Should You Focus on Your Writing or Your Platform?
by Jane Friedman
April 27, 2012
It’s a debate that might span eternity: how much time should you devote to writing versus platform building?
I don’t know if there was ever a real beginning to this debate, but if so, it was when editors and agents started telling nonfiction authors that their book was only viable if a platform was in place. Which made sense for technological and cultural reasons. Take the ease of word processing and affordable personal computers, add Baby Boomers with free time to pursue their dreams, and presto! Suddenly there were more people than ever trying to write a book and get it published, with limited skills and experience, and often no credentials.
So what does a well-meaning agent or editor say to one of these people? The easiest thing to say is: You need a platform.
Fast forward a decade or two, and we now live inside an unending media conversation wheel, where anyone can find a niche readership, do solid work on building a platform, and even put writing on the backburner—and still reasonably claim to be a writer.
I think there’s a backlash against some of these people, which I understand. It’s applying the entrepreneurial, get-rich-quick Tim Ferriss mindset to the world of literature, where we tend to believe that blood, sweat, and tears (and rejection) are demanded before you gain recognition.
Plus: Real writers write. (Right?) They don’t tweet, they don’t blog, they don’t connect with readers, at least not joyfully.
I exaggerate, but you know the people I’m talking about.
The horrible catch is—at least for beginning writers without fame and fortune, who are starting their careers in a transitioning industry—focusing on your writing work to the exclusion of all else can hamper you later down the road. If you shut yourself away and don’t learn to navigate the online world (the personalities, the flow of conversations, the tools), you’re terribly disadvantaged when it comes time to get a publisher, market your work, and find readers.
Excellent arguments reside on each side of this debate, which often boil down to: “Writing is all that matters,” and “audience is all that matters.”
But the truth is a little different for each of us, and that’s why it’s next to impossible to give general advice on platform. It necessarily varies based on the author and the work in question.
But it does rip me apart to hear very new writers feel anxious that they can’t figure out their platform, especially when they have not a single book or credit to their name.
Well, it’s not a mystery why platform is so confusing when you don’t know who you are yet as a writer!
This has been a very long preface to what I’d like to offer: a set of general guidelines to help any writer understand how to balance writing with platform building.
Balance is the key word here.
Focusing on your writing probably means spending 10%-25% of your available writing time on platform activities. I never recommend abandoning platform activities entirely, because you want to be open to new possibilities. Being active online—while still focused on your writing—could mean finding a new mentor or the perfect critique partner, connecting with an important influencer, or pursuing a new writing retreat or fellowship opportunity.
Without further ado, the list.
When to focus more on your writing:
If you are within the first five years of seriously attempting to write with the goal of publication
For novelists: If you have not yet completed and revised one or two full-length manuscripts
If you can tell that what you’re writing is falling short of where you want and need to be
If you see a direct correlation between the amount of writing you put out and the amount of money that comes into your bank account (the JA Konrath model)
If you are working on deadline.
When to focus more on your platform:
If you start to realize you’re on the verge of publication
If you have a firm book release date of any kind
If you want to sell a nonfiction book concept (non-narrative)
If you intend to profit from online/digital writing that you are creating, distributing, and selling on your own
If you need to prove to a publisher or agent that your work has an audience.
Brief Bio.: Jane Friedman is a professor of media and writing at the University of Cincinnati, and the former publisher of Writer’s Digest. Visit her at JaneFriedman.com, for regular insights into the future of publishing.