10 Takeaways from ASJA 2016


I just attended my first American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) annual writer’s conference in New York City. This year’s theme was “Change. Challenge. Opportunity,” and the 34 panels were broken up into four categories: Books and Beyond, Work-life, Pro-tips and Essentials.

With two keynote speakers, approximately 150 panelists and 400 journalists, authors and freelance writers crammed into two jam-packed days, it was impossible to catch everything (99% of panels were recorded for future listening).

Here is a list of 10+ takeaways based on the panels that I attended.

We all struggle with time management.

In Laura Vanderkam’s keynote speech on Day 1, the best-selling author of time-management and productivity books spoke on the challenge of managing time efficiently.  We all have the same amount of time (168 hours per week), she reminded us. The trick is how to use that time.

Vanderkam provided a list of tips and strategies like: imagining it’s the end of the year and giving yourself a performance review (what 3-5 things did you do that were great this year?), adopting a portfolio approach to your time and sticking to the schedule (with time allotted for writing/editing, strategic planning, speculative skill building, visibility, and nurturing existing relationships), and treating your priorities like, well, real priorities (if your house flooded, you would deal with it right away and not procrastinate, right?).

But the one that resonated with me the most was, “Let it go. Done is better than perfect.” It seemed to encapsulate what a lot of us waste time on, namely trying to make something perfect, which of course is another way to avoid finishing it.

Social media is a love/hate relationship for most of us.

Not surprisingly, during the panel on “disconnecting,” several of us admitted to spending far too much time on social media and not knowing how to stop, even though we want to.

Panelists Susan Isaacs, a prolific best-selling author, Damon Brown, TED Speaker and author of several books on intimacy and technology, and Jordan Teicher, a senior editor for Contently, shared their own struggles with distractions, as well as tips to increase productivity, including using apps that block internet usage, writing down your intentions for the day, scheduling “palette cleansers” at intervals (like taking a walk or stretching), adhering to a structure for the day, not looking at the phone before going to bed or first thing in the morning, and taking social media breaks.

One thing they didn’t encourage was going low tech. As Jordan Teicher said, “Tech ultimately makes you a better writer.”

Technology is our friend, not our enemy.

On that note, it’s worth noting that throughout the conference, people used their phones, iPads and computers to take notes, as well as to live-tweet (search #ASJA2016 on Twitter). Every panelist’s name was listed with his/her Twitter handle. There were at least two panels about how to use technology to be a better journalist, including Sandeep Junnarkar’s panel on how to better use your mobile phone for reporting, and conference superstar Sree Sreenivasan’s “sneaky new high-tech reporting tools” (I missed it, but heard there was standing room only). There was also a panel on using social media moderated by social media expert Dorri Olds (650,000 YouTube views, 35,000 Twitter followers, 5,000 Facebook likes), and an extensive panel on everything you need to know about self-publishing moderated by Bibliocrunch’s CEO, Miral Sattar.

The sum total message – technology is an integral part of not only our world, but also our business, writing, marketing, work/life balance, and publishing.

An author’s success is directly related to his/her HUSTLE – Tanya Hall

In the “50 Ways to Tell a Story” panel, Tanya Hall, CEO of Greenleaf Books, explained that the content that sells the best is “actionable” and that authors who are the most successful really work at the marketing. In the “Six Figure Freelancing” panel, Jodi Helmer said she sends pitches every day, while Wendy Helfenbaum said she sends out five letters of introduction every day, using pre-crafted letters that she tweaks for the specific publication/niche.

Another panelist, Lottie Joiner, said she follows up with people who view her LinkedIn profile. Panelist Juliette Fairley said she makes sure to talk to each vendor at the conference and pitch as many editors as possible. Fairley’s hustle is so on-point, she came away from last year’s conference with close to $10,000 in work!

Which brings to mind what panelist one panelist said he saw on a Chinese fortune cookie the night before, “Winners create their own luck.”

If you don’t think you can make a lot of money, you won’t. – Wendy Helfenbaum

I showed up a few minutes late to the six-figure panel (I purchased the recorded version to listen to all of it later), but what I heard was nothing short of revelatory. The speakers shared some practical but powerful tips, including:

  • Don’t focus on rate per word, focus on hourly rate, which means keeping track of your time and reducing the amount of time it takes to get things done.
  • Do what you don’t want to do first thing so you get it out of the way.
  • Don’t follow trends, be exactly who you are, go with what you like to do and what you’re good at.
  • Focus on the things that will make you money, charge rush fees, and (my personal favorite) ask for more money. Helfenbaum’s way of asking is, “That seems a little low. Do you have any wiggle room?”

You are the brand, not your work.

Most of us would probably prefer to sit at our computers and write rather than think about branding, but we would be unwise to ignore branding altogether, according to multiple panelists.

Branding is the image that we project into the world (basically, who people think we are) and, in many cases, that is how/why we get work and sell our stories and books.

Our brand is everything we do, from what we write about, to what we post on social media. To that end, panelists suggested not confusing social media with social life, but rather using social media wisely and strategically. It’s a powerful and necessary tool, but it can also be a time-suck. Keep in mind, we are leaving a digital footprint every time we post, and editors/clients do look us up when considering us for work.

Many of us struggle with “Imposter Syndrome.”

In the “Building Up Your Writer’s Confidence” panel, successful author Amy Ferris (Marrying George Clooney: Confessions from a Midlife Crisis) admitted that she still feels crushed when rejected, and often wakes up feeling like at any moment the world is going to realize that she is a fraud.

The trick is to go towards the fear, not run away from it. Ferris explained that her way of coping with anxiety is actually to share it on social media. “Share your truth,” she urged writers. “You’re not a fraud. You’re human.”

While sharing on social media might not be everyone’s style, other panelists remarked that writing our fears and anxieties down, or sharing them with another person like a therapist or friend, does, in fact, help quell the inner emotional storms. Best-selling author Daniel Paisner had a different approach: “Nice is for family and friends. Publishing is a contact sport.”

My favorite takeaway from this panel was the mantra that one author tells himself on a daily basis: “Cape on. Dukes up!”

It’s all about relationships.

Several writers I met said their favorite aspect of the conference wasn’t necessarily the panels, but meeting other writers. I met writers from NY (including upstate!), Washington D.C., Denver, San Diego, Los Angeles, Tennessee, Atlanta and Texas.

People mentioned keeping in touch with writers, as well as editors as they move to different publications. One friend was beaming after meeting several of her regular editors in person for the first time. It makes such a difference!

Keep learning.

Several panelists mentioned taking a course in their field at some point in the last few years. For example, Lottie Joiner took a class at American University called Interactive Journalism. Years later, when a client asked if she could do a podcast, she could say yes because she took that course. It really stuck with me that journalists, just like lawyers and doctors, have to continually increase knowledge base.

Do good work, have fun, and keep it all in perspective.

The final takeaway for me was that we do our best work when we love what we do, and the best marketing is doing good work.

Also, life is short. Writing might be our passion, but enjoying life should be the goal. That means taking time to find work/life balance, unplugging sometimes, and getting out into the world to travel, eat good food and experience new things.

Finally, another favorite quote of the weekend, “Writing is the transfer of energy.”

Protect that energy and use it well, and may you have a long, fulfilling and prosperous writing life!

The early bird gets the worm – or, in this case, the pitch.

Something that I will do differently next time is sign up earlier for the conference. I signed up too late to participate in Client Connections, a one-on-one session with editors, agents and publishers. Several writers mentioned getting work from these “speed-dating” style sessions.

Again, the above takeaways are based on the panels I attended. I’m looking forward to listening to all the other panels that I missed!

See you next year, ASJA.