Choosing what to commit to

By Tom:

Some of my earlier posts have focussed on how to use your time wisely, and how to cope with rejection by directing your effort on improving your craft. For those of us who want to make a living out of writing, there is inevitably going to be some mismatch between the art we want to create and the art that agents and publishers want to buy. It’s not obvious how to respond to this creative tension. “Focus on your craft” is excellent general advice for making progress in your development as a writer, but if your artistic sentiments are drawing you inexorably towards completing that poetry collection, you’re chasing long odds for gaining financial reward for your labour.

If earning an income from your writing is an important goal, your craft needs to be constrained and directed to some extent. Distasteful as many creatives find it, looking at this problem from a business perspective can actually be very useful for overcoming these challenges, and building a career.

Cost/benefit calculations

Every decision we make comes with benefits, but it also comes at a price. In business terms, both costs and benefits are mostly financial: how much will it cost us to make this widget, and how does that cost compare with the likely revenue from sales? In such simple cases the calculation is literal – will we make enough profit to justify undertaking the project? For writing, the costs and benefits are more nebulous, but the same key principle applies – will I gain enough benefit from this project to make it worth the cost of pursuing it? The concrete benefits to consider are:

  1. Improving your skill as a writer
  2. Making money from your writing
  3. Building an audience of readers

The key costs are:

  1. The time needed to complete the work
  2. The financial costs of producing the work (e.g. if self-publishing)
  3. The time and money needed to promote the work

Looked at from this perspective, it’s pretty clear that a tightly-plotted thriller targeted at a traditional publisher is high on the potential benefits scale (improve your plotting skills, potential for high sales if successful in landing a publisher, a genre with a large audience) and low on costs (need only write an average length novel, minimal upfront costs, the support of the publisher’s promotional team). That, of course, is one of the reasons why competition with other writers will be so fierce in that sector. At the other end of the scale we can imagine a self-published twelve-volume history of the British canal transportation industry. The quintessential labour of love.

I’m sure it’s fascinating, really.

Most of us make these cost/benefit calculations intuitively. We balance our desire to pursue the project against our other responsibilities and commitments, and decide whether to make a start. However, like most decisions driven by intuition, a lack of careful thought at the start means we end up changing our minds frequently, dithering over whether we made the right decision, and starting lots of projects when they “feel right” but then stalling when doubt or fatigue derail us. Taking some time to plan before you begin can greatly reduce the risk of wasted time in the future.

As well as the obvious considerations already covered, there are other factors that need to be brought into the planning process. Again, borrowing concepts from business can help.

Intangible benefits

Not every benefit can be reduced to a gain in skill, income, or audience. Not every benefit is obvious when assessing a project – in fact, some benefits may not even be obvious until years later. Intangible benefits can be things like making a personal connection with a professional who can help your career or craft, getting exposure to a new market or audience, or learning a new skill that you didn’t realize you needed (e.g. how to set up a website, or how to manage taxes). Perhaps the biggest intangible benefit is the reason why most of us write in the first place: personal fulfilment. Writing stories that we are proud of, in a form and genre that we love, is good for the soul.

But hard to enter in an accountancy ledger.

Opportunity costs

In simple terms: if you are doing one thing, you cannot do another thing. Every project started means another project delayed or cancelled. The cost of a labour of love is not just the investment needed to produce the work, but also the loss of an alternative project that could have been more lucrative. Such “opportunity costs” are not just financial. If you have an idea for a project that is time-sensitive (i.e. linked to an anniversary, about a currently fashionable topic, or a trending news story) then delaying that project kills its potential.

Return on investment

The final concept is the most clearly focussed: return on investment. If I sink resources into this project, how much more might I get back? Is the potential reward big enough to warrant the risk of failure? Like any other investment, making a choice about a writing project is a gamble. No one knows which books will be bestsellers, but publishers routinely estimate the return on investment of every project before embarking on it. And they certainly monitor ROI for every book they publish, and drop writers who do not consistently deliver good numbers. Again, we can apply this principle to our own work. How much did I gain from this project? Was it worth the investment? Should I do another project like this again in the future?

Building a writing career means balancing all these concerns. Before embarking on anything, the professional writer should ask: what’s my goal with this project? How does this fit into my professional ambitions? Does the mix of tangible and intangible benefits justify my time and effort? Does the cost/benefit calculation make sense?

Making a decision about which project to focus your limited time and effort on needs to be a blend of head and heart. It may be that the labour of love gives enough benefit in terms of development of skills and discipline to warrant the opportunity cost of lost earnings (this could be equivalent to investing in education to earn a qualification that is needed for a higher paid job), or it could be an ill-advised sacrifice that delays your ability to finance the lifestyle you need to maintain your creative output. Maybe it’s time to apply your skills to a project that will satisfy a large audience of eager readers, and use the proceeds to buy yourself some freedom for future labours of love?

These sorts of calculations are not simple to do, but are a very effective way of breaking through the fog of indecision when deciding what your next project will be. Winging it, and making choices on whim or feelings, is a shaky foundation for a lasting career.

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Posted in Motivation.

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