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How Trying (and Failing) to be a Fiction Writer Prepared Me for Marketing

August 10, 2017 marked the end of my first year in A/E/C marketing and business development. It also marked the end of the first year in ten that I have not written a short story. This is a less disturbing thought to me now than it would have been to my 18-year-old self who daydreamed of being the next Ernest Hemingway or Eudora Welty. I think this is in large part because as a marketer, I still use many of the skills I developed while writing fiction on a day-to-day basis.

Skill 1: Rejection aka Patience

“After careful review by our editors and readers, we have decided not to publish your short story. While we liked it and found it to be well-written, it is not a good fit for our journal.”

I have an archived folder of over 100 emails along these lines. Number of acceptance letters? Three. I tried to be strategic about writing. Tried to figure out which stories were most likely to be accepted based on what else the magazine published, who their audience was, how long their typical selections were, whether or not the issue was themed, and on and on. For two of my three published pieces that strategy paid off. The third was an 800-word story I jotted off in 45 minutes and sent out to a few magazines because I was exhausted by overthinking and I just wanted to see what would happen.

The above experiences have taught me to shake off failure, learn what I can from it, and start plugging away on the next project.  Also, overthinking every little detail can do as much harm as good –sometimes you just have to go with your gut, especially when deadlines are looming.

Skill 2: Editing aka Precision

Each one of my rejection letters resulted in a frenzied few days of revising, rewriting, restructuring, and time spent on I would read my stories aloud and listen to how the words sounded together, identifying clunky areas of writing. If a sentence got revised too many times and I couldn’t get it right, it got cut. Sometimes entire stories went the way of the recycle bin icon, which felt a little like cutting out a piece of my heart, but they were necessary abandonments.

All this to say I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about words. Now, when I’m drafting a cover letter or pulling together a qualifications packet I can revise to be precise and succinct. As with my fiction writing, I keep the reader in mind. What do they want to read? What will resonate with this audience/client? This process, along with working with an amazing team, has my marketing hit rate well above that of my fiction writing.

Skill 3: Research aka Curiosity

Fiction Research: What was Arizona like in the early 1900s when tuberculosis patients made up most of the population? What would it be like to deep sea dive? What equipment do you need to do it? What vegetables grow best in South Carolina? How many beads would it take to embroider an 18th century ball gown?

Marketing Research: How many projects have we worked on with Client X? Where do they have locations? Which employees are we connected with on LinkedIn? How many parcels have they purchased in AZ in the last five years? Which of our engineers in the Dallas office specializes in master planned residential communities? Have we done any aviation projects in Idaho?

You get the picture. Knowledge is power in any genre.

Skill 4: Problem Solving aka Getting Creative

In the creative writing world people like to say every story that is going to be told has already been told. The basics – man v. man, man v. nature, man v. self, man v. society – are at the heart of every tale. (I’m using “man” as a word for human but obviously, ladies rock and are crucial to literary history and life in general.) If these are the only narratives that exist, our job is not to try to invent something completely new, but to make them resonate in a new way, to create our own style.

This idea of taking what is already there and making it unique feels the most applicable to marketing and is also the most challenging. I work for an engineering firm. There are thousands of other choices for our clients. The narratives have already been told (local experience, years of experience, national clients, multidiscipline, etc.). So how do we make ourselves stand out? The only way is to get creative about messaging, to solve the same old problems in new ways, and grab the client’s attention with a new approach.

Failure is not permanent. My goal for the next year, while at Kimley-Horn, is to get a short story published again. In the meantime, I’ll keep right on marketing.

Chelsea Hickok 
Marketing and Business Development, Kimley Horn

Chelsea has been in the A/E/C industry and at Kimley Horn for just over a year. She's been an active member of SMPS for eight months and participated in the 2016-2017 Mentorship program. In her free time, Chelsea loves backpacking, wine-tasting and reading lots and lots of fiction! 

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