Today I am writing about writing. David Perell’s "The Ultimate Guide to Writing Online" is a great piece, and I really recommend you read it in full; but it’s also very wordy. I’ve taken the bits that stood out to me and aimed to capture all the salient points here.
Hopefully providing a quick version for you and I, this is mostly just quotes without the additional flavour; but hopefully serves as a useful summary.
Writing is "the best way to learn faster, build your resume, and find peers and collaborators who can create job and business opportunities for you."
By putting your ideas out there, other people can see what you’re about and get in touch if interested. Great for collaboration, great for learning, great for life.
Perell breaks down "the roadmap for accelerating your career by writing" as such:
- The Age of Leverage
- Make Your Serendipity Vehicle
- Create Your Online Home
- Set Up Your Distribution System
- Learn to Write Clearly and Persuasively
- Connect with Anyone
- Build Your Personal Monopoly
1. The Age of Leverage
"When you create content, people can access your knowledge without taking your time. You no longer need to sell knowledge by the hour. "
"Invest in your future. Whether you want to become an author or an entrepreneur, you should start writing online. No matter what kind of book you want to write or what kind of company you want to start, it pays to have a smart and targeted audience. If you plan to write a book, writing online will help you develop a voice and land a publishing deal. And if you plan to start a company, writing will help you build credibility, meet investors, and find future co-founders."
I wonder if there are some aspirations where writing won’t help? given that we mostly communicate orally, and capture that through writing, for most topics writing about them online is a good way to explore thoughts and potentially establish a voice in that field.
For fields that are highly visual, audio or sensory based writing lends itself well to commentary (and writing on the web easily supports images now).
The barrier to entry on the web is next to zero. So it’s worth trying at least. I can confirm from my own brief experience that it’s helped me codify my ideas and reflect on them further through writing. Through sharing that with friends, they’ve also found my work to be interesting and touching on topics we wouldn’t have necessarily brought it up in our regular conversations.
2. Make Your Serendipity Vehicle
"When you publish ideas, you create your own “Serendipity Vehicle” – a magnet for ideas and people and opportunities from potentially every corner of the globe. If your ideas resonate with people, people will discover you and bring you unexpected opportunities. They’ll open doors you never knew existed."
"Writing on the internet is a career fast-track. Each article is a sales pitch for your knowledge on that topic."
3. Create Your Online Home
Perell outlines some tips for getting started quickly and effectively. Starting with the basics of setting up your own blog:
"If you’re worried about your reputation, publish pseudonymously. You’ll receive most of the benefits of writing online without risking your reputation. Plus, if you build an audience and change your mind, you can always come out from behind the curtain and start publishing under your real name."
"If you have a popular name like “Laura Allen” or “Mike Smith,” you should consider a pen name. Otherwise people won’t be able to find you." My favourite pen name is probably still Islamic-Finance-Guru.
"Your first two pages on your blog should be:
- A Start Here page
- A curated list of your favorite articles from others!"
A "Start Here" Page
A Start Here page tells your readers what the website is about and sign-posts them to the most important posts. "Most readers want guidance, so give it to them. They’ll trust and appreciate your recommendations. After repeated visits ... they may take some risks and explore your website on their own."
"Mr Money Mustache" is a good example of this. After landing on his site through one interesting article, his "about page" and "start here" helped me know where to go when wading through his other hundreds of articles (not that I’ve read most of them).
In short "lead them around the place, and introduce them to things that will interest them."
The "Curated list of articles or resources"
"Before you are recognized for your own ideas, curation works exceptionally well. It’s the fastest way to ignite a following and build a body of work."
He recommends two strategies (quoted verbatim):
- The Thought Leader Strategy: curate a summary of your favorite thought leader’s best work. e.g: Noah Madden on Naval Ravikant
- The Idea Strategy: pick an idea you’re interested in and curate a list of the best resources on the topic. e.g: Nick Maggiulli on Data Analysis
Curation is easy to do but valuable for others, and therefore a quick way to get views and grow your audience. It ties in with Austion Kleon’s theory of "Show your work". Even if you’re just a beginner, by "showing your work" as a non-expert you create valuable content for other people in a similar position, also looking to learn.
4. Set Up Your Distribution System (Your Personal Microphone)
"Don’t just hit publish. Share your work directly with people you think might benefit from it. If you curate your favorite thought leader’s work, send it to them. If it’s good and you include their work in the list, they’ll probably share it.
