Career Advice

‘A Language Game’: NYT Bestseller Austin Kleon Explains How Freelancers Should Promote Themselves

By Aubre Andrus October 22nd, 2014

For some creative professionals, selling your work is the same as selling out. But Austin Kleon knows otherwise. As a “writer who draws,” he’s filled his blog with side projects and inspiration that eventually led to multiple New York Times bestselling books. In a way, Kleon turned self-promotion from a chore into a craft.

His latest book, Show Your Work!, started as a blog post inspired by a talk at a community college and outlines how we can all self-promote in a thoughtful way—by sharing. While traditional networking often feels disingenuous, Kleon believes we can effectively market our professional selves by sharing work and ideas that are important to us.

Kleon spoke to The Freelancer about why you should share your process before your product, how becoming a documentarian can help your career, and how to build your own “scenius,” a group of like-minded individuals you can collaborate with and support.

What inspired you to write Show Your Work!?

When I was on tour with Steal Like an Artist, the big question was not “How can I be more creative?” It seemed to be “How do I get my work out there?” So I thought about this question, and I really feel like the people I look up to today who do it well are not really as concerned with self-promotion as they are with sharing. They’re interested in sharing their work and their ideas and the things that interest them. In the act of sharing things, they build up an audience they can then use for whatever they want.

How can I find my “scenius”?

Sometimes it’s all about making that one connection that hooks you up to the network. I think people have this mistaken notion that the way to get connections is to stick yourself in front of a lot of people, whereas I think the way to make connections is to be someone worth being connected to. Supposedly, [writer] Barry Hannah once said, “Have you tried making yourself a more interesting person?” I don’t think that’s bad advice.

Barry Hannah once said, “Have you tried making yourself a more interesting person?” I don’t think that’s bad advice.

How can creative professionals best use social media for sharing and self-promotion?

I think the Internet and social media allow us to share things in a way that has the same benefits of networking without doing the gross work of traditional networking. Social media can be a wonderful place to connect with an audience, a wonderful place to share your work, and it can also be a huge distraction. The big hesitation people have about self-promotion is that it’s going to ruin their work or take away time they spend working.

When you go on social media, you do it with intention and purpose. Instead of going on to waste time, go on with specific goals in mind—to get inspiration for an idea, to share your work, or to ask a question to your audience. The best advice for social media is to set aside a very specific block of time to work on it. It’s just about being as disciplined with social media as you would be with your own work.

If I have multiple talents, how can I best explain what I do to my audience?

Even my work is hard to define. Is it poetry? Is it art? Is it writing? And for a long time I was a web designer and a writer and an artist. For a while I was “a copywriter who codes.” Now I’m “a writer who draws.”

It’s mostly a language game, which should be easier for us writers to accurately summarize the essence of what you do and what makes you stand out from other writers. Why should I care about your work versus anyone else? For example, I also used to say, “I like pictures, words, and the web.” It’s just about coming up with those little formulaic phrases.

The problem is most creative people think they’re above the elevator pitch. But you have to be able to simplify first in order to get people’s attention.

What kind of work should I be sharing with my audience?

I’m not an advocate for sharing everything. I’m very much an advocate for sharing things that have a life to them that you want to share and that you feel good about putting out. Be careful about what you share because if you share a piece of work that you don’t like and people like it, you’ll be stuck doing this work—and that applies to client work, too. For freelancers, if you constantly take on client work you can’t stand, well, work begets work. That’s a death spiral.

How do I know which of my ‘great ideas’ is worth pursuing?

I just figured out a way to do a bunch of different things and see what people responded to. When you’re first starting out, what you want to do is try a lot of things. You don’t want to just limit yourself to one thing.

I’ve noticed that people who get big—a lot of my friends who built careers from being online—they really didn’t have a plan. They found one thing that was interesting to them, and they kind of had this feeling like, “I don’t really know what to do with this, but I’m going to put it online.” They were genuinely interested in something and then put it out there, and people showed up or they didn’t. A lot of times, it was a side project that became the big event for me.

Why are you so adamant about documenting your work?

I have about five years of pretty intense logging of my activities. I can tell you what seasons when my work tends to go to shit and when I have issues and what the patterns are for me creatively. That’s the intrinsic value. I think there is actually a two-step process. One is what you do in your day. There’s value in that whether you share it or not. Keep track of your hours, what you’re doing, what you’ve read.

And then there’s a separate exercise—what have I gained in this experience that might be interesting or useful to people? For example, I was researching this article on human rights and I came across this amazing poem that I couldn’t use in the piece but I threw it on my Tumblr. The metaphor I use is: You’re a filmmaker, and you’re making a film—what’s in your deleted scenes? If you give away the DVD extras while you’re making the movie, that makes people want to see the movie.

If I’m sharing things for free, how am I making any money?

I never worry about giving too much stuff away online. There’s a woman named Ann Friedman who started this newsletter called the Ann Friedman Weekly, and every week she has links to the freelance articles she wrote, but then she also shares everything she’s reading at the moment and funny animated gifts and testimonials of people who read the newsletter. She’s getting ideas out there and doing assignments and she’s building this audience. It’s free and she’s giving it away, but she’s finding a good way to write in other places that she doesn’t own and building this thing up at the same time.

Who’s doing the kind of work you want to do, and what’s their hustle? Figure out how to reverse-engineer it. Especially in creative fields, it’s really interesting to see how other people in other creative fields are making a living. I’ve always found a lot of inspiration from the design field and photography. A lot of people could stand to be a little less creative in their work and a little more creative in their business model.

Image by Austin Kleon
Tags: , ,