Business Planning For Writers: The Five Word Benchmark

Hardworking. Prolific. Savvy. Surprising. Great.

I figure I can lay claim to maybe one of these words, if I’m on-point with my writing, on any given day. More often I aim simply aiming for one, and falling frustratingly short.

But as of today they’re taped to the wall, beside my projects list. A reminder of what I’m striving for with this whole writing thing. Not necessarily in the work, but in terms of what I’d like to think when I look back over my career.

They’re not set in stone yet. I’m going to live with them for a few days, stare at them the same way I stare at the active projects list. Ponder whether each word is right, and change it as needed. Savvy was originally smart, for instance, when I wrote the first draft of the list in my notebook. Smart didn’t cut it as a long-term ambition.

Savvy worked better, captured that feeling of knowledge put into practice rather than hoarded for its own sake. You can be savvy about your career. You can be savvy about the genre you’re writing in. You can be savvy about craft, in general.

I want that. Just like I want the other things.


I backed away from talking about business models for writers last week, but then, I backed away from everything last week. My CPAP machine was broken and I was subsisting on very little sleep. Existing on very little sleep meant the depression meds weren’t working as well as they should, and so my ambition dropped down to sit on the couch, watch TV for sixteen hours, just so I could really get a good bout of self-loathing up-and-running.

At the same time, a whole bunch of people were basically hitting me up on social media and saying yo, more of this, please. And, occasionally, you’re over-simplifying this, yes? 

Yes. Because it’s enormously complex. And blogs don’t handle complexity well, in isolation.

But it did get me to sit down and start thinking through the problems of talking about business planning and business models. And, in particular, the problem of me talking about those things.

I dance along an interesting line, when it comes to blogging. I enjoy sitting down and writing about writing, for the same reason I enjoy teaching writing – it feeds into one of those five impulses that gets me to sit down and write. It lets me display savvy, or talk about process in a way that highlights being prolific and/or hardworking.

Usually, that works as part of my process, but when my sleep gets interrupted or I start heading into particularly negative ruminative thinking, blogging replaces my process. It’s work that feels like moving forward, without actually doing so. It becomes talking about what I want my career to be, rather than actually doing those things.

And this is actually a business planning problem, believe if it not, in addition to me dealing with my dodgy brain chemistry.

If you don’t define success, you can’t achieve it.

And while success seems easy to define – I get a book published, or I earn enough from writing to quit my dayjob – those are false benchmarks. Writing purely for the money isn’t going to make you happy, or even be sustainable

But when you put together half a definition of success – the kind where you’ve identified what you want, but not how you realistically expect to get there – it’s easy to get diverted. You scrambled down rabbit holes and follow false leads. You invest your energy in ways that aren’t the best use of your energy.

I’ve never had much illusion about what I want from writing. I got started as a writer because I was looking for a sense of connection, a way of finding people who liked what I liked and saw the world in the same way I did. I kept writing because I could start seeing career paths that seemed possible and pleasurable – not full-time fiction writing, but I’ve been in jobs that required writing skills and writing practice since I was twenty.

And, over time, I laid goals over the top of that. It wasn’t enough to be in writing-adjacent careers – I wanted to actually write fiction. It wasn’t enough to just write fiction – I wanted to be prolific and I wanted to be good.

People are complex. We rarely distil out motivations down to a singular thing.


The problem with talking about writer business models is this: there’s a chicken and the egg kind of relationship going on. You can’t figure out what your business model is until you know the kind of writer you want to be. You can’t figure out what kind of writer you want to be, until you’ve looked at the business models and see what’s possible.

One continues to refine the other, and vice versa.

I’ve been particularly confused about all of this recently, thanks to a few years of health and mental health issues. So, over the weekend, I went back to first principles. What kind of writer do I want to be? What kind of words do I want associated with my career, when I look back over what I’ve done.

Hardworking. Prolific. Savvy. Surprising. Great.

Hitting two or more of those benchmarks is the point where I stop feeling like I’m flailing against the darkness and start feeling like I’m progressing towards the kind of writer I want to be.

It might not seem like a list that has a big impact on the kinds of career choices I make, but it affects everything. Those five words are the beginning of the research phase, the high-level strategy that guide everything else.

They don’t tell me what success is, but they tell me how to recognise it.

And I figure that’s a decent starting point, if you’re trying to figure this out. Take the week, figure out the five words that you’re chasing as a long-term description of your writing career. Put them down somewhere, all concrete and solid, where you have to see them often.

They don’t have to be set in stone – shouldn’t be, in fact – but they aren’t a bad foundation to have as you start contemplating everything else.


  1 comment for “Business Planning For Writers: The Five Word Benchmark

  1. 27/09/2016 at 7:45 AM

    I saw the pic on FB and wasn’t quite prepared to ask about what the words were about. I really didn’t want to ask more of you coming off a bad health week. But holy shit, thank you for explaining it! And you know what? Thanks for the much needed ass-kicking to sit down and figure out the business side more fully. Clearly, I still have a habit of avoidance there.

    As always, you rock.

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