Once upon a time, writers could hide away in ivory towers and immerse themselves in their work, not worrying about what the world beyond those hallowed walls thought of their writing. No longer. Now writers must engage with the world at large and connect with their readers.
This, of course, raises an important question for writers. How much of yourself should you put out there? How much of it is who you really are, and how much of it is a crafted persona? How far can you go in manipulating how you present yourself before you lose all the “you-ness” of your identity?
Today’s guest post is by the talented fiction and non-fiction writer J.M. Cook, who addresses these very important questions and shares some guidelines that writers can use to navigate this murky territory.
“Personal Branding” feels commercial, corporate, and (paradoxically) impersonal. When I think of MBA jargon, like personal branding and platform, applied to creative endeavors, I cringe a little. Yet I recognize that, to earn a living from writing, I must take the business end of things into consideration. In an attempt to resolve the paradox, let’s look at what’s behind personal branding, and concentrate on developing how to present yourself, as a writer.
Think about your favorite writers. You know how and where to find their work, by genre or some other way that categorizes the writer or the writing, like female writers, writers who write about a subject that speaks to you (from beekeeping to stories about Egypt), or winners of a specific book award. The aspect that draws you to read more of your favorite authors’ work, the thing that sets their writing apart (making their writing a favorite) is a component of who they are as writers. This can be voice, subject matter, recurring themes or characters, and more.
An author’s name brings their personal brand to mind. For example, think of Stephen King, or Deepak Chopra. See what I mean? Now consider James Frey. Name recognition is connected to an author’s writing and reputation. But have you heard of Pittacus Lore? He is the author of the Lorien Legacy YA book series, which includes the novel I Am Number Four. He’s also, purportedly, James Frey: same writer, different pen name, different author persona, and different genre than his infamous novel.
Creating a persona, a fictitious character as the author, seems to have worked for the Lorien Legacy series. Authors use pseudonyms for various reasons. Stephen King wrote four novels under the pen name Richard Bachman, supposedly to see if his writing would sell if it were not published under the Stephen King name. Creating a persona can also be a factor in humor writing – think of David Sedaris or any comedian. The comedic persona is intertwined with the written word as a strong part of the personal brand.
For the rest of the writing world, it’s more about being yourself. You are a writer with your own personal story, and your personal brand is how you present yourself as a writer and your work to the world. Even if you don’t set out to create your personal brand, you (or your agent, or your publisher) will consider, and likely examine, how you present yourself as a writer.
How do I determine how to present myself as a writer?
First, I look at who I am as a writer, and what I’m writing. I’m a new writer: though I’ve been writing for years, I’ve not established my platform or delved into publishing, beyond a few essays (like this one). My long term plan is to publish across genres, but I’m just starting out. I write fiction and nonfiction. My projects include a novel that classifies as realistic fiction, a book series that fits into SciFi or Fantasy, a collection of creative nonfiction stories, and nonfiction essays. That is who I am as a writer and what I’m writing. When I publish one of the larger projects, that endeavor will likely pigeonhole my writing into that genre, for that pen name.
This leads to the next question: How much personal information am I comfortable sharing with readers?
When I teach college courses, I limit the access my students have to my FaceBook profile. FB is social networking, but I don’t socialize with my students while they are my students. It’s my personal choice.
In formulating my choices, I apply these factors:
- Common Sense: Will the college/employer take issue with a photo of me with a drink in my hand, or walking in a protest march? Will my teaching effectiveness be impacted if students scrutinize and agree or disagree with my religious choices or political views?
- Tastefulness: Am I comfortable with my employers and students seeing me in a social context or knowing my personal information? Are they?
- Perception: How do I want to be perceived and known by my employers and students?
Let’s apply these factors to how you present yourself as a writer.
- Common Sense: Will your readers take issue with anything in your presentation of yourself as a writer?
- Tastefulness: Is everyone (and by everyone, I mean your prospective readers, publishers, and if you write nonfiction, those about whom you write) comfortable with the information that is part of your presentation of yourself as a writer?
- Perception: Does how you wish to be perceived by your readers coincide with how you are presenting yourself as a writer?
These three aspects (common sense, tastefulness, and perception) are about making choices to focus your personal brand, or if you prefer the non-MBA lingo, how you present yourself as a writer.
Does this mean that you don’t include anything personal? Again, let’s consider Stephen King. He sponsors scholarships. He plays in a rock band. When he sustained serious injuries after being hit by a car, he wrote about the accident and his writing process; that became part of his personal branding in nonfiction.
Consider Jodi Picoult. The tagline for her website is, “Jodi Picoult: novels about family, relationships, love, & more.” That is a summation of her personal brand. Her personal information is limited to her bio section; it’s heavy on career accomplishments, but simply mentions her family.
Who are you as a writer?
Answering that question will help you determine how to develop your presentation of yourself as a writer. What do you write? Who are your readers? Why are they drawn to your writing? After you resolve these questions, focus on your message and your personal story as a writer. Then apply common sense, tastefulness, and perception considerations to determine exactly how personal your story and presentation will be. This is who you are as a writer, also known as your personal brand.
J.M. Cook has degrees in English and Law from the University of Iowa, and Creative Writing from New School University. As of this date, J.M.’s writing has appeared in Q and A Magazine, and an inestimable number of judicial orders for the State of Minnesota.