7 Keys to Planning Your Career Path

Most people who have successful careers are asked at some point, “How did you get here? What steps did you take to end up on top?”

People in some careers are able to answer definitively; for example: “I did well in school, got into a great medical school, did my residency, took on a prestigious fellowship, continued to practice and study, and eventually became the most sought-after neurosurgeon in the state.”

But many others will say something like, “There was no grand plan. I just took it one step at a time and tried to make good decisions.” That’s how it is for most CEOs of large organizations, and it’s how it is for writers. There’s no prescribed path to success—there’s not even agreement on the definition of success. But I think most successful people “planned” their careers by nurturing a few specific traits in themselves all along the way.

Since we, at Books & Such, try to help each of our authors build a career (not just “publish a book”), it’s important for us to know what “career-planning” means, and how to accomplish it. I think it’s a process of developing the seven traits below and using them as a framework to guide your day-to-day decisions.

Colorado trail

7 Keys to Planning Your Career Path


1. Know your overall vision and purpose.

Whether or not you set specific goals (“publish 5 novels” or “make the NYT bestseller list”) it helps to identify why you’re on this path, and what you hope to accomplish. Maybe your purpose is to help or encourage people, or entertain with stories, or to eventually support yourself through writing. If you have a “big” vision and you know your purpose, you’ll recognize which opportunities are right for you, versus those that will lead you in the wrong direction. Be sure you also have a personal definition of success, so that when you reach it, you’ll recognize it!

2. Always keep learning.

Successful people in every field are always growing. Most do this through reading, independent study, and attending seminars, workshops and conferences. This is true is business, medicine, law, finance, teaching… pretty much every field out there. As a writer building your career, you have numerous ways to keep learning and growing. Make sure you’re taking advantage of them!

3. Have an open mind to recognize unexpected opportunities.

Most successful people can identify various points along their path at which they were presented with the prospect of doing something they had never anticipated. Be focused on your path, but avoid developing tunnel vision. As a writer, don’t discount the many, many venues that are available to writers besides the one you happen to be involved in. And don’t shy away from new challenges or from going outside your comfort zone. Many people look at a new opportunity and if they don’t think they’re ready or meet all the qualifications, they turn it down. Being on a path to success means you sometimes take the leap and agree to do something you’re not sure you can actually do.

4. Be flexible and keep up with the constantly changing world and marketplace.

Few people actually like how fast things change in business, culture, and technology. Yet planning your career involves a commitment to rolling with the changes as best you can. Sometimes this involves #2 above, always keep growing. Often it involves #3, not being afraid of new challenges. Career building is only possible if you refuse to be thwarted by the changes going on around you.

5. Set incremental goals along the way.

Within the context of your overall vision, your short-term goals will help keep you on track. This is where some of the real “planning” comes in to play. Your incremental goals will help you build your career one step at at time. You may not be able to plot your career twenty steps ahead or twenty years into the future, but you can plan what your 2 or 3 most important next steps are.

6. Create strong, long-lasting relationships with people inside and outside your field.

Over time, you may find that the relationships you’ve built with others will help your career more than any other single element. Sure, writing good books helps. 🙂 But you’re not a lone wolf and you’ll find that other people can teach you, assist you, encourage you, or bring you the break you’ve been waiting for. You’ll also discover that the relationships you create along the way are a big part of what makes you want to get up every morning.

7. Make every decision in the context of your overall life and career.

Always be asking, “What is the next best step? Will this current choice set me up for future success as opposed to simply working for me right now?” This is one of the biggest challenges for authors, who are sometimes tempted towards short-cuts or quick money without assessing how it fits into their overall plan for success. While you’re focusing on #3 (being open to unexpected opportunities), also remember to make each decision based on whether it makes a good building block for future success.

How do you approach planning your writing career?

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Angela Arndt on June 21, 2018 at 8:06 AM

    I know this is a “ditto,” but thanks so much for this. I need to go through it step-by-step. A big help.

  2. Pat Iacuzzi on June 20, 2018 at 6:58 PM

    “Being on a path to success means you sometimes take the leap and agree to do something you’re not sure you can actually do.”
    So true. I was working on a story that appealed to me, when I suddenly switched to another story for personal (family) reasons. This story is larger in scope & purpose because it deals with current issues as well.
    But it’s scary, because as a fairly new writer, I’m not sure I’m up to the quality of writing I feel is necessary.

  3. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser on June 20, 2018 at 2:13 PM

    I’d like to add a suggestion – celebrate the achievement of those incremental goals, honour them, and thus make them real.

