Thursday, 27 February 2014

How to Be a More Assertive Writer

It’s an old conundrum: writers tend to be introverted, but selling your writing involves communicating with people and fighting for your work. You’ve got to be assertive if you’re going to make a living from writing, but how can you override your instinct to run every time you have to step forward and say “I have the skills/article/idea you need”?
I’ve struggled with being assertive in general, but I have improved over the past seven years. One of my goals for 2014 is to be more assertive when it comes to my writing: submit more, enter more competitions and generally get my work out where people can read it. So, I wondered, how can I apply what I’ve learnt from self-help guides to my writing? The result follows…

Life is not a rehearsal, but you can rehearse.

Rehearsing is used in many assertiveness techniques. Common ones advise you to practice saying no, for example, or to run through what you need to say. Writers often find it difficult to discuss their writing. Writing is a solitary activity and while many of us take writing courses at some point, most of what we learn about writing is gleaned from reading. When we start talking in writing workshops or discussing publishing opportunities, it feels awkward and sometimes downright weird.

The solution is to talk about your writing. Discuss your current projects with friends, talk about your career plans with your family, seek out other writers and chat to them about the writing life. I assumed that people wouldn’t be interested when I started doing this, but I found that they actually wanted me to talk about my writing. It makes sense: I take an interest in my friends’ work and interests. Talking about your writing doesn’t involve delivering a lecture on your progress every time you see someone — the goal is to make talking about your work feel natural, not to turn into a bore — but to treat writing as you treat anything else important to you. Just mention your latest project every now and then. Ask people their opinions on something related to your writing. Get used to referring to your writing without feeling embarrassed. It should be neither secret nor shameful, so stop acting as if writing is your personal equivalent to a doll fetish.

The scouts are right: you should be prepared.

The trickiest part of learning to be assertive is reacting in an assertive manner to unexpected events. If your instinct has always been flight rather than fight, you tend to default to “quiet mouse” mode. To give yourself the best chance of being able to improvise and prevail whenever you’re put on the spot, it’s essential to prepare.

Writers have a huge advantage when it comes to preparation: a lot of it involves writing. The exact preparation will depend on your writing fields and specialisms, but there is always something you can do. Write query letter templates, gather and organise details of where to submit work, keep your writing CV up to date and have writing samples ready.

Keep any information you need in an accessible place — preferably both on your computer and in hard copy. You should be able to refer to it quickly in situations when you’re under pressure and liable to feel too flustered to think, such as when you’re talking to an editor on the phone. By having word counts, contact info and deadlines at your fingertips, you will come across as reliable, organised and professional. Whenever you talk about writing, people will think of you as someone who knows your stuff — because you do.

Fake it until you make it — practice being a professional writer.

Would a professional writer dismiss their writing as a hobby? No, so neither should you. You might not yet have earned a penny from your pen, but if you’re serious about getting published and establishing yourself as a writer, you need to acknowledge that your writing is worthwhile. That’s the first step.

The next step is to set yourself tasks. Give yourself deadlines. Do writing exercises. Pretend your favourite magazine has asked you to write an article and follow the process (as closely as you can) as if it were real. If you want to freelance, get used to writing accurate, high standard copy at a fast pace. If you write fiction, practice writing themed stories. Whatever you do, don’t mope around moaning about inspiration not striking.

The idea is to get to the point where you can be confident in your abilities and persuade people to employ, represent or publish you. If an opportunity arises when you don’t expect , you want to respond in an assertive manner instead of umming and aaahing over whether you can do the work or — worse — saying you can go a brilliant job only to realise later that you’re not up to it. Being assertive isn’t about being arrogant; it’s about being realistic and honest as well as having confidence in your abilities.

Tackle your demons.

I’ve saved the hardest part for last! Being assertive is an ongoing process and there will be troughs and peaks. Few people are assertive 100% of the time and in all situations. Don’t be hard on yourself when you find yourself saying yes when you want to refuse or when you don’t put yourself forward for an opportunity. Observe your behaviour and learn about your assertiveness — you might be assertive in shops, for instance, but find it impossible to stand up to your mother. You may have no problems fundraising for charity, but can never promote yourself. Just realising these things is the first step to changing.

Meanwhile, be clear about what you want and recognise the negative thoughts to which you fall prey. If you know you’ve no interest in writing about music, for example, it’s easier to say no to someone who wants you to review an album for the local newspaper. Conversely, when your dream opportunity arises, it’s easier to put yourself forward because you know it’s what you want. Another trick is to write responses to negative thoughts and keep them hand for when they flood your mind — flashcards are ideal, but a notebook will do. It’s another type of rehearsal.

The worst outcome is a “no.”

I’m as guilty of forgetting this as the next person, but the bottom line is that the worst outcome of submitting a piece of work or a pitch is rejection. Sure, it hurts and you’ve wasted some of your time, but you’re no worse off than you were before. In fact, you’ve gained some useful experience in being more assertive.


  1. A marvellous post, Hayley. Thank you for all your helpful ideas. I love the idea of writing responses to negative thoughts in advances and keeping them handy

    I have always struggled to be assertive enough. I find it easier to be elusive, rather than have to say no! I'm probably a typical writer. I seek my own company because I prefer it and when I have to be away from my desk to socialise, I feel anxious to get back. However, with regard to writing, I am much tougher. It's the one area of my life I have cordoned off from my real personality.

    I have trained myself to submit without qualms and take rejection on the chin (after a brief wallow). I try to treat writing as a profession, just as if I went out to work and was being given tasks and deadlines in an office. That way, the process of submitting and being rejected can become routine, rather than a hurdle to overcome.

    But writing aside, I'm not destined to ever be an assertive type. I find self-promotion so difficult. I cringe when I post any news of writing success on social media, in case people think I'm being conceited! I can only manage it by reminding myself it will help bring my writing to public attention. But, in common with most writers, I would much rather hide myself away to write than talk about it. x

    1. Thanks for your wonderful comment, Joanna! I'm trying to get into the right mindset to submit more - it's one of my main objectives this year - but the negative thoughts keep cropping up. I've found the best way to deal with submission phobia is to give myself a short deadline so I don't have time for the anxiety to creep in!