If you choose the second option and curate a list of the best resources on a topic, send your list to practitioners in your field who are popular on social media."
He advises against Medium. RIP:
"the costs exceed the benefits. Medium is terrible for SEO. You don’t own your content and the platform makes it difficult to turn one-time readers into loyal ones.
The more you can use platforms you own, the better. "
Setting up your own blog nowadays is super cheap and easy, thanks to the likes of:
- Ghost-pro (or self hosted)
- Wordpress (even used by professionals like MacWorld)
- and others!
The best blog in the world won’t be worth anything if no one actually gets round to reading it. But how do you get the word out?
Trying to publish to many platforms is destined to fail at first "you can’t 'focus' on many things at once. That’s not how focus works."
Instead of trying to publish to "Reddit, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Quora, Medium, LinkedIn, Tumblr. … Concentrate your efforts. Commit to one platform and own it."
"There are different strategies for succeeding on any given platform, but if you can build just one strong distribution channel, that’s all it takes to become a successful online writer. Focus on one platform, and as you build an audience, redirect those visitors to your website so you can grow your email list."
"Distribution isn’t a replacement for publishing quality content. But the truth still stands: poor distribution, not poor content, is the most common reason why blogs don’t succeed."
I focus on distribution through Instagram and have it setup to cross-post to Facebook and Twitter. How that works in terms of sharing text-based posts on a visual-based platform, I will have to find out……
"Finding a community like Ribbonfarm or Less Wrong is one of the fastest ways to spin up an audience. And if you can’t find a community, write for a specific person with a big audience. ... if you can attract the gaze of big accounts who promote your work, your audience will grow."
"the easier it is for others to find your blog, the more readers you’ll attract. It’s as simple as that."
Discovery & Stickiness
"The majority of people find my blog through Twitter. It’s a great place for people to discover your blog, but doesn’t encourage repeat visits. That’s where email comes in."
"Make it easy for people to sign up for your email list. Add a sign-up button on your website"
Stickiness - what keeps people coming back?
"When it comes to reader stickiness, nothing beats email. Nothing. Email is a direct distribution channel, which makes it sticky and valuable."
"People who sign up for your email list care about your ideas, and by putting in their email, they give you explicit permission to email them."
"Email expands the number of people you can keep in touch with by an order of magnitude. With less than an hour per week, you update the people who care most about what you’re doing…My email list is my most underrated asset. Sending emails to my 10,000 subscribers is one of the highest-leverage actions I take on a weekly basis."
"Building an audience takes time. It’s a slow process, but don’t let that fact turn you off. That’s what makes having an audience so powerful. "
I’d add: Write about what other people aren’t writing about. If you’re writing about something obscure or just a common question that for some reason people aren’t answering, it will be high on the google search results!
I wrote about "Why Do Airpods Sound Bad", a simple question that for some reason others aren’t answering!
5. Learn to Write Clearly and Persuasively
"Writing is the most fundamental method of communication.
It’s the best way to clarify your logic and thinking... Distributing text online is cheap, which means your words can be read by almost anybody, anywhere in the world."
"The easiest way to write more is to write about ideas that stimulate you. If you do, you’ll be able to produce on a more consistent basis.
Focus on quantity over quality at first. If you publish something every week for a year, you’ll gain tremendous insights into what you should be creating."
In addition to this, it gives you the chance to hone your skills of writing while your audience is small. This applies to whatever you’re shipping, be that making videos or any other content.
I never believed this at first, and focused on quality over quantity as a general principle in life. But in some instances quantity is the best way to build that quality!
Step 5 is split into a further 5 points (recursion, love it):
- Write Evergreen Content
- Publish Quality Ideas
- Be Specific
- Listen To Feedback
- Re-Package Your Existing Work
5.1 Write Evergreen Content
"[Content that will] stay relevant"
Content to keep bringing people back to the blog for years. News on the other hand requires daily work and has a lifespan of days if not hours.
"You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Many of the best writers I know began by summarizing other people’s evergreen ideas"
5.2 Publish Quality Ideas
"[Writing] style is important, but substance matters more. The better your ideas and the clearer you can express them, the better your writing will be. It’s that simple. Everything else is secondary."
"The easiest way to add rhythm to your writing is to vary sentence length. Short sentences speed things up, and long sentences slooooooowwwwww things down. First, you should write a long sentence whenever you have a lot to say about a topic, and when you can put together a string of connected ideas that flow well together and collectively build up to the broader point you’re trying to make. Then, you stop. You shorten your sentences, so you can make your point.
