Chip MacGregor

June 23, 2014

How can a writer create a career plan?


I have a background in organizational development — my graduate degree focused on how an organization grows and changes over time. In my job as a literary agent, I’ve found it’s proven helpful when talking to writers about their careers. You see, my contention is that some agents pay lip service to “helping authors with career planning,” but many don’t really have a method for doing that. (Actually, from the look of it, some don’t even know what it means. I think “career planning” to some people is defined as “having a book contract.”) During my doctoral program at the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), I served as a Graduate Teaching Fellow in the Career Planning and Placement Office. The focus was on helping people graduating in the arts figure out how to create a career plan, and that experience allowed me the opportunity to apply the principles of organizational theory to the real-world setting of those trying to make a living with words. In other words, I figured out how to walk an author through a real-world career map. So here are a few things I like to consider when talking with a writer…

First, I want to get to know the author. Who is he (or she)? What’s the platform he brings to the process? Does she speak? If so, where, how often, to whom, to how many, and on what topics? Does he have experience with other media? What kind? What’s her message? What books has she done in the past? What other writing is the author doing that could boost the platform? If I can get to know an author, I can better help him or her to make wise career decisions that fit their own personal vision.

Second, I want to find out about the author’s past. What were the significant events and accomplishments? What experiences did the author have that she liked or hated? I like to make sure I’m clear on things like strengths, gifts, burdens… all of that helps give me context when discussing career paths.

Third, we have to talk about perspective – What is important to the author? How does he define success? What does she need to change? What do they want to accomplish? I think a lot of authors don’t ever feel successful because they don’t ever define success. And let’s face to — success is fleeting in this industry. You complete a manuscript and you feel good… for a day. Then it’s on to something else. You land a contract and you feel great… until you realize that there are thousands of writers who are working on contract. You hit a bestseller list and you’re ecstatic… but it quickly falls off the list and everyone in the industry is focused on the NEXT big book that has released. Success is transitory. But if you never sit down and decide “THIS is what I want to accomplish,” you’ll never have enough perspective to feel you’re successful.

Fourth, we sit down together (or talk on the phone), and we talk about personal organization. Every author needs a TIME to write, a PLACE to write, and a GOAL that he or she is writing toward. Do they have a plan in place? Are they moving forward? Do they have a project they are working on? Do they have an organizational system to keep track of projects? Do they have a writing calendar, so they know what and when they are working on each project? I encourage authors to create a budgeting calendar — something that is very important to every working author, so they can track how much time each project will take them and how much money it will generate for them. Of course, each writer is unique – what they are writing and how fast they write it will be different for each person. But knowing their financial goals and what sort of help they need from me makes my role clear.

Fifth, we start to talk about an actual writing plan – What will the writer create over the next two years? The next five years? What plans are they making? Do those plans reflect their values? Does it all match up with their life purpose? Does it maximize their strengths? Is their significant other in agreement with it all? Knowing an author is at peace with the overall plan is important if this is all going to happen in the writer’s life.

These things all work together to create a career map for an author: platform, past, perspective, personal organization, and plan. And, as you can imagine, various documents are derived from this information — a writing calendar, a budget, a wish list, maybe a statement of purpose. But my goal isn’t really just to get an author to write some grand purpose statement. My goal is to help an author create a workable career plan he or she can use to move forward in their writing life. I aim to keep writers results-focused. I’ll sometimes ask an author questions such as, “What person would you most like to invest in this year?” or “What single thing would you most like to purchase this year?” or “What obstacle seems to be holding you back right now?” In talking through issues like this, we start to gain some clarity as to what an author wants to accomplish.

And, to be completely open about this, sometimes an author will work through the process and decide she really doesn’t want to be a full-time writer. And that’s okay, since the goal is to figure out the calling. I want the authors I work with to be crystal clear in their two- or three-year career plans. That way an author can understand what “success” is, and each one has a means of measuring progress. And creating a plan is more important than ever in these days of revolution in publishing. Everything is changing. The industry is being reshaped at a very fast pace. If you don’t have an overall plan, you’re in danger of being left behind.

So think this over for your own life… What’s your platform? (Get it all written down so you can share it with your agent or business manager or writing friends.) What were the significant events in your past, and what do they reveal about you? As you try to get some perspective on your writing life, how would you define success? Do you have a clear sense of personal organization, complete with writing goals, a writing calendar, and a budget? And what’s your plan? Can you write it all down and talk about it so that you know what you’re doing and where you’re going in your career?

Thoughts to ponder as you think about your career this summer. Feel free to ask me questions. (And hey, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that you’ve read this before. I was re-reading some posts I read a couple years ago, and realized I wanted to say this again. Hope you don’t mind my repeating myself.)

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  • Great perspective, Chip. One of the frustrating parts of the “career plan” for a writer is that much of it is out of your control. I like to focus on those things that are in my control such as putting in time writing, working on the craft, and submitting. Although I’m still in the pre-published novelist phase, persistence has led to bylines and speaking gigs. Focusing on those things I do control will improve my ability to make writing my day job.

    Thanks for the very comprehensive view of what it takes.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Good perspective, Dennis. That’s great of you to come on and share your own experience. Thanks.

  • FrancesCaballo says:

    This is a great post! I’m usually very organized but I suddenly find myself without a writing plan. Not a good thing for a writer, I know! I’m going to think seriously about what you’ve said here. You offer a sensible framework.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Frances. Appreciate you coming on to comment. What project and you going to start working on?

  • RachelMedhurst says:

    Thank you, Chip, this is really helpful. I’m just starting on my self publishing journey and currently have a full time day job I write around. I’m determined to make writing my career so that I can do it full time. I’m learning huge amounts at the same time as creating more content. I’m going to use your tips to create my career plan.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      That makes my heart happy, dream109. Come back and tell us how it’s going.

    • RachelMedhurst says:

      Thanks for replying, Chip! I actually just had a novella picked up by an indie publisher! Yay! 🙂

  • Thank you so much for this. I will be using these questions to help me probe the sturdiness of my proposal as I revise it. My question is to get clarification on something. If someone knew working full-time as a writer would be impossible for the near future (as far as hours she could commit or that her brand included other activities tied to her writing), is it still worthwhile to explore these issues and plan to produce content at a slower pace? Is there room in the industry for those who know they won’t be putting out a new book every year?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Of course there is, Natalie. Not every writer is a big producer. I represent a couple of wonderful literary novelists who take a long time to create a book — and some of them would like to take even longer, if they could.

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