When people ask me for advice about how to get started as a professional writer, my answer is simple: Learn how to network. It’s a bit counterintuitive, since so much writing advice is based on becoming a better writer. But good writing is subjective; there will always be someone who doesn’t get or appreciate your work, no matter how good it is. Experience, on the other hand, is seen as objective. A person with many articles to their credit will be seen as a good, qualified writer, even if they’ve been terrible for years. Writing opportunities are a function of knowing the right person at the right time, which simply means “someone in need of a writer at that moment.”
A basic key to effective networking is having a functional icebreaker. Rather than slogging through minutes of inane small talk, the conversation immediately becomes memorable. One of my favorite icebreakers is, “What’s the worst conversation you’ve ever had?” It’s a fun question because: a) no one is ever asked that; and b) it necessitates a great deal of thought. It’s a challenge even establishing what “worst” means. It’s finding out that your grandmother had a stroke; it’s getting laid off from a dream job; it’s learning that your wife is having an affair.
Invariably my question gets reflected back to me, and I have an answer at the ready. I even have the exact date when said conversation happened: July 17th, 2009. I was wrapping up lunch with my friend Justine when I got a text from my buddy Anthony. Anthony had been having a tough time. His dad had been in the hospital in a very bad state for several weeks, and the doctors weren’t sure what was wrong.
Apologizing to Justine, I took the call. “What’s going on?” I asked.
He sighed. “We just got the diagnosis. It’s Stage IV cancer that’s spread to the liver from the colon. They’re telling me lots of different things, but I can’t think straight and my phone doesn’t have any reception. Can you go online and tell me how bad that actually is?”
“Of course. I’ll be home very soon. I’ll call you right away.” I hung up the phone and explained the situation to Justine. But as bad as the news was, this wasn’t what made it the worst conversation I’d ever had.
It was the next thing Justine said that did it: “Oh, have you been watching Breaking Bad?”
“It’s about a chemistry teacher who has inoperable cancer, so he opens up a meth lab.”
I assumed I was misunderstanding her. “I’m telling you my friend’s dad has Stage IV cancer, and you’re telling me to watch some TV show?”
“Oh yeah, no, that’s terrible,” she said, slightly bored and not at all embarrassed. “But it’s still a great show.”
As I took the train home, I wondered why Justine had rattled me so much. Working in New York City media, I’d heard many past instances of obnoxious tactlessness. Hell, I was usually the one spouting such things. Everything Justine said was true. Nor did she know Anthony. I didn’t believe that strangers are owed empathy—and even if so, it can’t be a very informed empathy. I realized that her words showed that Justine and I weren’t actually having a conversation. Rather, she was delivering a broadcast. She wanted to talk about Breaking Bad, and when she heard the word “cancer,” she followed it like a hyperlink into her own list of prepared topics.
I use this story because it’s a lot easier to remember a powerful counterexample than to apply an abstract principle. Justine was an extreme case, but the interaction codified a very useful lesson. Social media has turned us all into broadcasters. This isn’t a purely bad thing, nor is it entirely new. For decades, politicians and businesspeople have been taught to “answer the question you would like, not the question actually asked.” It’s a way to stay on message, and there’s a time and a place for it. But that time and place is not when you’re trying to maintain a relationship with someone.
The most basic writing tip is that good writing consists of showing and not telling. In the same way, it’s better to show that you’re a writer and not tell. In the first conversation you have with a new contact, there’s no need to go on and on about how much you enjoy writing and how you’re looking for work. It’s far more important to establish rapport—meaning to have a dialogue—than to demonstrate one’s writing chops (which is almost impossible to do in a conversation anyway). This is especially the case with beginners, who don’t have a track record. When it comes to personal interactions, broadcasting makes for bad networking.
My current business cards have no contact info. This forces any potential client to Google me—which shows them my résumé and credentials. It’s unique (which makes it memorable) and it’s mysterious (which makes it intriguing). Because it makes an impression, I’ve received calls even a year later because someone needed a writer and they remembered meeting me—and that someone almost certainly hasn’t read anything I’ve ever written.
This might seem like obvious advice, but I encounter broadcasting literally every time I attend an event. I mention a book deal, and the other person starts talking about their manuscript at length. They feel that this is their one chance to make an impression. Unfortunately, the impression they made is the not the one they sought. By telling me how amazing they are, they showed me quite the opposite.