice saying the same thing in different ways by varying each of the elements of style. Another way is to take each of the elements of style and practice using them.
The elements of style include:
- The characteristic vocabulary you use, such as repeated words and phrases
- Whether you rely on nouns or adjectives for descriptions (rule of thumb: focus your descriptions by selecting more precise nouns and eliminating unnecessary adjectives)
- Using active vs. passive sentence structure (active is preferred, but both have their place)
- Writing in the first, second, or third person
- Writing in the present, past, or future tense
- Writing statements vs. questions vs. commands
- Using formatting codes like bold, italics, bullets, and numbers
There are many, many ways you can practice using each of these. To illustrate how you could expand your descriptive style, take the word “blue” and think of all the different kinds of blue there are. Sky blue. Ocean blue. Dodger blue…There are actually over 50 recognized shades of blue the human eye can distinguish. How precisely can you distinguish them when you write? How would you compare cerulean blue to turquoise? Can you make the blue of a calm, clear sky sound different than the blue of smiling Irish eyes? The more precise your color vocabulary, the more power you can pack into your descriptions of color. Practicing expanding your color vocabulary and descriptive ability is one example of how you can stretch your style.
6. Experiment with New Formats
Another way to stretch your stylistic range is to experiment writing in new formats. This will also enhance other aspects of your writing.
You can experiment with many different formats. Writing poems will build your sense of rhythm, your efficiency at picking meaningful phrases, and your ability to see symbolic relationships between words, images, and ideas. Writing plays will improve your dialogue. Writing fiction will hone your pacing. Writing classified ads will force you to write succinctly. Direct mail sales letters will teach you how to appeal to emotions. Academic writing will teach you to appeal to reason.
7. Write about New Subjects
While expanding your range of style and format, you can also add substance to your repertoire by writing about new subjects. One way to do this is to use a subject you’re familiar with as a springboard to research a related subject you’d like to learn about.
For instance, if you’re used to reading and writing about exercise, you might take the opportunity to learn about anatomy or diet. You could take this a step farther by reading up on health and fitness marketing, in the process expanding your knowledge base from the health and fitness niche into business.
You can apply the same principle by writing in new fiction genres. For example, early in my fiction writing career, I realized that I was coming at fiction from the perspective of a guy who likes action and battle, but most fiction readers are women. To improve my fiction range, I started studying romance novels, soap operas, and other genres geared more towards female audiences. This added a new layer to my writing, increasing not only its literary depth, but also my ability to connect with new markets. The more you can write about, the more readers you can reach with your writing, and the more opportunities you have to earn an income from your writing.