Who are you? Personal vs professional branding

I am a writer. And I'm good at it. I’ve spent a lifetime developing my skills and honing my craft. I’ve worked as an employee for more years than I care to acknowledge, I’ve earned multiple formal qualifications and much valuable experience in my area of expertise. Now I run an eLiteracy consultancy, teaching creative writing and eLiteracy skills to kids. And I write fiction. I am living my dream supporting myself with my writing. I’ve worked hard for it. And it’s been a long time coming. I love what I do and I’m very happy doing it.

But there’s another side to me that’s a little less professional. Most Friday nights I sit in front of the telly with fish & chips, drinking beer and watching Glee. Sometimes on weekends, after a few bottles (or more) of red wine with friends, we jump around the lounge room like decrepit 80s rock star has-beens, playing SingStar on PlayStation. It’s not pretty (nor necessarily melodic) but it’s always fun. And occasionally I’ll go out with friends and we don’t make it home in quite the same state we were in when we left.

But this is my personal life. And during this time with close friends—in my inner sanctum—photos are taken. Photos are, after all, about creating memories with friends, and for acting as stimuli for discussion later that may or may not be restricted to facts. But these are private memories—not for public consumption. No scrutiny by strangers allowed. The world does not have a right know how or with whom I spend my leisure. Nor should it be public knowledge if occasionally I drink too much, or if I wear underwear around the house, or sweep the dust under the refrigerator instead of picking it up. Some things are just not meant to be broadcast around the world.

People are critical creatures. Every one of us. We can’t help it; it’s built into our DNA. We make snap judgements based on superficial criterion without even realising we are doing it. About everyone. All the time. And social media sites like Facebook and Twitter take this to the extreme in ways most people can’t even begin to fathom.

Building a professional brand is important to promoting your work and building your reputation. But protecting it is critical to maintaining your credibility. These days, using social media to build your brand is an essential component. Writers (like other sole traders) typically work alone, and boundaries between professional and personal branding are often blurred. Or overlooked altogether.

Everything you post online says something about you, as a person and as a professional. Every photo you upload, or are tagged in, every status update, every check-in, every link and every tweet. Every. Single. Thing. It all paints a picture of you as a person. And sometimes, you won’t like the colour or texture used because the picture is not an accurate representation.

Back in the old days when you showed someone a photo, it was a Polaroid or some such paper, and afterwards you’d put it away. You might have a laugh at the crazed expression and dilated pupils or ‘panda’ eyes as you hang between two of your friends who are propping you up, but it would remain between you and your friends. Fast forward a few years, and that photo now on Facebook becomes a permanent record. Viewers will not realise that it was the only time you’ve ever been drunk, or that you reacted badly to the two drinks you had because of your sinus medication. They won’t know that the event might’ve been years ago when you were young and now you are a respected business owner (or writer, lawyer, doctor, teacher, etc).

Similarly, once upon a time when you made an offhand or flippant comment to someone just because the thought occurred you, it would be gone and forgotten in minutes. But when you say that same thing as a tweet or status update, it becomes a permanent record that may come back to haunt you years from now. Because people make judgements, especially when they have no context. And judgements can be devastating to your reputation.

This doesn't mean that you can’t have an online personal life. It does mean that you have to be very clear (and aware) about what and how much you do share. You can maintain a personal Facebook profile safely if you understand the security settings and the ‘sharing’ and ‘subscription’ functions. And only add people you know personally. You wouldn’t invite complete strangers into your home and let them go through your personal effects, but this is exactly what you are doing when you add people you don’t know as friends on Facebook. To build your professional profile, use the Facebook fan page, or better still, LinkedIn. And don’t use social media outlets to vent. Ever!

All the work you put into building your professionalism can be completely undone by mixing your personal and professional online presence. And the damage it can do to your business is immeasurable.

In case you missed it — everything you post online says something about you, as a person and as a professional. EVERY. SINGLE. THING.

How appropriate is your writing?

I have a question for authors: do you consider conceptual content in the creation and development of your narrative to target specific subgroups within the Young Adult field? Or do you write for a general Young Adult demographic and hope that the readers will find your work?

The reason I ask is because this morning I was looking at the reading ages of Year 7 students assigned to my writers’ groups. One of the groups is comprised of 12-year-old girls with reading ages of 17+. Reading ages are based on a student’s level of understanding of the text before them and 17+ is the highest score they can get. It means that these 12-year-olds are capable of reading material that is way beyond their chronological age.

It creates an interesting dilemma. Being able to understand what they are reading at a cognitive level doesn’t necessarily mean they have the social or emotional maturity to process it. I know firsthand. I was one of those kids. Starved for appropriate reading material as a child, I was constantly scouring my house for any book (magazines didn’t do it for me) that may have found its way inside, irrespective of content appropriateness.

You see, I grew up in a household of non-readers who did not understand my voracious need to consume reading material. They tried to accommodate my need to read by giving me books for birthdays and Christmases. But they were kids’ books—understandable I suppose, given that I was a kid.  And I would devour them in hours and be left yearning for more.

There was the odd occasion when a popular-culture book would find its way into the house and I, in all my juvenile wisdom, would pinch it from my mother’s bedside table, take it back to my room and read until the early hours of the morning.  Of course, reading Mills and Boone at age ten probably scarred me for life. But the book that terrified me for years was The Exorcist (1971) by William Peter Blatty. I was eleven when I read that. And with catholic religious instruction in my early childhood, I was convinced that the devil was alive and well and would possess me in my sleep. I spent the next few months walking around like a zombie because the nightmares that plagued me left me so sleep deprived I could barely function. At about the same age, I read Jaws (1974) by Peter Benchley. Reading that meant I was too terrified to swim. I wouldn't get into the water. Any water. Not even my cousins three-foot deep above-ground swimming pool. Just in case.

There was no reading material available to me to fill the gap between cognitive development and social/emotional development. The two don’t necessarily advance at the same rate, and the disparity can sometimes be great. So without having someone around with enough awareness of the issue and knowledge of the literary world who can guide and advise, a child can be left flailing while attempting to fill a void they cannot identify and of which they have no understanding.

Thankfully, nowadays there are a few more options for young readers with chronologically older reading ages. In the technological context of childhood these days (ugh, I sound sooo old), information is so much more readily available to kids. They’re able to get online and seek out titles. They can search library catalogues themselves, they can source books from author websites, read blogs, join reading and book communities and connect with other readers like them. But there still seems to be a bit of a gap in the market.

I asked this particular writers’ group what kind of material they like to read. They’ve mostly all read the Harry Potter and Twilight series (remember they are 12), but many also enjoy the classics from Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters. The Cherub series by Robert Muchamore was very popular as “something to get lost in to pass the time", and the Tomorrow series (Tomorrow When the War Began et al) by John Marsden also featured highly. Romance, fantasy and mystery, were genres of choice.

None of these authors (except Bronte and Austen, of whom I was not even aware until I’d reached high school and found the library) were writing when I was young. And I’m pleased to note that for the past ten years or so, more authors (many of whom dealt with similar reading issues themselves as children) are developing a greater awareness of the need to target their narrative to specific groups of kids.

So again, my question to authors is this: do you consider conceptual content in the creation and development of your narrative, and target specific subgroups within the Young Adult field? Or do you write for a general Young Adult demographic and hope that the readers will find your work?