I keep a sign over my desk that reads, “Reculer pour mieux sauter”. That translates as, “Step back in order to leap forwards.”
It’s a reminder to draw back from the busyness of everyday work, look around and ask myself if I’m working on relevant projects and moving my business in the right direction.
A creative plan is one way to answer these difficult questions. It only takes a few hours to craft a creative plan, and, provided you update it regularly, it will serve as the north star when in the trenches of creative work.
Let’s cover the key components of a creative plan.
1. Business Plan
Business owners and managers decide on a company’s goals and achieve them with current resources. This thinking underpins a typical business plan. However, many creators rail against business planning because it feels staid and boring. Orna Ross, director of the Alliance of Independent Authors, told me:
“Sometimes authors get in their own way by saying, ‘I don’t like marketing' or ‘Business is evil’. Those kinds of long-examined belief systems can really stop people from progressing.”
Any creator who wants to earn a full-time living from their work spends part of their working week, month or quarter on revenue-generating activities. It’s a good idea to pick one financial metric per creative project. For example:
- An author picks a book sales goal
- A course creator calculates how many courses they’d like to sell
- A coach decides how many clients they need to hire
“The thing about the creative planning method is it’s very flexible. It isn’t like traditional, conventional business planning, which tends to be very linear and divide everything up into little boxes,” says Ross. “Set yourself a profit target and assign days and assign times.
As part of your creative plan, ask and answer this question:
How will my current creative project earn money, so I can pay myself and invest in my creative business?
Get your numbers right, and you can use the profits from creative project A for creative project B. For example, a coach could use earnings from their services to hire a podcast editor. This enables them to produce and publish higher-quality podcasts, thus improving the quality of their creative work. Later on, these podcasts episodes could translate into additional course sales.
Track Your Numbers
It’s fine to write poetry, literary fiction or record videos, if you’ve no intention of earning a living from it. However, a good business plan includes meaningful revenue-focused metrics. Creative work is no different. Consider New York Times journalist David Brooks who wrote:
“Creative people think like artists but work like accountants.”
Yes My. Brooks! A good business plan sets out targets for each project in terms of revenue, growth or some other relevant metric. Selecting the right lead and lag measures can help with this. While writing this component, consider if you want to change any elements of your business strategy.
For example, many genre fiction authors opt for the write fast and publish often option. However, this model may not make sense for non-fiction authors who could earn more by creating an online course. Some authors also find the publish fast option leads to creative burnout. Ross said:
“With more stock as a publisher… you can sell more rights, you can reach more readers, there’s no doubt about that with more books, but it’s only one model.”
Determine a range for key business metrics too. Rather than deciding “I will earn $5000 from book sales this quarter”, you could say, “I will earn $4000-6000 from book sales this quarter”.
This range allows room for adapting to circumstances beyond your control or evolving business priorities.
2. Marketing Plan
Content marketing is an effective strategy for any creator who wants to promote their work. It’s free, suited for creative work and a proven method for generating an income. Ross said:
“If you’re on social media, reaching your readership, making that as creative and as interesting as possible is the only way these days to stand out.”
A good marketing plan for creators answers these questions:
- Who is my ideal target audience, follower or customer?
- How often will I market and promote my work?
- Where will I promote and share my work?
- What format will I use?
- What metrics will I use to track success e.g. book sales, new Twitter followers, email subscribers etc.?
- How will I acquire reviews or referrals from customers or clients?
With a defined marketing strategy, you write a book, create a course, record a podcast or pursue a creative project, all while knowing who it’s for and how you intend to connect with them.
This component of a creative plan enables creators to take one creative asset and repurpose it for their preferred social media platforms. For, example, you could turn a podcast interview into an article or shareable audiograms for Twitter. Or you could write up what you learnt and share this with your followers over email.
A savvy content creator allocates an hour each day, a day each week, or a quarter each year to their content marketing activities. Deciding how much time to spend on content marketing depends on the status of your current creative project and goals for the year. Consistency is more important than the volume of time spent on marketing.
“In this quarter, I might concentrate on making because I want to get a book,” says Ross. “Whereas next quarter, I might concentrate on marketing because I want to make sure people discover this book that I’ve just written.”
Build an Editorial Calendar
A good editorial calendar is the backbone of any content marketing plan. It provides a creative strategy by outlining:
- What you’re going to publish
- Where you’ll publish it
- When you’ll publish it, i.e. your release schedule
- Relevant SEO keywords for articles
An editorial calendar can help you plan out a book, podcast or blog release schedule in advance. It will also help you identify if you need to spend extra time or resources working with freelancers. For example, you may decide to hire a freelance book cover designer or podcaster editor so you can hit each of the deliverables on an editorial calendar.