5.3 Be Specific
"Instead of trying to reach as many people as possible, try to tap into one narrow vein of interest.… The true magic of the Internet is its ability to attract like-minded people from far-flung places, who you’d never be able to meet otherwise."
This ties into the 1000 true fans theory , that as long as a content-creator has 1000 true fans it’s enough for him to eek out a living. The internet makes it easier to find those 1000 true fans out of the billions of other people on Earth.
"Build a targeted audience. The more narrow and niche the topic, the better."
"Intelligent readers want depth, nuance, and specificity. Speak their language, and ignore the temptation to write for the lowest common denominator."
5.4 Listen To Feedback
Online analytics provide us myriad feedback:
"Online writers benefit from copious amounts of feedback. As a prolific online writer, I have a treasure trove of data about what people are interested in and what they ignore. With it, I can provide a better experience for my readers."
In person conversations help too:
"Test your ideas out on intelligent friends, and don’t be afraid to state the obvious. If an idea consistently surprises somebody, it’s probably good, but if people look bored or confused when you’re sharing an idea, you should either drop it or communicate the idea differently."
Trial ideas before publishing:
"Many writers wait until they publish a blog post to share an idea with somebody. I do the opposite. I share my ideas as much as I can and run them through numerous filters. I move from conversations, to tweets, to emails, to blog posts."
5.5 Re-Package Your Existing Work
"You’re already processing a large volume of ideas through your everyday experience: with the social media updates you post, the books and articles you read, the emails you send, the conversations you have, and the meetings you attend. By consuming, digesting, and sharing these ideas with peers and colleagues, you’re already building expertise."
You’re probably already reasonably close to being an expert in some field (a lot of caveats there 👀) And if not, you at least have some expertise that other neophytes would be eager to learn from.
6. Connect with Anyone
"Writing on the Internet is the most effective way to meet peers and colleagues like yourself. Skip the networking events and devote that time to writing instead."
"Once you attract a critical mass of like-minded individuals, you can attract opportunities instead of searching for them."
"Unlike the time you spend at networking events, the benefits of writing online compound over time. Like any smart investment, it builds on itself. Write something once and you can share it for the rest of your life."
“Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it ... he who doesn't ... pays it.” ― Albert Einstein
He touches on a point I found I love about writing: "Unlike school, writing online has no strict requirements". The only constraints are your own.
Story of Nick.
"18 months after starting Of Dollars and Data — Nick began his dream job.
Nick’s story illustrates the upside of writing online. For more than a year, Nick wrote with head-down consistency. He trusted the process. Week after week, he wrote something worth reading. Some articles popped. Most didn’t. But Nick stuck to the plan and with each post, he built his reputation as a data-savvy investing expert. His curiosity turned into expertise; his expertise turned into credibility; and his credibility landed him a job in the financial capital of the world.
In short, you can build an online reputation in three steps:
- Pick a high value, emerging industry.
- Learn as much as you can.
- Share what you learn on your personal website."
"Advertising your unique skill set is the best way to attract high-value opportunities...If you can advertise your valuable skills in an entertaining way, you’ll attract more opportunities than you can possibly entertain."
7. Build Your Personal Monopoly
"A Personal Monopoly is the unique intersection of your knowledge, personality, and skills that nobody else can compete with.
Personal Monopolies aren’t found. They’re created."
"You can’t expect others to think you’re unique if you don’t show them that you are [unique]. ...You don’t get paid for what you think you’re worth; you get paid for what other people think you’re worth."
So show it! Build your personal brand and write engagingly.
When wondering why amateurs like myself bother writing, Perell offers a good insight: "There isn’t a fixed number of perspectives. There are countless overlaps of people, places, and interests, each of which is a market and an audience you can reach with your writing."
In terms of what to write and ideas for writers block:
"Once you’ve found your niche, write about every aspect of it. The history. The people. The key concepts. Explore every nook and cranny, and write about the best things you discover."
"It’s much easier to build a Personal Monopoly where there’s no competition." So carve out that niche, find the people it resonates with and really dive deep. Your niche could even be as small as spurcing up the ideas of someone else with a more affable personality and engaging presentation style!!
It might take a while for each of us to find our niche but we're probably already sitting on some unique intersection of perspectives that others find fascinating. We just need keep digging until we unearth something that seems simple to us but eye opening to others. Good luck!