How to Start Writing: The Ultimate Guide
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You want to learn how to start writing.
But it’s not as easy as they say, is it?
“Just start writing!”
“Write, write, and write some more!”
“Writer’s block is a made up excuse, just go.”
These statements have a hint of truth. The solution to learn how to start writing…is to start writing.
But getting started, in general, is a different animal altogether. I’d know.
I kinda sorta knew I wanted to be a writer when I was in middle school. I even tried writing a book when I was 18. As a young adult, I pondered becoming a writer in the back of my mind for years before I actually did it.
Thanks to a chance encounter, a friend asking me to write for his website, I started writing and I never stopped.
It’d be easy to say I willed myself to start a writing career, but that’s not true. I seized an opportunity that someone else gave me. I needed someone else to believe in me to start.
I’m guessing you do, too. Let me be that person for you.
Getting started is hard. I know how you feel. You’re a nobody. Zero fans. No writing habit. You think about everything ahead and it just looks daunting.
Don’t get me wrong. It is. But if you get started and find a way to put blinders on for a little while, it gets a lot easier.
Ready to learn how to start writing, for real, once and for all?
The Prerequisite Every Aspiring Writer Must Have (No Exceptions)
Writing has been in the background of my life for as long as I can remember.
I loved words. I’d tried writing in some shape or form a handful of times throughout my life — poetry, little essays, terrible attempts at novels. I’d say things like, “I’m going to write a book one day.”
I had what I call the itch.
If you’re a writer, you kind of know. You’re filled with doubt about it, but you have a sense that it’s something you want to do.
Steven Pressfield’s quote comes to mind here:
“If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), “Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?” chances are you are. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.”
Without that itch, you’ll never be successful. And you should just give up, honestly.
Some people try to become freelancers, write books, or start blogs to make money. You can pull it off, sure, but if you don’t actually like to write, it won’t work in a real and sustainable way.
Also, I’m not sure where it got into people’s heads that there are all these rich bloggers and authors out there. Untrue. The vast majority of them are broke.
If you want to make money online, there are many easier ways to do it. I chose to write because I feel like I’m designed to do it.
Now that didn’t mean I was good at it right away, not even close. But I could tell pretty early on that I didn’t only want to be a writer, I wanted to do the writing. I enjoyed putting my fingers on the keyboard — the act itself.
You gotta have that in you, or develop it soon after you start, or it won’t work.
If your heart’s in the right place, you can move to the next phase.
The Mindset You Need to Have to Start Writing Successfully
Ok, I have to put one more filter here and weed a few more people out before we get to the nuts and bolts.
There’s another category of writer who won’t succeed in addition to the one who’s in it for the wrong reasons.
It’s your word vomiters. Online diary aficionados.
I add this line in nearly every blog post about writing because it’s such a huge glaring problem.
Bury this thought into the depths of your brain permanently…
Nobody, nobody, nobody wants to read random ramblings about your life. If you attempt to write this way and gain an audience, you will fail.
I ask new subscribers to my e-mail list to send me links to their blogs. 99 percent of the blogs I see look like a diary.
Nobody cares about your random vacations, your emotions, what you ate for lunch, and all the other random bullshit you put on your “personal blog” Ugh.
Forgive my vulgarity and frustrated tone, but some of you are just thick-skulled about this. I’m not saying you can’t write about yourself. You can. But you can’t just empty out all your thoughts onto a blog and expect people to want to read it.
Look at one of my first blog posts here. The writing was crappy, but the post was about a concept, not about the random thoughts of Ayodeji Awosika.
Even if you tell stories, the stories have to be tied to concepts. Concepts that relate to other people. Which leads me to my next point.
You Should Become a Blogger (Even if You Don’t Want to be)
This is my bias speaking here. I can only teach what I know.
But even if you eventually want to write more esoteric, flowery, philosophical stuff, you should become a regular ol’ blogger first.
Because blogging teaches you skills most people with ‘Hemingway Syndrome’ lack:
- Discipline – Blogging teaches you that boots and lunch pail attitude you need to build a writing habit
- Audience – If you want to have a writing career, you need people to, um, support you. Traditional blogging techniques help break the habit of using the word ‘I’ 3,539 times per blog post
- Marketing – Blogging (and promoting your stuff) rids you of the idea that you’ll get to sit in a cabin, drink whiskey, smoke a pipe, write your book on a typewriter, magically get accepted by Harper Collins, and become famous
Aside from the skills you learn, you also have a better chance of making a career as a writer through blogging.
One Thing Bloggers Have Over Most Other Writers
I used to get jealous of all the authors with books at Barnes and Nobles. Until I realized the dirty little secret of the publishing industry.
Most traditionally published authors are broke and don’t sell many books. Sure, they’re “better writers,” than me. Their prose is much better, polished, refined, pays homage to the greats, blah blah blah. But I’d rather be a pretty good writer and have the shekels.
