Women writers: What if building your platform was an altruistic act, rather than a dreaded exercise in shallow self-aggrandizement?
New research on women’s aversion to self-promotion reveals the following staggering conundrum:
• Most women find it inspiring to hear about other women’s accomplishments and successes.
• But most women would rather downplay, or minimize, their own accomplishments, than own up to them.
This is not good, ladies—not good at all. It means most of us would rather seem like less than we are. That’s not harmless self-deprecation, or good manners. It’s shutting down our power.
Most of the women I meet wish their work would speak for itself, but the hard truth is: It doesn’t. People are busy, they’re distracted, and they don’t have the time to track you down. (Among other things, they’re too busy battling their own self-promotion demons!)
For all of its foibles, the Internet is still a place where anyone can share her work and build an audience for it. Building a strong online presence takes time, and it takes commitment, and this is where it may be tempting to beg off—”I need that time for writing, for life.” I get it; I do. In addition to running my business, I am helping to raise a child with special needs, and pursuing an MFA in TV writing. I don’t know what you have on your plate, but I have a feeling that if I can carve out a few hours a week to cultivate my online presence, then you can, too.
The real challenge isn’t time—it’s motivation. And this is where the research is galvanizing. If you won’t build a platform for your own sake, then do it for other women. As the writer Carolyn See once observed, “Every word a woman writes changes the story of the world, revises the official version.” As insignificant as you may believe you are, you can never know the ripple effect that learning about your life and work may have on other women. Your story may expand their sense of what’s possible, all because you took some time to tweet about that article/book/script/poem/etc that you’re working on, instead of just writing it.
On a personal note, I grew up in an overachieving suburb where the idea of being a writer for a living felt like a pipe dream. I wish I could go back and shower my teenage self with examples of working women writers, who would not only share their triumphs, but also their struggles. It might have helped me find the courage to pursue writing well before midlife. Now, at age 43, I still crave stories about women writers, and find both solace and inspiration in following a number of them online.
Here are my specific recommendations for writers who are ready to build a platform:
• Write a tagline that conveys who you are as a writer. Your tagline should strike a balance between being clear, and being intriguing. You don’t want people scratching their heads trying to decode your meaning, but you also don’t want language that’s so straightforward that it’s frankly uninteresting, or easy to skim past.
• Create a website at yourname.com or as close to that domain as is available. Even if it’s one page, it’s a marker and will influence what people see when they search for your name. Share your tag line, a short bio and links to some of your favorite clips. This doesn’t have to be a major undertaking—tools like About.me and Wix.com make the barrier to entry very, very low.
• Improve your LinkedIn profile. Use your tagline and the bio you already wrote for your website. Make sure you have a photo that lets people get a clear view of your face. I had a client who told me she thought of updating LinkedIn as “the swimsuit shopping” of managing her online presence—and was surprised at how painless it could be, and delighted by the connections she soon started making after getting her profile to a place she liked.
• Choose a social network, any social network. Whether it’s LinkedIn, Twitter, or Instagram, pick one place where you will commit to ongoing participation (I wouldn’t recommend Facebook because you need to game its algorithm, which is always changing). Include your tagline in your profile, and use it as a filter through which you consider what to post. You can amplify your story both by talking about your own work, and in the commentary you offer when sharing others’ work. Do try to strike a balance.
• Rinse, repeat. You are an ever-evolving human being whose writing is ever-evolving, too. Fortunately, nothing is set in stone online. If you follow the steps above, and six months later, it’s feeling like your tag line no longer really captures you or your work… revise it. (Yes, sorry: Revisions are part of having a platform, too. Just when you thought you’d escaped them!)
You’ll notice that I don’t use the term “personal brand.” This is deliberate: We aren’t products, we’re human beings. Human beings have stories—and we need to share them. Resent the need to build a platform all you want, or, take reading this post as an opportunity to shift your perspective. See how building your platform can be an opportunity to claim and share power, and to help other women writers. It doesn’t have to be shallow. In fact, it shouldn’t be. It should reflect you and your work.
Because whether you can see it for yourself, you are a mighty force.
Amanda Hirsch is on a mission to fill the world with more women’s stories. Her company, Mighty Forces, helps women and women’s organizations figure out what they want to say and how to say it; clients include Sundance board chair Pat Mitchell and Melinda Gates’ Pivotal Ventures. Amanda is also an aspiring television writer who wants to change the way women’s stories are told in popular culture and has written three pilots that aspire to do just that. She is the author of Feeling My Way: Finding Motherhood Without Losing Myself, and her essays have been published by Catapult, McSweeney’s and other outlets. She lives in Brooklyn with her family.