Writing doesn’t have to be your only career. In fact, it can be really tough to make good money at it. But it can also be a satisfying and effective way to enhance your reputation in your primary career.
In different ways throughout my life, I’ve turned to writing: to think things through, share some knowledge, and enhance my career. In second grade, I remember writing a story called “The Golden Gate” (all of two or three pages), and in high school I won a short story prize with a piece about poor Appalachia and VISTA volunteers. As an adult, I mostly wrote to share professional insights and enhance my career, largely through articles published in professional journals.
Let’s look at four ways that writing can enhance your career, no matter what your focus is.
1. Write to Build Your Confidence
I gained confidence in my ability to write a whole book as a way to maintain my sanity while traveling a lot for business. I could get lost for hours in my work of fiction, ignoring long flights, weather delays, and other airline mishaps.
I never published that novel (I’m sure it wasn’t that great), but it showed me I could, with time, assemble 40,000 words into a coherent whole. Without that experience, I might never have had the courage to start a book manuscript.
Tip: Write to practice your craft and build your confidence; maybe it will attract attention.
Nowadays, anyone can start a blog. And publishers and other writers may be trolling for good material–you might get offered a book deal or be able to turn your blog into a book on your own.
That’s what happened to me. An existing author, Mark Graham Brown, approached my business partner, Marsha Willard, and me to write our first book with him. He said our articles were the other half of the book he wanted to write. So together, the three of us wrote a book about total quality management (TQM) and employee participation called Why TQM Fails and What to Do About It. Since he already had a relationship with a publisher, it was easy to get approval for the book and he helped us understand the process.
His inquiry helped me realize that I had already published perhaps a dozen 3,000-word articles over time. That’s the equivalent of a dozen chapters—a respectable book. I’d already written the equivalent of a book and didn’t realize it!
2. Write to Build Your Reputation
In our consulting work, Marsha and I never thought of writing as our main work. It became a way to “move us up the food chain,” build our reputation over others in the field.
It’s really amazing what a book does for your career (especially if it’s published by a reputable trade publisher rather than self-published, although that prejudice is changing.) Suddenly you’re considered The Expert. We got invitations to give keynote presentations at conferences and speakers bureaus sought us out. I even got lucrative out-of-country speaking opportunities in places like Mexico, Qatar, and Russia. Those were amazing experiences.
Of course, having an existing book properly published and doing well builds the confidence in publishers to take a risk on your next idea. For a couple years, we published a new book a year, including Why Teams Can Fail and What to Do About It, which built on the title and structure of our first book.
Tip: You know more than you think.
Don’t feel as if you have to have discovered the meaning of life to write a book or article. If you know something that might help others, write it down.
Marsha and I would get our inspiration from a number of sources:
We saw many of our clients struggling with the same problem, so we invented a solution.
The Step by Step Guide to Sustainability Planning is an example of this. As we worked with different clients to help them integrate sustainable practices, we began to develop a replicable process to develop a sustainability plan. So we documented our process in a “cookbook” of sorts. If you show someone a recipe for doing something, they can easily modify it—but most people have trouble inventing a process from scratch.
We were often curious to find the answer to a question.
Each year, we would assign ourselves a research topic, a question we were curious about that we thought others in our profession might also like an answer to. This was never anything overly scientific or complicated.
One year, we developed a survey on peer-review practices to find out the most common practices for giving peer feedback. We sent it out to our contacts and then wrote a paper about our results. This made us the de facto experts on the topic and we quickly got speaking requests to talk about our findings.
At other times, we invited a group of colleagues to spend a Da Vinci Day with us (a day we set aside quarterly to explore big ideas). The one we did in the mid-1990s about sustainability launched our business into an entirely new direction and, of course, resulted in an article and later a book.
In many cases, we could see a need others did not. When we redirected our business toward working in sustainability, we noticed that the green building movement was leading the charge. We believed this was in part because of LEED, the green building certification. What it did was translate the abstract notion of sustainability into practices that made sense in one industry and then gave them a way to assess how far along they were.
