Courtney M. McSwain, Writer

Anatomy of a Freelance Writer’s Life: Confronting Branding

Times Square by Snorpey (Creative Commons)

Where brands live. Photo: “Times Square” by Snorpey (Creative Commons)

My decision-making process is long, slow and tortured. This has been true ever since I was a child. Growing up, my parents would drive my brother and me three and half hours from our North Carolina home to my grandparents’ house on the eastern part of the state where we converged with my other cousins for a two-week family summer camp of sorts. It was a great time, and I enjoyed being around my cousins so much that at the end of the two weeks when my parents would come to pick up my brother and me, I always wanted to stay longer. My parents were gracious enough to offer to let me stay and come back to pick me up the following week, but I was always torn between wanting to stay with my cousins and wanting to go back home with my parents. Maybe I was torn between pleasing both my parents and my other cousins who wanted me to stay, or maybe I equally valued both options and simply couldn’t decide between the two of them. Whatever the reason, there were usually tears involved as those around me waited for me to make up my mind. Eventually, we all outgrew those family “summer camps,” but I never outgrew my tenuous relationship with making tough choices among things that I equally value.

I thought about my long and storied history with tough decision-making recently when I was forced to consider a job opportunity and how it fit in with my writing “brand.” As a new writer working professionally, it seems ridiculous to even consider saying no to a paying job. But with so many different writing paths, it can be beneficial to define which way one will go early on so as not to flounder about with no real focus.

For this reason, writers are told that branding is crucial to succeeding in the tech 2.0 world. In the land of content overload, everyone has something to say, or write as it were. How is one writer going to stand out from the rest? By building a brand, or put another way, establishing a niche that makes one unique and leveraging that distinction to rise above the noise. Such a niche could be one’s genre or topic of interest. Either way, we are told that creating a niche that is narrowly tailored and tightly defined makes for better branding.

The good news about writing today is that opportunities abound for writers to make a name for themselves without the backing of traditional publishing. But it takes work—a lot of it—using websites, social media, public speaking, bull horns, and whatever else one can get one’s hands on to tell the world about one’s work. Even those with the traditional media and publishing industry in their corners are being told to beef up their branding efforts. With everyone clamoring for attention, the ones with the most clear and consistent message about their work wins.

Which is why I’m all for paying attention to one’s brand. I get it, and I’m on board. In fact, my work dovetails with the world of branding occasionally. My writing services as a consultant includes helping mission-driven organizations craft compelling content to define their brand story. I enjoy helping people tell the story of the work they do in a consistent and easily definable way. The thing is, branding is easier to think about when it 1) isn’t about you and 2) is about something that is external to an individual identity.

For creative people who trade on their name, branding is tricky. Here’s why: at some level, creating a brand message means having to choose, right now, what your work is going to be about in the future. That choice must then be reflected in what is presented to the public so that people come to expect certain things from your work.

As a creative person, I must admit that making choices about what my work is going to look like in the future feels stifling and downright unfair. One of the attractive points of working creatively is the ability to break free of conventional boxes and try many different things throughout one’s career. It is for this reason that I have cast a somewhat wide net around the type of writing that I do. I write for private clients and media outlets. I write feature stories and opinion essays. I write from a personal and detached point of view. My interests vary from art to education. This makes complete sense to me because it reflects who I am, but is it too much to wrap up into one brand? Possibly.

Yet, just as when I was a kid sitting in my parents car toiling over the decision to ride away or enjoy one more week of my grandmother’s biscuits and molasses, I struggle over the decision to leave out any one aspect of my creativity because it doesn’t fit into a neatly defined brand story. I, quite frankly, don’t want to choose between multiple writing genres or interests, even though I understand that by not doing so, I create a more muddied brand message for myself.

In an attempt to clarify the muddiness, I wrote a manifesto that describes why I write, not necessarily what I will write for the rest of my life. My goal is to present stories that help us believe in the possibility of our dreams, whether those dreams are for our communities or ourselves. In order for me to incorporate the concept of branding into my writing life, I have to do it in a way that makes sense to me—by focusing on why I write over the specific types of writing that I do and acknowledging that just as I evolve as a person, so too will I evolve as a writer.

For writers, confronting branding may be difficult when we think about it in terms of fitting squarely into a box. But, we’re writers aren’t we? We can just create a new kind of box.

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