    You may find that the road is the reward.

  4. M.G.Khaneguba on October 20, 2013 at 12:10 PM

    m not a writer bit your blog really helped me. thanks big time

  5. Vernon Garner on August 20, 2013 at 7:28 AM

    Many need these steps reiterated to guide or keep a sense of direction. When managing operations, involvement extends to numerous departments that create opportunities not relevant to your career path. For instance, I am a Human Resources Manager that have not exceeded the level set because of çonstant involvement with suffering operations. My job is to excel in disseminations of essential information necessary to improve operations. This supports #3 but fails to strengthen or build confidence in other areas but your field. The current market allows opportunities to excellence only through diversity.

  6. […] at least has connections in the graphic novel/comic book industry. I recently read a blog post from Rachelle Gardner where she wrote about how writers should be open to new and unexpected opportunities and not be so […]

  7. Gavin Cross on August 8, 2013 at 12:03 PM

    For me it’s #5. A thousand tiny victories build perseverance.

  8. […] you have a career plan? You should. Rachelle Gardner lists 7 keys to planning your career path. Part of that planning is finding your audience, so Nick Thacker tackles how to find your target […]

  9. Ty Strange on July 23, 2013 at 11:42 PM

    A good list for any endeavor in life.

  10. Peter DeHaan on July 23, 2013 at 9:29 PM

    I start with the end goal in mind and then figure out what steps I need to take to get there.

  11. […] Read the article at rachellegardner.com […]

  12. Amber Schamel on July 23, 2013 at 4:46 PM

    Thanks Rachelle, great advice.

    Having a bigger vision for your writing is really important.
    I have always been an avid reader, but as I grew older and started getting into a lot more of the YA and even adult fiction, I began to see how much garbage there is out there. My vision for writing is to create excellent, wholesome stories that promote Godliness and morality. Such a contrast to today’s society.

  13. Roxanne Sherwood Gray on July 23, 2013 at 2:02 PM

    Thanks, Rachelle. All seven are needed, but especially the last one: “Make every decision in the context of your overall life and career.”

    I never dreamed my life would throw so many obstacles at my career. I’ve had set back after set back. So it’s taken me a lot longer to get where I want to be–and I’m not there yet. But the journey has taught me so much and worth the delay. God’s timing, though different from what I’d envisioned for my career, is perfect.

  14. Valerie R. Federoff on July 23, 2013 at 12:25 PM

    I just wrote a huge comment then discus didn’t post it. What I have to focus on is #6.

    • Roxanne Sherwood Gray on July 23, 2013 at 1:44 PM

      So sorry. I sure hate when that happens. I’m sure your long reply was brilliant! 😉

  15. Jessie Mullins on July 23, 2013 at 11:51 AM

    Thank you for dedicating so much of your time to helping others understand how to get where we want to go. Any time I am stuck in one of those I-don’t-feel-like-writing ruts, I read one of your blog posts.
    After reading this post, I have decided that success for me will be getting published and receiving that email or letter from a reader saying that the story I told touched them or made a difference in their life. Today, that’s what I’m working toward.

  16. Arlene on July 23, 2013 at 11:40 AM

    Great article…I sometimes forget some of these principles and you reminded me to always circle back to them..and I really liked your suggestion of defining what success looks like to me, in tangible terms with specific examples- so I will know it when I see/live it…

  17. barbaramcdowellwhitt on July 23, 2013 at 11:16 AM

    Thank you, Rachelle. I’m 70. This helps.

  18. Carolynnwith2ns on July 23, 2013 at 11:01 AM

    # 3 unexpected opportunity

    At the age of twenty-three, through no effort of my own, I was paid a
    hefty advance for a project which the publishers promised would not
    only make me the next flavor of the month but would change the face of
    publishing. This was a small but very reputable publishing house which
    is now beyond huge.The numbers they threw at me were staggering. I
    bought a Cadillac and white German Sheppard.
    With no agent and not
    one person in my life who understood the gravity of the offer, I didn’t
    deliver. The brass ring which I had been handed, I tossed aside.
    nine months the publishing rights reverted back to me, the car was too
    expensive to run and the dog bit everybody. That was forty-two years ago
    and I have been riding the writing merry-go-round in fits and starts
    ever since.

    Never ever look into the face of unexpected
    opportunity with anything less than clear eyes and the thought of, “what
    if this were my only chance”.

  19. Beth K. Vogt on July 23, 2013 at 11:01 AM

    Be flexible. Well, I’ve embraced that rule as God turned a season of burnout into a bend in the writing road. I switched from writing nonfiction to the Dark Side of the writing road and started writing fiction. And that led to having an open mind — and listening to the wisdom of my agent — and then realizing I had some new things to learn. Along the way, relationships have made all the difference.

