What I've learned in order to write articles

In October 2017, I started a blog, set up a newsletter, and started writing and publishing one article a week. In early 2019, I upped this to two articles per week. For the last few months, I’ve been averaging closer to three articles per week.

I haven’t missed publishing a new article in 111 weeks.

Without exaggeration, writing has completely changed my life. I’ve built incredible friendships, made some serious cash, amassed a pretty big and very engaged audience, and — I think — become a much better writer along the way.

What follows are some notes to myself on what has worked for me writing online. And perhaps they’ll be useful to anyone else trying to get started writing — whether you’re a content marketer trying to grow a blog for a client, an aspiring indie author looking for a book deal, or just some guy or gal with a few ideas in your head that are too big and too important not to put into writing.

Consistency Builds Trust

Consistency is one of those things that your audience won’t talk about — or even notice explicitly — but still matters a lot.

The internet is full of people trying to get rich quick, starting and not maintaining projects, and generally not having their shit together. You can really stand out by doing the opposite—by being that person who shows up rain, sleet, or snow, week after week, summertime, Christmas break, whatever.

Your audience will trust and admire you for that. And in return, you’ll start to build not just an audience or a following but what Kevin Kelly calls True Fans—real people who are truly invested in you and your work. In other words, you’ll begin to build a community.

Trust Builds Community

When you and your ideas consistently show up in your reader’s lives, you become an important part of their lives. They learn to anticipate your writing, they look forward to it, and eventually, they tell their friends about it. This creates a community of readers, the benefits of which are staggering:
Community leads to word-of-mouth marketing, which is by far the best kind of marketing.
Community leads to easy sales. Easy sales are easy when people already love you and your work and you don’t have to do any convincing.
Community leads to engagement. It’s a lot more fun to announce a live Q&A session and have 100 people RSVP instead of two.
Community leads to connection. As a result of building a community of readers, I’ve been offered jobs, gotten consulting gigs, made friends, and been approached by literary agents and publishers.

Consistency leads to trust. Trust leads to community. And community leads to… everything good!

Writing Gets a Lot Easier With an Idea Generation System

When you write consistently, week after week, month after month, the process does get easier. But writing gets dramatically easier when you have a reliable system for generating new, high-quality ideas to write about.

On the other hand, when writing is hard, it’s often a sign that you’re writing about the wrong thing, or at least your angle on the idea is poorly formed. Having a good idea generation system fixes that problem. When you always have a steady stream of high-quality ideas, articles almost write themselves.

In my opinion, the best idea generation system is to simply read a lot and widely, and then capture your ideas immediately in a notebook or file. I use Ulysses for all my writing ideas, organization, and drafting.

Speaking of software…

Use the Tools and Platforms You Enjoy

Stop dicking around with every shiny new writing app and trendy social platform. Pick the handful of tools and platforms that work well for your goals and that you actually enjoy using. This is the only sustainable path in the long-term.

The Riches Aren’t Always in the Niches

It’s common advice to new writers starting out online to pick a small niche subject and start building your audience and authority there. And while there are good reasons for that strategy, it doesn’t mean you can’t be successful writing about a wide range of topics.

An alternative is to write about whatever interests you regardless of the content. Then, over time, start to define a theme or style that connects your writing across a broad range of topics. I write about topics as diverse as insomnia and productivity to anxiety and habit formation. After writing enough, I realized that the theme that connected most of my writing (and what people started associating with me) is the habits that lead to emotional health.

This wide content strategy also has the hugely important benefit of sustainable motivation. When you write about what interests you — no matter how diverse — your motivation to keep writing will be far higher, which means your odds of staying consistent go way up.

I Enjoy Writing More When I Write for My Readers, Not Myself

I used to write the type of articles I like to read: long, in-depth tutorials for how to learn a new skill or understand a complex subject. But after about of year of this, I finally got the message that that wasn’t primarily what my audience wanted. Instead, I realized that more digestible and accessible pieces were far more helpful to people.

So I switched things up. I started writing shorter pieces. I started using creative formatting like short paragraphs, lots of bullet points, and plenty of subheadings. And I used tons of concrete examples rather than elaborate chains of reasoning.

The result: Not only did my engagement and audience growth explode, but — to my surprise — I found that I enjoyed writing a lot more.

