The Renegade Writer

Freelance Writers: Why You Shouldn’t “Network” — And What You Should Do Instead

handshakeBy Jennifer Lawler

If you’re like most writers, you’ve heard success stories that hinge on connections – “A friend of mine in Prestigious Writing Program referred me to Famous Agent and I got a book deal out of it!”

As in most businesses, connections matter in publishing. Agents and editors are more likely to work with people they know, or who have been referred to them by someone they trust. Which is great, but what if you don’t have a friend in a Prestigious Writing Program who has a Famous Agent? Most of us aren’t born with a set of connections that’ll get us in the door.

But never fear! I’ve always said, “It’s not who you know — it’s who you get to know.” And “get” is the operative word there: you can do something about this! You can get to know the people who can help your career. How?

Networking Defined

An unfortunate number of people think that networking is about you promoting yourself to other people. You’ve met the guy: you say hello, he hands you his business card and tells you to get in touch about your life insurance needs. You ask a friend what she’s been doing and she pitches the product she’s selling in a multi-level-marketing scheme. None of us want to be that person.

And being that person doesn’t actually work. What does work is something more nuanced and a bit harder than that. It’s about building relationships with people. And what that requires is for you to actually care about the relationships you develop. It means giving some of the time instead of asking all of the time (we’ve all met that writer who joins a group and spends all her time asking for editor contact information instead of introducing herself and sharing tips she might have).

I can easily ignore an email in my inbox from some stranger who wants to know if I’ll connect her with my agent. But if that same person says, “I read Dojo Wisdom for Writers and I really enjoyed it!” then I like her already and am more inclined to help her. That comment was an easy thing to give, right?

You can give a colleague a job lead, share a link to an interesting article, or offer a tip of your own. None of these are particularly hard to give.

Relationships 101

However, if you want me to give you the name of my agent and a glowing referral, it’s not enough for you to say, “I loved your book! Can you recommend me to your agent?” I still don’t know who you are. To be blunt: I still don’t care about your success. I have my own problems, dreams, goals, and aspirations. I have twenty-two things to do in the next ten minutes.

So this is where you work on developing a relationship with me. You’ve introduced yourself by saying you liked my book. I have good feelings about you. Maybe in your next communication you ask for something simple for me to give – “What’s your favorite book on writing? Other than Dojo Wisdom for Writers, of course.”

A specific, simple question is easy for me to answer. I’ll probably say something like, “What kind of writing do you do or aspire to do?”

And you’ll tell me, and … guess what? We have a relationship now. That wasn’t so bad, was it?

That still doesn’t mean I’ll refer you to my agent (maybe we don’t do the same kind of work, maybe my agent isn’t taking on new clients, etc.) but it does mean I’ll be more likely to look out for opportunities for you.

Reality Check

“That’s great, Jennifer,” you say. “But I don’t have two years to spend working up a friendship with you so that I can get you to refer me to your agent.”

You’re absolutely right! But you’re not just networking with me, right? You’re reaching out to and connecting with all sorts of people. Some of them you’ll naturally mesh with. Others will be more off-and-on. Others will barely register on your radar. That’s okay. This is an organic and fluid process.

Your career as a writer will, I hope, be a long and varied one. So it’s fine if some aspects of it take time to build.

Where Do I Meet These People?

“I don’t live in New York,” you say. “Where am I going to meet these people?”

I live in Podunk, Midwest and always have. I’ve managed to have a very nice career in publishing despite that fact.

If you want to make connections that can help you with your career goals, think about what those career goals are. Want to have success as a blogger? Then look for groups of bloggers you can join. Leave comments on the blogs of people you admire. More inclined to write articles for online sites and print magazines? Join freelancer groups that focus on these areas. Check out writers’ conferences, Facebook groups, LinkedIn groups, and more.

Reaching out to others is the first step on the road to getting to know the people who can help you in your career!

How about you: Have you had success getting to know writers, editors, and other people in your industry? Do you have any tips to share? Please post in the Comments below!

Jennifer Lawler is the author or co-author of more than forty nonfiction books and novels. Her class on writing nonfiction book proposals starts on March 25, 2013!

