Be Generous to Be a Better Writer

Christmas Day has come, and my gift to you, as it is every Tuesday, is a new episode of my podcast, Writing the Wrong Way. Last week, I tackled the topic of productivity, and this week (in keeping with the holiday), I want to talk about generosity. 

I believe writers should be generous. At its heart, to me, writing entails both creating and sharing your creations. Even when you charge money for what you make. Sometimes, if you don’t charge money, people do not value what you share and you do not truly help them by offering things for free. However, I believe you should always offer something for free.

There are four core reasons why I believe in generosity for an artist. The first is simple: generosity has intrinsic value. In philosophical terms, as Immanuel Kant might say, generosity is an end in itself rather than being a means to some end.

The other three reasons are more practical. Generosity is an end in itself, but it is also a means to some ends.

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Generosity is the Best Marketing

Creative work doubles as its own marketing. Maybe you see a book by Stephen King on your friend’s bookshelf and ask about it. He makes it sound so cool that you go out and buy a copy. You like it, and then buy another Stephen King book. The first book acted as a marketing device that led you to purchase it as a product that then marketed to you another book by King. 

However, you would probably buy a Stephen King book even if you hadn’t read another, if his kind of work was your thing, based on name recognition. Who hasn’t heard of Stephen King?

The problem most writers face is that they are not Stephen King. They do not have a big publisher, a massive marketing budget, or legions of fans to spread the word about their writing.

What do you have, as a poor writer, with no publisher, no marketing budget, and no fans? What do you and Stephen King have in common? Well, you’ve both got your work. 

Welcome to the world of content marketing. I will not run down all of the details around this approach, but if you want a primer on content marketing, and permission marketing, as both relate to book sales, then I recommend Tim Grahl’s Your First 1000 Copies: The Step-by-Step Guide to Marketing Your Book

Suffice it to say that “content marketing” boils down to “give some of your work away for free, in order to develop an audience for your paid material.” Various methods and strategies nestle inside of this broad marketing concept. 

I have a very simple belief: I believe that you should give away great work, consistently, to develop an audience, even if you never intend to sell them anything

You can build a career off of your audience even if you never sell to them, even if you just trade on the existence of your audience to sell secondary services. The simplest example is using the existence of your audience to prove that you have the ability to write things that connect to an audience and selling that writing skill to companies as a freelancer. 

Where people fail at content marketing is by being stingy. They give away their worst work, their middling work. They “save the best for last” by offering their B and C work, then trying to sell their A+ work. 

The problem is twofold. First off, they are showing you C work but promising an A+ is just around the corner if you pay money. Why should you believe them?

Secondly, and more importantly, why should you care? A lot of other people are out there willing to give you their A+ work. They have more A+ work that you can buy. They aren’t keeping their best work from you. They are not being stingy. They are being generous. 

For those latter artists, it becomes clear, it’s not just about money. It’s about doing good work, and sharing it.

That’s my approach, and I think it should be your approach. Sometimes you cannot or should not give something away, but you should still be giving away great work.

Consider it a creative tithe to the God of Writing. If you create 10 amazing pages, give the best one away and you won’t go broke. 

Every week, I email my best page of writing to all of my core fans. Not something I did, but the best thing I did. If I write a short story that week, I email out the best page of the story.

I send my single best page for a few reasons. A single page is not too much to read — it isn’t overwhelming. You can sit and read it in one minute. It lets people know what I’m working on now, giving us a connection much more clearly than if I was sending out something I wrote a year ago. 

Theoretically, somebody reading that page might want to buy that story when it is done. So there is a marketing function, perhaps, although the nature of writing is that by the time anything is available to be purchased you will have forgotten the earlier encounter with the work. The fundamental reason I send out my best page every week is not the marketing reason.

Fundamentally, I do it because it signals that I am excited about this page and I want to share it with you. This is my best work, for you. If you want to buy the story later, you can, but you've already seen the best page!

It’s not about selling something to you later. It’s about giving something to you now.

Generosity is the Best Networking

Another thing I hear a lot of writers talking about is “networking” — they discuss the pros and cons of attending cons (conventions and conferences) and debate how to “network” and how to best connect to other people that could help their careers.

Like many more established writers, even though I’m no big fish, I’ve been on the other side of this … out at an event when somebody tries to “network” with me. You can smell the networkers like a shark can smell blood in the water. Their intentions are plain, no matter how they try to hide them. 

They are there for them. They are there to use you.

I have managed, over the years, to build up a pretty large network of contacts. However, I never thought about doing it as an activity that could help my career. In fact, I don’t believe it has really mattered all that much to my career. 

When people ask me about networking, I like to tell a story about Alana Wilcox, the editorial director at Coach House Books. I met Alana before I ever published a book, at some event or another, and I liked her, and somehow we wound up playing Words With Friends over Facebook. Around this time, I completed the manuscript for Ex Machina

I sent the book to Coach House. Alana rejected it. So, there was actually a period in history where she made her move in Words With Friends, and then while waiting for me to log in later and make my move, she wrote me out a rejection letter and mailed it. Then I moved, then she made her next move. 

Well played, Alana!

When I got the rejection, I didn’t take it personally. I didn’t expect her to accept the book just because we were friendly, and I didn’t begrudge her rejection of it. I just sent it elsewhere. Then I sent her my next manuscript, Clockfire, which she accepted. Coach House also published my third book, The Politics of Knives.

A while later, I sent Alana a short story book. She rejected it. Then I sent her another poetry book, and she accepted it. She/Coach House Books will publish The National Gallery in Fall 2019. 