Some professional indie authors, like Sean Platt and Johnny B.Truant of Sterling and Stone, prepare a publication schedule for an entire year. This marketing plan component helps them determine what to write, and who they’ll collaborate with. It also enables them to balance writing with book marketing.
3. Creative Work
An effective content creator builds time into their creative plan for deep work, an area where creative planning diverges from typical business planning.
A writer spends two or three hours each morning working on their book or on freelance commissions. A podcaster block books part of their day to record and edit episodes. A vlogger knows how and when they’ll record episodes for YouTube. Ideally, your creative work or projects will feel exciting and grow the business in some meaningful way. Ross said:
“It’s like balancing the passion and the profit. What project will do both? That’s what you’re looking for, or what take on your project will do both?”
A good creative plan also allows time for creative risks and even play. Ross said:
“A creative plan also builds into it time for creative rest and creative play, which we can neglect as creatives, so that would be part of the manager’s role to make sure that the right level of that was going on.”
As part of creative play, you could write poetry, visit an art museum or teach yourself how to create images for the web using a tool like Figma. These tasks won’t generate an income directly, but they nourish a creator and help them improve their craft.
Pick a Creative Theme
Many professional content creators I’ve interviewed pick a single creative theme or big rock per quarter. They focus most of their creative time or resources on this project, usually working on it first thing. Example creative themes include:
- Writing or editing the first draft of a book
- Creating a new digital course
- Batch recording a series of podcast interviews
- Writing or commissioning content as part of an editorial calendar
Picking a single creative theme doesn’t mean every other project falls by the wayside. You still have to keep the wheels moving by paying freelancers, sorting out the books before a tax return and checking in with customers, clients or students. But if you’ve only a few hours on any given day for focused work, it informs how you’ll spend it. Ross said:
“Your number one thing, whatever is most important to you in that day, in that week, in that time period, in that quarter, get that done first.”
Although you may overestimate how much it’s possible to achieve in a day or a week, 90 days or a season is enough time to make meaningful progress on a creative project.
Professional creators dedicate time and attention each week to improving their craft. A podcaster learns how to edit more effective intros for his show. A YouTuber practices inserting hooks into her videos, to ensure viewers return more frequently. A copywriter dives into the world of A/B testing, so they can deliver better value to clients… and get paid more.
I dedicate part of my business’s financial resources each month to buying and taking online courses and or working with consultants or coaches who can help me address a specific business or creative problem.
Which part of the craft do you want to improve at? What relevant courses can you take, and who would you like to work with?
Of course, it’s not enough to buy a course or speak to a coach for an hour over Zoom. Also, spend time putting into practice some lessons from these courses or consultancies and reflecting on how they help you improve your craft.
Create Content About Your Learning Journey
It’s relatively easy to document and share your evolution as a content creator. Many writers describe how their research and editing processes evolve. Podcasters and vloggers talk about their subject and how they pick subject matter.
Readers, listeners and followers love this kind of behind-the-scenes content. It’s a great way of bonding with your target audience and helping them feel part of your journey. Plus, it’s also fuel for additional content, which can grow your content business.
What Will You Say No To?
Creative professionals have lots of exciting ideas for new projects. The problem usually isn’t coming up with a good idea. Instead, it’s focusing on one idea until it gains traction. That often involves saying not to other competing priorities.
While writing your creative plan, consider the low-value tasks you spent time on this past quarter. Can you delete, delegate, or defer any of these tasks this quarter? Ross said:
“Don’t do anything that isn’t 100 per cent necessary. If you can, either delete it or delegate it, if you can, or else realistically diary it, that’s one thing.”
“The most important is very rarely the most urgent so a lot of people will be screaming at you for other things and they will look after themselves. Your e-mail that you have to do will get done. Don’t do it first thing in the morning. It will be done because people will need something from you.”
Creative Planning: The Final Word
It takes trial and iteration to balance creative work, a marketing strategy and income-generating activities. Spend too much time on creative work and paying the bills will become a problem. Spend too little time on creative work, and you risk becoming disillusioned with the business.
“If you’re leaning too heavily on the profit side, then you’re in danger kind of running dry creatively and if you’re leaning too heavily on the passion side, you’re not thinking enough about the reader, you’re thinking just about yourself,” says Ross. “It’s all about getting that balance in place.”
Content creators who are also business owners can use a creative plan to work on what excites them and get paid.
Creative Planning FAQS
What is the difference between creative planning and business planning?
Business planning involves setting goals for a company and figuring out how to achieve them. Creative planning, however, also involves deciding what to make, create or ship. It’s a specific type of planning for professional writers, podcasters, vloggers and professional content creators.
What are the benefits of creative planning?
Creative planning helps a content creator or small business owner figure out what they will create and ship next. It helps creators use their financial, mental and time-based resources more effectively, part of a creative strategy. It also ensures they have time for engaging projects and identifies a clear path to getting paid.