by Elatia Harris
The first of a series of articles for an upcoming book on writing about food
Pretend for a moment that this is you.
Over lunch, you and a friend discuss an important event. “I’ll have to go shopping,” you tell her. “My only outfit that’s perfect for the occasion has been seen too many times.” Your friend’s eyes sparkle as she replies, “Be sure to find something that expresses your personality and taste, and that sends the right vibe at a glance.” She’s kidding, of course – she knows that’s the only kind of shopping you ever do.
Is branding yourself as a writer this easy? Let’s anatomize the process.
Everyone is unerring about something — the can’t-fail baked pasta dish, the elevator pitch that always lands a meeting, the only words in the world that will comfort a desolate child. If you look closely at areas of your life where high competence and pure instinct lead you again and again to distinctiveness and success, then you will come face to face with your personal brand – nothing more or less than the way other people know you to be in the world, the keynote behavior they have come to expect of you.
Your personal brand does not deny the breadth or depth of your individuality. Rather, it introduces you to others in a way you can control – until you decide when and how to let them know you even better.
Good branding as a writer leads to your being enough of a known quantity that editors and publishers think of you when they have a certain type of assignment to hand out, and to your being counted on by a readership to deliver a certain kind of experience it craves. Your sense of your brand increases your writing efficiency, too, by making it faster and easier for you to know the difference between projects that are right for you and projects that are merely interesting to you. The difference between being appreciated as a versatile writer and being dismissed as “all over the map” is often a matter of branding, and this is a crucial consideration when you first set out to create a coherent body of work.
It’s never too soon to establish your brand as a writer. Here are 7 high-yield prompts to tighten your focus on branding, even before you begin to organize your writing life or choose the topic of your first piece.
- Would you rather tell a story, or convey information in a non-narrative way?
- Are you writing from expertise or as a generalist who can do the research?
- Do you write for a specific readership, and know exactly what you offer it?
- Which of these word counts is the most “you” – up to 750, 1000 to 1500, or 1500+?
- Is your voice intimate and conversational, or do you favor a professional distance?
- What’s unusual or even unique about you that will come through in your writing?
- Once readers begin to know you a bit, which three words should come to their minds when they see your name?
Remember, a brand is not a label. Rather, it’s powerful knowledge that you have about yourself as a writer, and that you want others to recognize you by. They shouldn’t have to hunt for a label to do that. And the best thing about branding yourself as a writer is that it prevents others from labeling you first.
Expanding Your Brand
The time will come when you want to expand your brand. Life will deliver you a compelling new interest that becomes intrinsic to the writer you are. Or, after some time, your readers will know you well enough to welcome what they don’t necessarily expect from you, as you selectively introduce it to them. Journalists who know the secrets of telling a great story may turn to fiction, for instance, without losing readers. Food writers may move to another country, where food culture is different from what their readers usually seek information about, yet this new focus is an addition to their portfolio, not a departure from it. The key to expanding your brand is to do it mindfully and not all at once – just as you might include one unfamiliar dish, not five, in a party menu that already works beautifully.
If you are a writer shifting your focus to food and travel writing, but that’s not how people think of you yet, well – first, congratulations on already having readers who think of you a certain way. The chances are that you have written about food and travel before, even if tangentially, so this change is not coming out of left field. To be true to themselves, many artists and writers have had to redefine their mission, and do a lot of letting go in order to move faster in their new direction. This is risky and it takes courage, because a readership is a priceless asset, and no writer wants it to melt away.
Unlike brand expansion, rebranding is official business that a writer needs to take charge of unambiguously, if not with fanfare. You might start with the story of an experience you found irresistible, that led you straight to a new commitment as a writer. You are the same, only different – can you share the excitement about that? You have new vistas for your readers – you want nothing more than to pull back the curtain. If you suspect or know that your readers are not – particularly — gastronomes, then start with the story of how you came to develop this interest, one they can follow with pleasure even if they are not yet there. Readers may not care as much as you do about food, but they may be led to care tremendously about the cultures and the communities that food writing can open to them.
Owing to your new subject matter, you are hardly a different person as a writer – you are a writer whom readers already know, throwing open a new window onto the world for them. Aim, if you are rebranding, for the kind of continuity that underlies all shifts in subject matter – the continuity found in voice, tone and in the mission to connect.
To sum up —
- If you are consistent over time, then you already have a personal brand that is very real to others. Do you know what it is?
- Your brand as a writer enables readers to choose to read you, and editors to choose you for assignments. Now – what is it?
- A sure sense of your brand will save you time as a writer by quickly steering you away from subjects that are “not you.” Now — can you see that body of work that is you in sharper focus yet?
- Developing a strong brand as a writer will make it harder for others to either label you themselves or draw a blank when they see your name. Is there an image management problem for you to solve here?
- Tread carefully and strategically when you expand your brand, or rebrand. If this is what’s next for you, have you crafted a plan?
Elatia Harris is a writer and consulting editor in Cambridge, Mass. She is most often at work on books and articles about food, wine and travel. Contact her at elatiaharrisATgmailDOTcom or via text at 617-599-7159.