Mar 21, 2013 Advice, Networking

19 Responses

  1. Jodi Helmer says:

    Great advice.

    I’m always surprised by the number of people who assume I have a successful freelance career because I started out with a degree from a well-regarded publishing program, a NY apartment with an editor/roommate or a trust fund to live off of while I launched my career. I had none of the above. Instead, I’ve built my business on relationships: pitching solid ideas, turning in clean copy, never complaining about revisions (at least not to my editors)! If I’m in NY, I invite editors to coffee, I send notes of congrats when an editor’s magazine receives an award or they land a new job. In publishing and in life, being nice and following the Golden Rule pays off.

    Jodi

    • Jodi, you’ve outlined other important steps in the “connecting with people process.” Doing good work is SO important — we sometimes forget that in our desire to figure out how to stand out and get attention. Once you’ve gotten the attention, you need to be able to deliver!

  2. Erica says:

    I love this post. Sound, real-world pearls of wisdom.

    When I started freelancing, “networking” scared the bejeezus out of me. Then I realized that it’s just a matter of saying hello, taking a genuine interest in someone else’s life and trying to help others. The same as saying, “If you need a good mechanic, I know someone who’s pretty solid. Here’s his (or her) number.” And then leaving it at that—no pressure tactics for anything.

    Once people realize that you’re trying to help, not sell, they’re usually more than happy to listen and return the favor later on.

  3. Great post! The only thing I might add is that one should be developing relationships with everyone – even if that person isn’t a writer or connected with publishing. Get to know the stranger you are briefly introduced to at a party, even if it is just enough to say hello by name the next time you run into them. And be a decent person, even when you think no one is watching. So many opportunities have come to me via a friend of a friend of a friend or a new acquaintance. Whenever I speak and a person approaches me after the event, I try to get that person’s contact info or at least find them on LinkedIn so I can send them a quick note thanking them for their comments. I make so many connections (and writing opportunities) that way. Also, be sincere. I don’t stalk everyone I meet – avoiding the ones that give me the crazy-vibes!

    • Natalie, this is a great point — you shouldn’t restrict yourself to just people who are in the same career you are. I have found connections with people who aren’t writers can be very grounding and helpful even if we don’t necessarily exchange editor contacts with each other. A person not in the biz can often provide a step-back perspective that’s invaluable, or maybe they know someone who knows someone, or maybe they give you some insight into things to write *about* rather than where to get published and how to get paid. Or just a reminder that the world isn’t made up of writing and publishing alone! It’s a big world out there.

      “Be sincere” – I wish I could like that comment a thousand times. This is about being active in connecting with people, not being insincere and smarmy.

      Jennifer

  4. Erica, “taking a genuine interest in someone else’s life” — that’s it in a nutshell.

    And the idea of helping versus selling is huge … if you’re solving a problem in my life/my work, then you’re a help to me, not a spammy used car salesman I need to avoid.

  5. Howard says:

    Great post, our blog and our business started to increase right after getting more involed in social media and blogging. We’ve recieved many new jobs and contacts by simply blogging more and getting social.

  6. Howard, “getting social” is a good way to put it. It’s not like you have to have a goal to meet five new potential clients this week or anything like that.

    Jennifer

  7. Thanks for this helpful post. I just sent an editor a gift card this week for Cold Creamery to thank her for hiring me for stories in her 2 pubs. That was a nice paycheck but 2 of the stories were personal to me and that made it more meaningful. She may or may not hire me again. I don’t think the gift card will make the difference. I hit my deadlines and kept in touch with her during the writing process and rep’d myself well during the business profile interviews (I think). But thinking about her made me happy and I wanted to let her know that. I also send Christmas cards to my editors and have begun doing birthday cards to all of the elderly people I interview just for fun. Can’t take those off my taxes but that’s OK.

    • I have a colleague who has interviewed me occasionally for writing-related articles and books, and every time she sends me a real thank-you note in the mail. It’s amazing how that sticks out in my mind! And you can bet that if I can do something for her, I will. It’s nice to know that someone appreciates you!