    • Roxanne Sherwood Gray on July 23, 2013 at 1:46 PM

      And written some darn good novels too! 😉

  20. Dan Erickson on July 23, 2013 at 10:56 AM

    All seven look good. I just keep writing, learning, improving, creating new relationships, and did I mention writing.

  21. Neurotic Workaholic on July 22, 2013 at 9:24 PM

    I think that success is having a career that you like and can earn a living from. It’s the kind of work that you look forward to doing every day. I especially like your advice about short-term goals, partly because those are less intimidating than long-term goals.

  22. MaryAnna Rose on July 22, 2013 at 8:06 PM

    As a beginning writer this post is perfect. Clear direction is so hard to find, that is from someone knowledgable.
    The amount of information on your blog is at times overwhelming, but I’m learning so much. Whenever I have a few minutes I browse and find a new amazing bit of wisdom.

    Thank you Rachelle.
    MaryAnna Rose

  23. Nancy S Goodman on July 22, 2013 at 2:47 PM

    I appreciate this post-you bring up many thought-provoking ideas. Tweeted

  24. E. Kaiser Writes on July 22, 2013 at 2:34 PM

    Thanks for the timely reminder! These are good points to keep in mind.

    In my writing, “plotting vs. pantsing”, (a “write as I go person” here!) I CAN’T plot every detail. Similarly, a writer’s career can’t be plotted, either; but it can be headed toward general milestone events. Which is my method for increased sanity on my manuscripts. 😉
    So it actually fits perfectly!


  25. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser on July 22, 2013 at 1:35 PM

    Funny you should ask about vision. Mine changed about 180 degrees recently.

    Ten days ago, my wife rescued a small dog who was drowning in a ditch. Her back was broken, and she was paralyzed. We took her to the vet, and as our bank account had recently been hacked and emptied, we had to say we had no money to help her.

    The vet said, “There’s nothing she needs that requires money. Her back’s broken, and I can’t fix that. What she needs is love – if you are willing to give it.”

    And now – Bella has a wheelchair made of scrap materials, and is living in the confidence that she’s loved and wanted.

    I’;d been pretty upset at losing all of our savings, but what I learned was this:

    It’s not about me. It’s not about my vision, or my dreams.

    It’s about doing what I can with the tools I have, like writing, to try to make the world just a little bit better.

    Because each life, however small and broken, matters.


    • J. M. Tompkins on July 23, 2013 at 11:41 AM

      Thank you so much for sharing, you have deeply inspired me.

  26. Laura Cowan on July 22, 2013 at 11:16 AM

    I like #7, since the question of HOW to publish a book is so controversial right now, and there doesn’t seem to me to be a one-size-fits-all answer. I’m trying to ask myself if the opportunities being presented to me to publish traditionally or independently serve the goals I have for my career overall, and for me that really is an easier question to answer than trying to figure out where the quick money is, since I know the path to the kind of success I’m looking for in the genre I’m writing in. Thanks for the reminder, though! I’m querying agents in a couple weeks and think this will probably be the round where I find a match and things begin to take off. This is an important piece of wisdom for me to keep in mind.

  27. Michele Cushatt on July 22, 2013 at 11:01 AM

    The one key that helped me more than all the others is #6: Creating strong and long-lasting relationships. I don’t see myself as having a lot of “natural talent.” But I’ve been mentored, encouraged, taught by a number of smart and savvy experts, which helped me make steady steps forward in this crazy business. Grateful!

  28. Dina Santorelli on July 22, 2013 at 10:17 AM

    This is excellent. Thank you!

  29. Crystal Walton on July 22, 2013 at 9:06 AM

    You’d think #1 would be stating the obvious, and yet I wonder how often we skip over it. Hashing out our goal lays the foundation from which we can dive into the multifaceted career as an author. It can get hectic. Stressful. A juggling act. Without clear direction guiding our decisions, it’s easy to get off course. Thanks for reminding us of the starting point.

  30. Jennifer M. Hartsock on July 22, 2013 at 3:34 AM

    Since I’m just about ready to send my manuscript out to agents, the excitement of marketing a published work is getting to me! In the meantime, I keep connecting with people via Twitter and making literary videos for Youtube. It’s not half-bad so far. Thank you for the support and direction, Rachelle.

  31. Laura Jackson on July 22, 2013 at 12:22 AM

    Great info, especially for a newbie like me. 🙂