Strategic Swatting

Every so often, I realize that I actually learned something useful in my business classes. While this comes as something of a shock, I shouldn’t be so surprised. Writing is a business. Ergo, business theory occasionally applies.

Take, for instance, strategic planning. It’s a lovely buzz-phrase. It sounds clever and important. Basically it is a response to the question, “I want to be/do/have X, how do I get there?” It’s a question writers have, too, especially when one is talking career.

In order to answer “how do I get there?” we have to decide where “there” is. Yes, good old goal-setting is a first step. Let’s say: Writer Jane wants to get an editor seriously interested in buying a book. She can’t MAKE an editor buy her work, but she can do her best to get firmly on the radar. Good. Simple. We’re on track to a strategic plan.

So how does Jane form an action plan for getting herself in the game? One tool is called a SWOT analysis. No, it doesn’t have anything to do with special ops guys with rifles. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. The business or person doing the analysis makes a list of each category with reference to their stated goal. That is, what strengths does Writer Jane have that will advance her toward the goal of getting on an editor’s radar? What weaknesses? Not all of her strengths/weaknesses will apply. What could be a strength one time (she’s a great writer of sex scenes) may be a weakness the next time around (the editor in question avoids writers with a reputation for writing hot). It’s important to keep the goal firmly in mind and think carefully about how well each item on the list fits.

So, what goes in each list?

Strengths = internal strengths. What do you bring to the table? A great work ethic? A fabulous proposal? A talent for characterization? A background in marketing and promotion?

Weaknesses = internal drawbacks. Where do you fall down? Can’t finish a project without a gun to your head? You haven’t a clue about promotion? Time challenges?

Opportunities = external strengths. Is the market for your kind of book trending up? Is that publisher opening a new line absolutely suited to you?

Weaknesses = external problems. The publisher you want to pitch to is folding. Nobody likes your sub-genre anymore. The market is glutted.

Of course, the more specific and insightful you make your goal and your lists, the better information you’re going to get. Then, once you’ve done the analysis, you’re ready to do your planning. The object, of course, is to work your plan so that you end up with lots of strengths and few weaknesses.

Step one is figuring out how closely your strengths match the opportunities available. This is where you will find your competitive advantage. For instance, if publisher X is launching a new line of medical mysteries and, hey, you spent twenty years working in Emergency, you have an edge. It’s amazing how confident this process can make you feel, and how well it prepares you for making a pitch to an editor. But don’t stop there: make your competitive advantage everything it can be. How can you enhance your strengths? Or do you need to adjust your goal for a better fit? The closer the alignment between your goal, opportunities and assets/abilities, the greater is your likelihood of success.

Step two applies to the weaknesses and threats. How can you make this list shorter? What weaknesses can you mitigate? Can you convert disadvantages to opportunities? If no one is publishing books about roller-skating zombie FBI agents, can you be the first in the field with this—um—original concept?

The objective of the SWOT is to generate plans and ideas. When it works well, it can take one a long way from fuzzy thought to detailed to-do list. I find it useful for organizing priorities. This makes a good basis for talking to an editor or agent—you’ve done your brainstorming in advance and will have something to say for yourself when you pick up the phone.

A final thought: a quick search on Google will give you a ton of links to SWOT tools and examples which are interesting and possibly fun to play with. However, it doesn’t need to get any more complex than what I’ve listed above. It’s the thinking part that counts, and no software can tell you what your dreams are.

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