The Biggest Mistake I Made as a Professional Writer

Image by David Iskander via Unsplash

A few months ago, I stumbled across my report card from first grade. I squinted at the fading ink that my teacher, Mr. Opitz, had handwritten: Lynn has a knack for creative writing.

I was shocked.

I remember penning poems, generously shellacked with rainbow and ice cream-laden imagery in late elementary school. But I hadn’t realized that even in first grade, hints about the vocation I’d later choose were visible.

Much later.

Like many creative people, I have ADHD. My brain often brews wild, spontaneous ideas. But ADHD also presents some serious challenges when it comes to the more left-brained, business side of life. It was only after I became a mom that I started publishing essays — when I had less free time than ever before.

Over the past eight years that I’ve been publishing, I’ve enjoyed some writerly success. I’ve had essays go viral, I’ve published in a variety of outlets, and I’ve grown a modest social media following.

But as I prepare to shop my first memoir to agents, I’ve realized I’ve made one significant mistake.

When I began publishing essays, Facebook was in its glory days for writers and publications— it actually showed articles to fans. So whenever I published an article, I dutifully posted it on my growing Facebook page.

What I should’ve also been doing was tending to my email list. I naively thought that Facebook would continue to show my work to more and more readers; I didn’t know that, like other social media platforms, it would begin to tweak its algorithms, until it barely showed any of my articles to the thousands of followers I’d amassed.

Social media algorithms change. Publications fold, and new ones sprout up. Writers have zero control over this reality. But people still check their email. As writers, an email list is the only way we can be sure our readers will have easy access our work, including the opportunity to buy any books we’ve written.

It can be a pain in the butt to choose a email list service, figure out how to actually use it, and create content to send to readers — particularly for those of us with ADHD brains that are easily overwhelmed and prefer more immediately rewarding tasks, like capturing the newest thoughts that scorch through our minds.

But you know what’s even more of pain in the butt? Trying to make sure the existing followers who you’ve worked hard for over the years will sign up for your email list eight years later.

So now I’m spending 15 minutes here and 15 minutes there, plodding along, learning how to create a newsletter and how to entice readers to sign up for it.

I wish I’d taken these steps earlier — like eight years earlier. Had I done so, I’d probably be much better positioned to sell my memoir.

If there’s one sliver of advice I’d give to new writers — or writers like me who are late bloomers at the business side of things — it’s this: start an email list and a regular newsletter. It doesn’t matter if you send out a newsletter once a quarter or every week — it’s more important to be consistent with whatever publishing schedule you choose. If you don’t have an email list yet, you can start by sending an email out to all your friends and family and asking them if they’d like to support your writing by being on your email list. Then, as you publish articles, essays or poems, make sure new readers have a clear path to sign up for your newsletter.

While I’m a little bummed that when it comes to my email list, I’m pretty much starting from scratch, I’ve made a reluctant peace with my situation. The publishing industry is forever shifting, and it’s not always easy to adapt. But I’m persistent — after all, I’ve been a writer since first grade. Maybe I’ll try to track down good old Mr. Opitz and invite him to sign up for my newsletter.

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