  8. Marcia says:

    For me, “networking” is simply having conversations where you listen more than you talk. Sooner or later that person (in a business setting anyway) will start talking about the challenges he or she faces (doesn’t understand how Facebook works for businesses, doesn’t know how to write a press release, is having trouble getting a business plan off the ground).

    If a business person is having a problem that you can solve — take off their hands — you have a potential client! That’s when I give them my card. :)

    • Marcia, this is exactly what I mean! You’re thinking of what you can do to help them versus what they can do to help you. That comes from listening and not focusing on what’s in it for you — until the time comes to actually negotiate what’s in it for you :-)

      “What you can do to help them” can turn into money in the bank.

      Jennifer

  9. It never ceases to amaze me how many unpublished writers start conversations with published writers with the attitude that the published owe the unpublished an introduction to an agent or editor.

    I find people interesting; I like to get to know them. If I hear of something that would be a good fit, great, I’ll pass it on. But an aggressive approach assuming that, because I am a working professional and have paid my dues, built my relationships, and done my homework means I OWE someone else who’s not interested in doing so — I get disinterested very quickly! ;)

    • I’m always surprised when people can’t even be bothered to say “thank you” when I take time out of a busy day to help them with something. Entitled much?

      This isn’t the exclusive domain of newbies — I know a lot of more-established writers who seem to think that, for example, a source should drop everything to take their phone call even if it’s not a convenient time — but it’s good for everyone at any stage of their career to remember to be appreciative of others.

      It really isn’t that hard to remember to treat other people the way you’d like to be treated.

      Jennifer

  10. Helpful article; thanks! I think that sometimes when writers are trying to get established, they forget that the professionals they’re working with are, first and foremost, people. It’s easy to fall into a trap of thinking, “Okay, I need to get published, so I need an agent. Here’s an agent,” instead of thinking, “Oh, here’s an interesting person I can learn from.”

    As an aside, I *did* find Dojo Wisdom for Writers helpful. I’m a karate student and assistant instructor, and I’ve found that a lot of lessons I learned from doing karate have helped with my writing as well. In fact, I wrote a guest blog post several months ago where I talked about this, and mentioned your book as a great resource. Thanks!

    • Thanks for the kind words about DW for Writers! I loved writing that book.

      The point about professionals being people is SO important. No one is ever just “a writer” or just “an editor” — An editor is a person with dreams and ideas and grouchy days and hobbies and all the rest. Connect with *me* instead of my job title, and when my job title changes, we can still do each other some good.

      I remember once going to a dinner at a writers’ conference where I sat at a table for ten with an Important Editor from a Major Magazine and everyone seemed petrified to speak. I just asked her a couple of questions about where she lived and we got into a lively conversation about her son and his hobby.

      Weeks later when I queried her I referenced that conversation so she could place me … and though she was notorious for never responding to queries, she immediately responded to me. I often think it was because I just chatted with her at dinner instead of making her suffer through excruciating silence and stilted requests to pass the rolls for ninety minutes.

      Jennifer

  11. Really enjoyed this article, Jennifer! You make lots of great points–my takeaway? Ya gotta be a friend to have one. :-) Don’t go at relationships with your hand out–it’s fun to meet new people, and if you can help one another out down the road, so much the better. And I have to ask, as a fellow “Podunk Midwesterner” (grew up in central IL in a town of 3600), where are you from? :-)

    • Lori, it is actually fun to meet people! I’m a classic introvert but I’ve learned how to go up to people and just chat. You’re right, you can’t go at this with the idea of “what will this person I’m talking to be able to do for me?” Down the road, maybe you’ll help each other out, and that’ll be great. For right now, it’s just a passing encounter. It doesn’t have to be fraught with significance.

      I live in a tiny town near Lawrence, Kansas now (Rock Chalk, Jayhawks!), population 6650, if you can believe the sign out front.

      Jennifer

      • Agree completely, Jennifer!

        And funny that you live near Lawrence! A very dear friend of mine is a pediatrician in Lawrence, and I get out there to visit every couple of years. Nothing like the Midwest! Nice meeting you. :-)

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