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Writing - Are You A Gold Prospector or A Craftsman

Updated on January 3, 2012

There are two kinds of writers - craftsman and gold prospectors.

Umberto Eco is the perfect example of the craftsman - he spent 8 years writing his best-seller, "The Name of the Rose". It's been followed by a string of best-sellers; "Foucault's Pendulum", "The Island of the Day Before", and "Baudolino". He has also written several books of essays: "Five Moral Pieces", "Kant and the Platypus", "Serendipities", "Travels In Hyperreality", and "How To Travel With a Salmon and Other Essays".

The internet has popularized a new type of writer - the gold prospector. The gold prospector knows that most claims he stakes won't pay off. Most his digging will be in vain. Most books are destined to find few readers. The rare post will race to the top of the blogosphere.

But one big strike is all he needs - it has the potential to make his reputation and set him up for life. There is a lot of day-to-day risk, but if he is prolific he can manage his long-term risk. The art of gold prospecting is learning to maximize the chance of getting a big strike. Gold prospectors are gamblers - relying on probability to ensure success in the long-term.

The math goes like this. Say your chance of success is only 2%. If you write 50 articles - then at least one of them should be hot. If you write 1000 articles, then 20 of them will likely be popular. A writing prospector can thrive despite the low odds, but he needs to be prolific and learn the art of maximizing his chances of a strike.

You could say how can the prospector market those 500 articles. The rise of the Internet and eBooks has made the marketing much more manageable for the prospector. In the past, new writers could collect hundreds of rejections before publishing their first book. Now writers can self-publish to Amazon Kindle while learning the ropes.

If you are a gold prospector most projects will be failures. You'll lose time and money. But other projects will succeed beyond your expectations. It averages out over time. It is very difficult to predict success ahead of time, but there are Google tools that let you check the popularity of different keywords and the zeitgeist of different topics.

Some writers are simply not interested in prospecting. Their temperament is best suited to craftsmanship. I'm convinced that either approach to writing can work. Prospectors and craftsmen have different spirits, but can be equally successful. Prospectors accept failures as part of their business, whereas craftsman would rather avoid failures entirely.

Which type of writer are you?


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