Mark Manson is one of the most famous writers in the world. Guess how he started? Blogging. Through blogging and building a huge platform, he attracted publishers to him and had a platform to make his book successful. He’s co-writing a book with Will Smith. Not too shabby.
You have people like Jeff Goins, Sarah Cooper, Ryan Holiday, Elle Luna, and Benjamin Hardy who leveraged blogging into traditionally published success.
There are people like James Altucher who used blogging and self-publishing to write best selling books like Choose Yourself and Reinvent Yourself, which have sold more than a million copies combined.
Publishers are taking notice. They’re cherry picking star bloggers for book deals because they have proof of concept.
If you want to get your MFA, cross your fingers, and gamble on writing the next Cat Person, go ahead, but I wouldn’t advise it.
I had to spend time getting your head on straight because the mindset is most of the game here. Lower your ego, so you can actually start to write.
Getting Started: How to Begin Writing For An Audience and Building a Habit
I suggest you start writing for an audience right away.
Why? Because you get useful feedback.
Of course, you never try to pander to an audience, but you can’t write shit no one wants to read either.
If I had to start all over, here’s exactly what I’d do.
Start a Self-Hosted Blog
You want a self-hosted blog because it provides a home for your writing on the internet, which is important.
We’re going to soon talk about other places to publish your work and get an audience faster, but it’s important to have your own blog because platforms come and go.
In the beginning, very few people will come to your self-hosted blog, but you should still get it set up right away:
Sign Up for a Medium Account
Medium is awesome.
If you’re not on Medium yet, you’re missing out.
Medium is a website that allows anyone to sign up and start publishing your work right away.
You can even get paid for your writing. With Medium’s Partner Program, you can put your work behind a paywall and get paid based on how Medium members engage with your content.
I personally know people who went from zero to a full-time writer in a year using Medium. Those results aren’t typical whatsoever, but it’s a great jumping off point for any aspiring writer.
Here are some guides to help you get started:
Here’s what you’re going to do next after you’re signed up:
- Publish blog posts on your site first
- Republish those posts on Medium
- After you build a catalog of posts on both, start linking back to your self-hosted blog posts from your Medium ones
So I use Medium as the jumping off point because they have a built-in audience, then I build my own blog views by linking back.
Ok. Now let’s get into the nuts and bolts of choosing a niche, generating ideas, and writing stuff people want to read.
How to Pick a Niche
Don’t over think this.
You don’t need to have this super specific niche to succeed anymore. Especially on places like Medium where you have such a diverse array of voices.
Essentially, the big niches fall into the following categories:
- Personal Finance
- Business & Entrepreneurship
- Social Media and Blogging
- Gadgets & Technology
- News, Culture, and Entertainment (this is a very wide and broad category, plenty falls in here)
Then there are some little mini-topics underneath each of the big ones, but you should have a general idea of which one you want to jump into.
You want to start writing. Not plotting out your perfect niche.
I wrote a guide that goes into this deeper, but the niche thing is overrated. It’s more important to start generating ideas and writing blog posts that follow a similar structure (to begin with).
After you write, let’s say, 100 posts, you’ll magically know your niche. Clarity comes through action, not the other way around.
How to Generate Ideas
Each day, I write down 10 ideas for new blog posts. You should do the same.
There are some basic blog post headline formulas you can and should use to start:
- How To – These work if your niche is educational and instructional
- List Posts – As much as people scoff at list posts, people read them, and they just make it easier to get into the flow or writing
- Subject: Mini-Subject – An example would be something like “Flow: The Creativity Behind ‘Getting in the Zone'” Or something like that
Here are some resources that can give you an in-depth look at coming up with headlines:
- How to Write Magnetic Headlines (CopyBlogger)
- 13 Type of Headlines to Get More Traffic (HubSpot)
- 5 Easy Tricks to Write Catch Headlines (From the master himself, Jeff Goins)
Now, if you’re still struggling to generate the underlying ideas to create the headlines in the first place, try the following:
- Pains, Hopes, Fears, and Desires – I learned this technique from Jon Morrow (read his post for a full explanation here). Essentially, you’re asking the question, “What keeps your readers up at night?”
- Avatar – An avatar is a written out description of a single person that you’re writing for. What are their problems? How about their fears? What are their hopes and aspirations?
- Swipe – Go on places like Medium, find similar writers who are popular and swipe headline styles. Don’t plagiarize, but look at how they formulate their headlines and ideas to reverse-engineer it
The bottom line here: If you don’t develop an intuition about what works and what doesn’t by observing other writers, you’re going to have a hard time. Most people don’t take the time to be observant because they get in their own way. That’s why I added the mindset section earlier. Don’t be that person. Observe, reverse-engineer, steal.
The Basic Structure of a Blog Post
Now you’ve generated some ideas and you’re ready to start writing.
So, how do you write a blog post?
Again, just use the basic and traditional formulas first, then you can move onto the esoteric later.
Here’s a synopsis.
How to Write an Introduction
Your introduction answers the question, “Why the hell should I read this?”