We decided the world needed something like LEED for all organizations, since all organizations of any size have the same functions like top management, facilities, human resources, etc.
So we wrote The Business Guide to Sustainability (which won the America Library Association’s Choice Award and is now in its third edition.) There’s a chapter for each major industry sector (manufacturing, government and services) to capture what was special for each, and then a chapter for each major function that was common to all organizations (including finance/accounting, information/communication technology, marketing, etc.). Each chapter was addressed to the leader of that function: What should you know about sustainability? What are others like you doing? How far along are you (as a LEED-like assessment.)
This assessment became a stand-alone product, the S-CORE™ sustainability assessment (now managed by the International Society of Sustainability Professionals.) Ironically, at the time we were writing this book, a highly respected colleague was working on a multi-stakeholder process to answer the same question. But his effort was bogged down by funding and time. We decided that having this material out fast—even if we were making it up as we went along—was more important than having broad consensus. (As far as I know, our colleague’s process never finished.) Live the maxim: Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.
3. Write to Build Your Network
You would be surprised to see how open and willing people are to talk when you approach them about a research project or book. Back when we were working on Why Teams Can Fail, we wanted to get information on Microsoft’s practices. You can imagine the response if we had cold-called them: “Hi, we’re a consulting firm and we’d like to tell you about our services.” Click.
Instead, when we contacted their PR department and said, “We are writing a book about self-directed work teams and we hear you have some really great practices. Is there someone we can talk to about that?”—that blew open the doors. We spent several hours on their campus interviewing them and they even catered lunch!
Tip: Give interviewees approval over the content.
Many companies, especially large ones, want to control communication about their enterprise. So let them know up front that you’ll write up your understanding of the interview but will circle back to let them review, correct, and approve it.
If you’ve ever been interviewed by the press, you’ll know how frustrating it is to be misquoted. So this provision will ensure your interviewees will feel comfortable letting you in the door. Also promise to share the results with them. Send them a copy of the report/article/book and thank them again for their participation.
4. Write to Get It out of Your Head
I am an episodic writer. Some writers suggest you write every day. I do not. Ideas swirl around in my brain and then suddenly demand to come out.
This was the situation with Dragonfly’s Question. After reading Ishmael by Daniel Quinn (a novel that is a delivery system for amazing insights), I had hoped to write a novella about sustainable practices that would help people see what a more sustainable lifestyle would look like and, more importantly, make them want it more than what they have now.
For probably two years, the idea rattled around in the back of my brain as I struggled to find the literary mechanism to do what I wanted. Not time-travel, not utopian fiction, not sci-fi. What would allow me to compare past and near future and explore the worldviews behind them?
One day, the answer popped into my head. Then I just had to keep up with my muse, this mysterious process that feels more like downloading. The first draft poured off my fingers in a month. Each day I would think, gosh, what happens next? And then by morning, I would have my answer.
Tip: Self-publish if you need to.
Books like Dragonfly’s Question may not fit in publishers’ preconceived genres. Dragonfly’s Question was fiction, but it was teaching sustainable practices and it had a chapter-by-chapter discussion guide appropriate for use in classes and neighborhood discussion groups. Publishers, even ones I had a good relationship with, didn’t know what to make of it.
But a traditional publisher may not be necessary for you. I’ve found you can make almost as much self-publishing. You don’t sell as many books, but you keep a lot more of the profit. Every month I get a little check from Amazon for the Kindle version and quarterly I get a check from Lulu for the print version. (Do not go to a vanity publisher and fill your garage with books you have to sell yourself! Use a printer like Lulu or KDP to handle the printing and distribution.)
When you really think about it, there’s no good reason not to add writing to the mix of skills supporting your career, even if you don’t intend to be a full-time author exclusively.
For more on supporting your life and career goals, read on: