8 Years of Experience Taught Me These Lessons About Writing
Before I found writing, I quit everything I ever tried.
I sold knives door to door, joined pyramid scheme companies, got hired and fired at many jobs, flunked out of school, and tried several business ideas.
I was that person who was full of ideas, but also full of hot air. I started projects but never finished them.
Call it fate, but I always knew I’d be a writer someday, and the perfect opportunity presented itself to me almost a decade ago. A friend of mine asked me to write articles for his website. I agreed. I wrote one post and I’ve been writing pretty much every day since then.
I’ve published three books, written thousands of blog posts, and exceeded my expectations for my writing career. If you’re a new writer or have a bit of experience, I can tell you what’s ahead.
Here are some of the crucial lessons I learned along the way.
It Takes About a Year Until You Find Your Voice
In the beginning, you’ll copy other people’s styles. The seeds of your voice will be there, but you have to give them time to grow. You have to give yourself time to improve your delivery.
If you look at my old posts, my voice is in there, but it took time to refine my style. I refined my style by elimination. I got less wordy. I learned to remove redundant phrases. Instead of dancing around subjects, I learned to get straight to the point.
Don’t expect to have a voice, a loyal audience, or decent earnings on places like Medium for 12 months.
Top Writers All Have This One Thing in Common
I used to feel envy and get pissed off when I saw big-name writers who had huge followings and monthly earnings. But I realized my envy wasn’t justified. Every time I checked the archives of these writers, I’d see years, even decades’ worth of work.
There are people like Mark Manson who wrote a best-selling book that sold millions of copies. He published it in 2016, but he has archives dating back to 2006. Seth Godin has been publishing daily for more than 20 years.
Amassing a huge following is a product of…waiting.
It took me about four years before I started to see huge numbers. You can get small wins along the way, but if you want to be a star, it’ll take years.
Writing Full-Time Isn’t For the Weak of Heart
I’ve seen the writing game chew up and spit out most people who try it. That’s why I try to be straightforward and honest, even to the point of seeming cruel.
I enjoy teaching others how to write and I have helped many students develop their skills and grow their audience. But most everyone quits.
They quit because making a living writing is hard work. Not hard in that, it’s difficult to do, but hard in that, it’s difficult to do every single day for years at a time.
About two years into my career, I decided I’d never quit writing. I meant it. You have to mean it, or else it won’t work.
There’s Only One Way to Stand Out
“Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.” – Andre Gide
At best, you can remix and synthesize ideas that came before you. It’s difficult to find original ideas, but you can stand out from the crowd by being yourself and maximizing your personality.
I write the way I talk. I write the way I think.
I’m curious and contrarian with a disdain for authority. I have a libertarian ethos. There’s a hint of cynicism in my optimistic worldview. I’m crass and like to talk shit. If I believe something, I’ll just say it, consequences be damned.
When you expose your real personality, you force people to pick a side. People either think I’m a genius or a charlatan. They love or hate my writing. You want to avoid a lukewarm response from your audience. That’s where your dreams go to die.
Once You Learn a Skill, It’s Yours Forever
You have to learn skills you don’t want to learn to build your writing career. You just want to write, but you have to learn tech skills to facilitate your career. Things like building landing pages, learning bits of html code, setting up email marketing software, or putting a blog together.
You have to fight against boredom, which is strangely painful to experience. You have to watch an instructional video, pause it, do one step, hit play, and pause it again to do another step. It’s the tedium that kills you.
Once you learn how to do these tasks, though, they become second nature. It won’t always be this difficult, I promise.
You Need Armadillo Thick Skin
If you can’t handle criticism and naysaying, just quit. It’s unavoidable.
I’ve been called every name under the sun. Someone compared me to Vladimir Putin once. I’ve been called a white supremacist and a neo-nazi, even though I’m black. People have told me my writing is dangerous and harmful.
Oh well, comes with the territory. And it only gets worse as you grow. Comments become entire hit pieces. People start to get obsessed with taking you down.
It all comes down to deciding whether or not you’re going to let other people kill your dreams. Their comments only bother you if you agree with them deep down. If you believe in your message, it shouldn’t matter what anyone says.
It’s Impossible to Predict Virality
This is why you need to write a lot.
20 percent of your articles will get 80 percent of the views. You can bake in persuasive elements to your writing, but you’ll never know how well it’ll do until you hit publish.
I’ve had pieces I thought were gonna be hits just flop. I’ve had posts I published thinking “meh, this isn’t all that good” and they went crazy viral.
Put your work out there and see what happens. Far too many new writers try to predict the future.
You could write the world’s greatest blog post, but it won’t matter if no one clicks because the headline sucks.
The most important sections of a blog post are:
- The headline
- The intro/conclusion
- Sub-headings (labels for each main point)
- Opening and closing sentences of each sub-heading
If you get those parts right, you just have to color in the lines with words. Yes, the words themselves matter, but getting the frame right matters more.
Start Building An Email List From Day One
My only regret is the fact I waited about a year before I started keeping an email list. You need an email list because it’s an audience you own.
You can get more views on your articles by sending them to your list.
You can sell more of your products, e.g., books because you have an audience who wants what you have to offer.
No matter what happens to the platforms you write on, your email list will always be yours.
My list started at zero, now it has more than 33,000 people on it. I never thought it would grow that big, but I’m glad I eventually started collecting emails.
Reverse Engineer Success
When I first started writing on Medium, there were no Medium courses. I just figured it out on my own by looking at what top writers were doing and swiping their strategies. Not plagiarizing, but looking at the things they did to get views and emulating them.
A lot of new writers aren’t conscious observers of the game. They don’t study it. They just write random posts and wonder why they flop. You should be reading articles from top writers and taking notes. You should be studying the platforms you write on daily.
Instead of just feeling envy, I turned it into curiosity. Anytime I saw someone who had what I wanted, I figured out what they did to get it and tried to do it myself.
You Gotta Love the Game
I stuck around for so long because I love to write.
It’s one of the few things I do that while I’m doing it I don’t feel like doing anything else.
It’s hard for me to empathize with people who struggle to write. I’m working on it. But for me, I never needed much motivation to write because there are so many things to write about. There are so many ideas to be curious about and explore. Life provides endless material.
I’ve made so much money as a writer because I wasn’t motivated by money, I was motivated by the love of the game.
You say you want to be a writer so badly, well, prove it, write stuff.
If you love the game, there’s no need to be in a rush or get discouraged by a lack of progress. I thought you were writing for love. If you were, the views wouldn’t even matter.
All success in writing comes as a byproduct of loving the game.
Don’t stress over your writing career. Just share ideas you love, every day, and see what happens.