You want to tie it to the subject of your headline in a way that makes the reader curious to read more.
You can do this in many ways:
- Ask questions – Questions, especially ones that make the reader nod their head in agreement, work especially well. Example: If you’re writing a blog post about productivity, you could start by saying, “Do you always feel like you’re busy, but never actually get anything done?
- Twist the Knife – If your post is about solving a problem, play on that problem, show the consequences of the problem continuing to linger, then offer your content as a solution. Here’s a detailed post on that here).
- The Story Hook – Open with an intriguing story that’s related to the content of the post
Some useful guides on writing intros are:
- How to Write Spellbinding Introductions by Shamelessly Copying the Pros (Smart Blogger)
- How to Captivate Your Readers: 3 Ways to Craft Irresistible Opening Lines (Henneke Duistermaat – She’s a freak of nature. Read all her stuff)
How to Write the Body of a Post
You can do this one of two ways.
If you write a list-post, list out your points and add short descriptions for each.
If you’re writing any other type of post, the simplest way to do it is stick with three main points. A simple essay format works just fine.
Some tips on writing body content:
- Use interesting subheadings – Here’s a really cool guide on this, but you want to write little headings that make the reader curious or either detail what’s coming next
- Simple language – Some people say you must write super short sentences. I don’t subscribe to that view, but simpler is better
- Distinct thoughts – Break each distinct thought into a separate paragraph
In the end, your body content should look something like this:
- Point 1
- Point 2
- Point 3
- Point 1
- Point 2
- Point 3
- Point 1
- Point 2
- Point 3
Start with a mind-map, a brainstorming session, and then solidify your ideas into a format like this, and it will be ten times easier to write a post.
How to Write a Closing
Your closing should motivate the reader to take the next step on their journey after reading your content. Or it should leave them thinking, pondering, even questioning what you just wrote or scratching your head a little bit.
You want the closing to tie back into the idea you started with and bring the post full circle.
Read these posts for great examples:
- On Dying, Mothers, and Fighting for Your Ideas by Jon Morrow
- 5 Time-Management Tricks I Learned From Hating Tim Ferris by Penelope Trunk
- 33 Unusual Tips for Becoming a Better Writer by James Altucher
How to Start Writing, Keep Writing, and Create a Career From Your Words
I’m keeping this high-level because there are many little skills you’ll need to learn along the way.
You can come back to this post often and use the resources I linked to for assistance.
Get your blog started and write until you get traction.
Traction is that point where you’re not in “start and stop,” mode. You write often and consistently, preferably every single day.
If you follow my advice and start a blog on Medium, you’ll start to build a following and you’ll have feedback in the form of fans and comments.
This will make you feel good.
You will want to keep going.
So how do you get there and stay there?
Whatever Your Routine, Make it and Stick With It
I write in the mornings.
My routine looks like this:
- Write 10 ideas for new posts
- Choose an idea to work on from my long-list of saved headlines
- Create a mind-map
- Write out a simple outline
- Write the first draft (one to two hours)
- Edit the post for a second draft (half hour to one hour)
- Final-polishing edit (a half hour at most)
Some people write faster than others.
Some can deal with daily writing. Others weekly (you should never go below weekly).
In your case, you need a routine:
- Write at the same time
- Follow the same process
Stick With Writing For An Audience for 6-12 Months
Most people don’t make it for six months.
If you make it six months, you’re in the top 25 percent of all writers. Pat yourself on the back. And, at this point, you should have some fans and a somewhat large body of work. That is, if you listened to me 😉
If you can make it to a year, you will make a dramatic leap in year two.
I published my first book in year two, a huge milestone for me, and started doing more advanced stuff like building an e-mail list.
I’m approaching year five and I’m a full-time writer. But the early days counted the most. Hitting the point of traction accounts for most of the journey. After that, you don’t coast, per se, but you know what you’re doing.
Hone Your Own Unique Voice and Style
Using headline formulas, structured outlines, and traditional blogging techniques seems formulaic.
That’s because it is.
But, after you write this way for a while, you develop a second nature understanding of how to write for an audience.
Then, when you try different styles, you’re apt to write them in a way that connects with other people better.
Thanks to my blogging days, I do think I could write a memoir or even a novel. Not because I’m versed in those skills. I’m not.
But because being in blogging boot camp mode taught me how to get words on the page, which is the most important part of the process.
My blogger’s attitude helps me get through new learning curves.
Coming Full Circle
Nowwwwwww after giving you everything you need to know up front, I’ll go back to the cliche.
There’s so much magic in your future if you just write.
It feels so good to put words on the page, regularly, for a living. It really does.
You can get there. I know because I’ve been you. I’ve felt all the anxiety to start, the wishing, the underlying feeling you’re not good enough, all of it.
There is no other way through than to write your way through.
I just wrote something I could charge for. I’m giving the game away for free, because I care about the craft, thus indirectly about you.
With all the resource in here, from some of the best bloggers and writers in the world, you have everything you need. Everything.
Your journey begins today.