Writing Makes You a Writer, Not the Other Way Around

Like most people, I’ve had my moments of imposter syndrome: Who am I to write articles giving advice? What credentials do I have? Will anyone actually want to read my stuff?

But here’s the thing. Being a writer doesn’t lead to writing — not at first, anyway. Instead, the causality goes the other way: You become a writer by writing.

My pal Niklas Göke is my hero here. He’s an amazing writer whom I really admire, but the dude is just a machine, too. He writes and writes and writes and then writes more. But he’s always changing up his style, the things he writes about, and even where and when he writes. The point is, he doesn’t do all that because he’s a great writer; he has become a great writer because he does all that stuff.

So yes, that means for a while you absolutely have to fake it ‘till you make it. Which, honestly, is what we’re all doing all the time anyway. No one actually knows what they’re doing. We’re all just trying our best, failing often, and hopefully, learning a thing or two each time and jumping back in the saddle.

Join the club.

Don’t Be Afraid to Put a Little Cheese on the Broccoli

I learned this one from my buddy Ayodeji Awosika.

If you have something worth saying, you’re doing yourself a disservice by not packaging it in a way that’s appealing and accessible to your readers. You’re also depriving your readers of quality content when, understandably, they choose not to click on your oh-so-subtle and clever article titled “The Art of Art” or some other self-indulgent nonsense.

Just because you write clear, appealing headlines doesn’t mean you’re a clickbaity huckster.

Embrace Formulaic Writing

Formulaic writing doesn’t mean boring writing. It means embracing a handful of formats for your writing that work well and sticking to them. I learned this from my friend Michael Thompson.

Basketball players don’t reinvent their free-throw shooting form every time they step up to the line. Violinists don’t invent new fingering techniques each time they play a piece. So why are you, a writer, trying to invent new article structures every time you sit down to write?

Find a few formats that work for you and stick with them for a while. Not only will this make your writing more efficient, but it will also free you up to be more creative with your ideas and content.

Literally Every Time I Get Nasty Feedback, I Watch the Same Video

Every writer should have a ritual for handling negative, nasty comments, and feedback. I watch this video and then get back to making cool shit, satisfied and proud of myself for being a creator, not a critic.

Avoid Long-Winded Introductions at All Costs

Long-winded, overly explainy introductions are just the worst. I was, and occasionally still am, guilty of this. But I’ve worked like hell to eradicate interminable introductions from my writing.

One of my early writing mentors in this and many respects (although he didn’t know it at the time) was Tom Kuegler. He has this amazing knack for just diving right into what he wants to talk about, which, as a reader, is a big part of why his writing is so compelling. It literally makes reading his work fun and exciting.

I suppose there’s a place for long introductions, but when in doubt, just jump right in.

Use the Seinfeld Strategy to Cure Procrastination and Writer’s Block

Procrastination is a complicated issue with lots of moving pieces. But there’s one technique I’ve found immensely helpful in just about any situation: The Seinfeld Strategy.

It’s a simple tracking system that takes advantage of some clever psychological hacks to make sure you stick with any goal, including consistently writing and producing content.

The Best Headlines Are Aspirational

I think it was Steve Jobs who said: “We don’t sell people devices, we sell them a better version of themselves.”

It’s my experience that people don’t primarily read for information or to learn something. They read to feel something. People want to feel inspired, excited, curious, joyful, whatever.

Figure out what your readers want to feel, and your writing will soar to a whole different level.

Make Your Conclusions Quotable

There are different schools of thought about how to end an article, but here’s the strategy I like best: When I write my conclusion, I ask myself, “If someone were so excited and moved after reading my piece that they just had to share it, what would they say to convince someone else to read it?”

When in doubt, find the two or three most important ideas or insights from your article, condense them down into short, one-sentence zingers, and simply end your piece with those.

Choose Creation Over Correction

One of my superpowers as a writer is that I’m an anti-perfectionist. Typos don’t really bother me. If I can’t phrase a sentence just right, I leave it as it is, hit publish, and move on excitedly to writing my next piece.

Because I write to make stuff.

I write to bring ideas into the world in a way that’s inspiring and helpful to people.

I write because I love it.

This means I choose creation over correction every time.

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