As writers, we each have a unique writer identity: a public image we create and project as we establish our authorial voice and share it publicly. Sometimes, crafting your writer identity is a less conscious act; it’s simply collateral outcome of you as a writer going about the process of writing what you want to write and putting your work out there. Though at some point—often when beginning to pitch or market a book—most working authors periodically assess and may even adjust their writer identity as a way to develop or expand their audience and platforms.
That all sounds great, but where do you start?
How do you decide what your writer identity is or should be, and how do you nurture and cultivate it? How do you update it? Do you even need an identity?
Guess what: intended or not, if you’re a writer who has published or shared your work in other ways, then you already have a writer identity in the minds of your audiences. The question becomes more how to articulate that identity to yourself and sustain it in a way that feels authentic to you.
1. TAKE INVENTORY.
Begin by simply jotting down your answers to some preliminary questions you can easily ask and answer about your writing life and endeavors.
- How do I think my audience interprets me when they read my work?
- What do they remember about me or my delivery style when they see and hear me read my work?
- What image do I present via photos, videos, and my posts on social media platforms if I use them?
- What messages or elements of my authorial voice do I think resonate for people when they read or hear my stories/essays/poems?
- Where on the vastly possible spectrum is my writer identity? Close to home, as in basically like my everyday self? More theatrical? Multifaceted? Intentionally fabricated, as in using a nom de plume or even a created authorial persona?
Next, look for examples. If it seems hard to answer these questions about yourself, start by thinking about other writers you admire or consider mentors. Job down what your answers would be for those writers and then see if you can notice similar or different traits about your own writer identity. It gets kind of fun to do! For example, the writer Steve Almond is known for his eclecticism, including sometimes writing about music as a way to hold up a lens to real life. He sometimes includes music in his live readings. He’s also often hilarious, a parent (some of his author shots have shown his kids), a writing teacher, and occasionally irreverent. All of these elements and more that he allows audiences to see in his public life serve to form his writer identity.
Make lists. Your writer identity is a combination of elements you allow your audiences to observe, including things like:
- Your inventory or product: what you write and/or deliver in lyrics or videos and other performance mechanisms;
- Your writing style and authorial voice;
- The look, attire, and persona you cultivate for readings and other public events;
- Your presentation style when you give readings or speak at events or even informally in public;
- Your chosen media: Do you specialize in one format or do you work and publish across multiple platforms?
- Traits you may be known for, such as humor or bringing along your dog;
- Your public biographies;
- Images of you online;
- Published reviews and posts about you or your work;
- Anything else someone else deems newsworthy.
2. KNOW YOUR MESSAGE.
Know your message and how it’s relevant. Do you write about the same topics or a variety? Is your overall message consistent or unique to each project? Do you write about political, cultural, religious or other topics or events? In other words, what do you want to say with your writing? Your answers might evolve over time, so it’s useful to periodically reassess.
3. DEFINE YOUR AUDIENCE.
Who are you writing for? List your primary, secondary, and incidental audiences and try to decide what that tells you about your writer identity. For example, if you are a current or former athlete, do you write about your sport and target your projects toward an audience that would be invested in the topic? Do you love to travel/cook/crochet/swim, etc. and write about it? Being known for having a particular hobby, profession or lifestyle and writing about it is part of your writer identity.
Your audience might actually help to define your identity. Someone took a picture of me at an event and put it on Facebook with a nice comment about my reading. Initially, I really didn’t care for how I looked in the photo. My hair was frizzy that day; my front teeth were poking out; one eyebrow was cocked higher than the other. Later, I realized the photo was simply marvelous because it was taken and posted out of love. That person was just happy to have a picture of me. Shouldn’t I be glad that someone thought enough of me and what I read to want to post my picture on their social media in a complimentary way? That photo is still up on the Facebook and has become, for me, a cherished part of my writer identity.
4. TAKE ADVANTAGE OF YOUR COROLLARY ENDEAVORS.
Assess your skills, hobbies, and interests. For example, having another area of expertise or working in another branch of publishing, art, performance, or writing enhances your credentials and may also have a public aspect. Decide if your love of cooking or art influences and factors into your writing projects and hence your identity.
5. DECIDE WHAT IS ATTAINABLE.
Based on your message and skills, what writer identity is natural and attainable for you? For example, how do your credentials, skills, interests, and life experiences align with your work? (If you want to write about boating, but you’ve never been on a boat, you might have some homework to do.) Do you use or avoid gimmicks? Discern what your creative appeal factor is and make use of it. For example, do audiences appreciate and comment on the humor in your work? Do you want to be known as a humor writer? What if you don’t intend that, but it occurs naturally? Do you intend to expand or scale back the humor?
Know your look. Wouldn’t be caught dead without your black beret or that favorite vest? Is your chosen public look and attire close to your daily self, or does your look cue from your inventory and target audience? How far apart conceptually are these various elements? I happen to LOVE hats. I sometimes wear them in photos, and several people have mentioned that hats are part of my writer identity. People even started sending me cute hats. I’d never thought much about it, but it’s a fun, true aspect of my writer identity that mirrors my everyday self, and I am generally a come-as-you-are writer. I write in multiple genres and platforms, so I don’t really alter my look for any particular project, which, by the way, was an identity question I had to ponder for some time.
6. GET A HANDLE ON YOUR INTENDED MEDIA AND FOOTPRINT.
Where do you intentionally feature your work and your public self, and how far does your platform extend? In person? In print? Online (podcasts, social media, blogs, vlogs)? On stage? Videos, etc.? Sometimes the notion of identity is referred to as a brand. Although I personally tend to think of identity as being a little more about the person and brand as slightly more about the product—which might still be the person if you are literally the face of your brand. (That is absolutely splitting hairs and could be a whole different conversation).
7. KNOW YOUR GOALS
Beyond crafting your writer identity, how do you intend to sustain it? Modify it to suit your endeavors? Magnify it? Reinvent it? For example, while a writer like Steve Almond somewhat defies singular descriptions, it’s fair to say that the Steve Almond of the Toto video has given way in more recent years to a dad who wants to look hard at how high-impact sports like football may be physically harming our youth, hence his book Against Football. It’s still the same writer, but audiences saw his messaging and hence his writer identity gradually evolve in a new direction, and he’s still going with more recent books that carry strong political themes.
In other words…
At the end of it, your writer identity might be described as a qualitative and ever-changing sum of your writing inventory, your message, your audience, your attainability factor, your chosen media and online footprint, your corollary activities, and your goals. In other words, it’s you and what you decide it should be.
This topic is so rich! This is just the start. The most important piece of this, I believe, is to aim for the combination of synchronicity and authenticity. Have fun with it, always! If you are curious about learning more, The Narrative Project offers a SIX-WEEK deep dive class on this and more. Platform and Performance starts April 9, 2021.
Laurel Leigh holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University and a Bachelor of Arts in English and Journalism from Gonzaga University. With in-house book publishing credentials as well as fifteen years as a freelance editor for clients in the US and Sweden, Laurel Leigh’s skills as a structural editor and script doctor are highly sought by multiple publishers, producers, and individual authors. Both her memoir and fiction have been featured in the acclaimed magazine The Sun among other publications. She has taught writing classes since 2005 and is delighted to be on the team of The Narrative Project as the Next Chapter coach. www.LaurelLeighWriter.com