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Dear writer: Advice on facing the behemoths
On building confidence and credibility, and asking for help, while producing thought-provoking independent work
We askedfor advice on thriving as an independent writer, even when your competitors loom large and attempt to swallow you whole. Kristen’s first newsletter—covering how technology was changing the restaurant industry—launched in 2013, was sold to a media company in 2016, and was killed in 2019. Five months later, she launched on Substack, where she writes about the future of hospitality.
Kristen writes for Bon Appétit, Food & Wine, Eater, and Insider, is a regular speaker at industry events, and has been featured as a restaurant expert in the New York Times, NBC News, and CBS News Radio. Read on for her advice, or listen to her read it aloud above.
Dear writer, how do independent voices thrive when up against industry behemoths?
Thriving in this business is as much about feeling confident and successful in your work as it is about challenging the large incumbents. You want to feel authoritative and understood. You want to produce thought-provoking work. And you’re doing it all independently, probably with a support network that never feels big enough.
I write about restaurant technology, a tiny niche in a big industry. I’ve done it for so long, I can’t imagine giving up. Which is why, after all this time, I’m still sending two weekly missives about topics like restaurant reservations and how restaurants have changed thanks to technology. Lots of publications cover these topics. But I did it first, and I believe I do it best.
Independent voices thrive in niches and nuance. They are authentic. Writers with an acute focus become trusted, authoritative voices over time. I write about what’s possible with technology but temper the optimism with reality. I balance big tech’s magical thinking with hospitality’s pragmatism. Ten years in, I know how to speak my audience’s language. I decipher what’s important in hospitality and technology and what that means for people who eat at restaurants.
Independent voices thrive in niches and nuance. They are authentic. Writers with an acute focus become trusted, authoritative voices over time.
This hard-earned confidence, which still eludes me on some days, doesn’t make this job easy. In fact, as I started writing this piece of advice, I went straight to other people for their advice. (This work can be lonely, but we’re not alone.) My friend and fellow independent journalistfound a niche writing about the business of drinking in America for his newsletter, . It is laugh-out-loud funny, thought-provoking, important work. Also, I’ve come to rely on his opinion.
“Everything you write is worse than it could be and better than you think,” he told me, which is a real summation of the highs and lows of writing solo. He added a few extremely self-deprecating but highly relatable observations about life as an independent journalist, then moments later published a killer post about the value of labor, unionizing, and a liveable wage in the drinks business. Touché.
I asked others, too. “Independent voices need to remember they’re independent. That’s their strength,” writertold me. Jason writes about wine in with an irreplicable personal touch, including a recent adventure that involved one angry, drunk winemaker throwing a bucket of wine at his head. “The behemoths of my industry are always seeking credibility and sucking independent voices dry for that credibility,” he said.
That’s right, we have something the big players want but can’t create: trusted, authentic, unsullied perspectives with personality. Our voices are valuable because they are unique.
Our voices are also stronger when we ask for help. After some what-am-I-doing conversations with friends outside of journalism (and at the risk of sounding like a mediocre LinkedIn post), I realized I’d been thinking about my newsletter all wrong. I thought like a journalist when I should’ve been thinking like an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs, while bold and ambitious, know that slumps, stumbles, and even failure are part of the gig. They’re familiar with slow starts, pivots, and criticism, all the things that weigh so many creatives down. But they’re—we’re—committed to an idea, in charge of our own fate, and moving toward some eventual good outcome, even if we’re not sure what it is. Plus, we’re all used to being the underdog.
A couple weeks ago, Expedite made it into the New York Times. I was quoted as an expert in a story about QR codes at restaurants. I have not stopped talking about, linking to, or congratulating myself for this win. A name-check in a legacy media outlet adds credibility and legitimacy to my work. I’m not an expert because I’m affiliated with a larger brand; I’m an expert because I’ve built something valuable and worth a reader’s time. (I’ve always known this is true, but external validation is a thing.) I’m still thrilled I could share insightful observations I’ve learned over time, with my head down, entrenched in the details. The highs feel even higher when you get there on your own.
At about the same time this happened, a large company in my industry acquired another, organizing most of the top trade publications, research, and industry events under the same parent, a business worth $12 billion. This happens all the time across media—online media, television, books, social media platforms. Success is explained in dollars and share of power.
My first reaction to the acquisition was a dramatic eye roll as I read multiple self-congratulatory statements about the benefit of condensing important industry knowledge under one owner. That’s the exact opposite of what I’m working toward. But then I got sad, angry even, that so much important writing has to rely on huge structures like this to survive.
I came up in print magazines at a time when entry-level employees were told we were lucky to be in the room. In the years since, I’ve watched print media fail, move online, pivot to video, and fall apart all over again. The business is rarely kind. Amid all of this turmoil, my little newsletter-that-could and I offer consistency, low drama, and a firm commitment to sharing information that my industry desperately needs to understand.
Independent writers have an advantage. We have a strong point of view, an engaged audience, and our own voice. People want to hear from us. When I spoke to the Times writer who quoted me, she said she couldn’t have written the story without my input. There are hundreds of thousands of words written about QR codes in restaurants on the internet and no shortage of writers and industry experts ready to share their takes. My voice and credibility, built by nearly a decade of independent work, cut through all of it. On the hard days, I focus on successes like this. And on the good days, I keep building.
Go get ’em,
This is the 12th in a recurring series of longform writer advice, following Hilary Fitzgerald Campbell’s advice on prioritizing your to-do list, Lauren Wolfe’s advice on tackling difficult stories, Holly Whitaker’s advice on writing like it matters, Lucy Webster’s advice on writing from lived experience, Scott Hines’s advice on cultivating connection in the internet age, Robert Reich’s advice on sharing your personality, Helena Fitzgerald’s advice on isolation, Alicia Kennedy’s advice on learning to listen, Kate Lindsay’s advice on creating trust with your readers, Anna Codrea-Rado’s advice on learning to celebrate how far you’ve come, and Mason Currey’s advice on creative growth.
Could you use some advice or inspiration from a fellow writer about creativity, motivation, and the writing life? Submit your question for consideration for a future advice column by leaving it in the comments below.