I like to tell that story and then say that what your “network” gets you is nicer rejections. 

Of course, we all know stories or have seen that knowing people truly matters. In creative fields, however, what always matters most of all is the work, your portfolio.

Anybody making it anywhere on the strength of their network will ultimately fall and fail because it will always come back to the work. If your work cannot stand, then your network can only hold you up for so long. Someday, you will fall. 

You don’t want to walk through any doors until you are ready. If you cannot get into the room on your own, then you will fall once you step inside, which is worse than never entering. 

Generally speaking, you should NOT ask people in your network for things. Don’t expect them to email or text you back. Don’t even ask them for rides or the time, if you can help it. Often, I pre-order books by my friends even if I don’t care about the book just so that they don’t have the opportunity to give me a free copy (already bought it!) — if anything, you should err on the side of not even accidentally taking advantage of the people in your network. 

If you don’t know what a human might do when they want to be generous to another human, let me suggest that this is why you do not have a “network” and also that you have bigger problems than not having a network.

The point is that “building your network” should NOT be something you do to help your career. You should do it so that you have more people around you that you could help. More people around you who inspire you. People you can learn from, who make you feel like you need to push yourself more. 

Helping the people whose work you love helps you build a community and an industry that you want to live and work inside. 

You will do better in your career, as if by magic, if you have great people in your network. Sometimes, that’s because they will offer to help you — but most of the time it is NOT because they are helping you, but just because they surround you

You will be better, yourself, because of them. But only if you are generous. If you congratulate them and help them when you can, and don’t get jealous of them and don’t expect help back. 

Can your “network” open doors? Sure. I guess. But you still have to go through those doors. If your work does not fit through the frame, then whether the door is open or not makes no difference.

Ultimately, only you can help yourself. Only the work matters, really and truly, in the long term. The people around you will have the most impact on you by inspiring you and serving as examples, not by doing you favours. 

When people get into the “trading favours” kind of networking, it invariably fails. Maybe they see short-term rewards, but inevitably one person throws the other away for another person who can help them more. One uses the other as a stepping stone. Any gains made in this way will not be permanent, meaningful gains. 

Your network is NOT there to benefit your career. The true value of your network is the fact that YOU are a part of it — it’s about developing your SELF, not your business. Any true, lasting growth in your business must come as an extension of your improving self.

The best way to “network” is not to ask who can help you and try to figure out how to connect to them. The best way to network is to ask, “Who can I help?” 

If there is somebody more successful than you, whose work you respect, who you want to be like, then tell them so. Reach out and try to help them however you can. Don’t expect anything in return. But focus most of your time on the people less successful than you, who you could help more fully. 

A rising tide raises all boats. When you improve your community, you benefit because you are part of the community. If you are tactical and sly, you will end up surrounded by tactical, sly people that want to use you just like you want to use them. If you are generous, you will find yourself surrounded by other generous people. Like attracts like.

You don't want a network that is just a web of warring spiders.

Generosity Makes You Happier

If you are generous, and yet you fail to find an audience through your generosity, and you fail to develop a strong network of excellent people, you will still be happy. You failed, but you did good along the way, so what seems like an objective failure will not feel, subjectively, like failure.

Again, generosity has intrinsic value. It might have a practical application as well, as noted above, but fundamentally even those examples boil down to being generous for its own sake. 

Aside from that, being generous confirms your identity as a generous person, which leads to a stronger self-image and a greater sense of self-worth. At the same time, it helps to develop what Dr. Carol S. Dweck refers to as a “growth mindset” (whereby you believe that qualities like your intelligence and talent can be improved) rather than a “fixed mindset” (whereby you see such things as impossible to truly improve).

Although Dweck focuses on one’s mindset relative to their abilities, a similar thing is true of one’s generosity: giving things away confirms and develops a mindset that sees those things as abundant rather than scarce, and prevents one from becoming miserly in nature through consistent miserly action. 

I struggle with this, because I am a nihilist and instinctively pessimistic. But I have been writing long enough to know that the writing gets drawn out of a deep well. When my software crashes and I lose work, then it’s frustrating. But there is more where that came from. 

I advise younger writers to focus on quantity rather than quality, because they need to practice in order to improve, but most of all they need to develop that mindset and learn they could always create more work.

Sometimes I will catch myself overthinking the business side of the art. I will slide into the attitude that some particular book needs the exact right publisher, or cover, or campaign, or agent, or whatever. I will catch myself strategizing possibilities. While it is smart to strategize, at a certain point you need to recognize that you are just stalling and if you keep it up then you will stall out.

No one book or any single thing will make or break your career. Even a hit will not truly have the impact you imagine. Your follow-up to your hit will not be the end of you if it doesn’t land. There is always more where that came from, you don’t truly only get one shot. 

While you want to take your shots seriously, you would do best to be generous and remember that your core job is to serve your audience and serve the work. You need to focus on your process. Generosity is a great practice because it ties you to the process and unmoors you from results. 

In the end, a generous approach will improve your work, help develop your audience and network, and make you happier and more enthusiastic about your writing. 

Resources

Two examples of people who give away massive amounts of free work:

P.S.: If you read all of this, I have a secret gift for you … a free e-book that is otherwise totally unavailable except for purchase!!! (At this very moment, as I type these words, it isn't even available for purchase.)

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Jonathan Ball is a writer, filmmaker, and scholar living at www.jonathanball.com.

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I want to send you my best new work.

I want to send you my best new work.

Every week, I will send you my best new page, and tell you about how I wrote it. I'll share resources I used, techniques you could try, and other behind-the-scenes information and writing advice.

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