The Art and Business of Online Writing

How to Beat the Game of Capturing and Keeping Attention

by Nicolas Cole

311 pages, ★★★★☆
Finished on 30th of June, buy here.

🚀 The Book in 3 Sentences

  1. Writing online is a game which can be won if you learn about what keeps most humans interested and change your content accordingly.
  2. Practice makes perfect and if done publicly, it helps you learn what works and what doesn’t.
  3. When you think about earning money with your writing, be aware that you first need to build credibility by giving away most of it for free and then provide exceptional value with some paid content.

🎨 Impressions

This is a book which reads like an article on some online magazine, which isn’t coincidental. The writer, Nicolas Cole, is a highly successful online writer with many years of experience. He knows his stuff. There are a lot of actionable takeaways if you’re looking for how to increase readership of your writing online, wherever that may be. It is interesting though, that this book tells you how to write clickbaity content which is optimized for reader retention. This holds the question if that’s the most valuable type of writing. It still feels a bit trashy and blown up, and since the book is teaching you all the techniques while using those techniques itself, it left me with an uneasy feeling of getting slightly tricked, maybe.

On the other hand, in a bunch of the episodes within the book I lost focus and just had a hard time staying alert and making reading progress in the book. This is rather ironic since the book supposedly tells you how to write in the most captivating way. Or is it that I’m just not that interested in this topic? It certainly changed my way of thinking about online writing. I’m now more on the look for clues as to whether an article I’m reading has these properties I’ve now learned. Regarding my own writing, which I wanted to improve by reading this book and learning from it, I’m quite sure I won’t change much. I don’t feel like optimizing for amount of readers or reader retention and would instead rather stay authentic. I know this resonates with some people and that’s great as it is.

🍀 How the Book Changed Me

  • There’s a lot which can be done in order to increase readership of one’s online writing. But it got me thinking if a bigger readership is the most important goal.
  • Quality of writing is subjective and the reasons why people write online differ. If you just care about the metrics, for example the size of the audience or to make money, there are methods which can help – but I’m still wondering if that’s really my goal. It feels wrong.
  • My opinion of most online writing has now taken a hit since reading this book. I’m constantly questioning if the person who wrote this really had their heart in it or was just trying to play the game and increase readership.

✍️ My Top 3 Quotes

  1. So, if all you want is your art in your own corner of the web, by all means, throw this book in the trash and live your best life.
  2. Define your style. Where do you sit on the spectrum between Educating and Entertaining?
  3. A great Headline contains three pieces of information. What the article is about, who the article is for, and which problem it will solve or solution it will offer (The PROMISE).

📔 Highlights & Notes

The Game of Online Writing

If you want to become a better writer, you have to write. A lot. For an entire year straight, I challenged myself to write one Quora answer, every single day.

From my history as a professional gamer, I knew that you have to play Level 1 over and over again in order to reach Level 2.

The more answers I wrote, the more I learned what topics were resonating with the most people.

Want to Start Writing Online? Don’t Start a Blog!

There are only two reasons for having a blog and making people come over to your blog: First, using the attention of visitors to display ads to them and make money off of that, and second to sell them some sort of product or service on your own site.

So, when you start a blog, you aren’t really in the business of writing, you’re in the business of ads, products, or services.

In order to improve the quality of your writing, you need to be interested in seeing your writing in the context of how other people feel about your writing.

The New Way to Think About Being a Writer in the Digital Age

Writing online instead of offline first, reduces your risk. You will learn what people like and don’t like much faster, for free.

Likes = “This is something I approve of. Nice job.”

Shares = “This is something more people need to know about. This represents me.”

Comments = “This is thought provoking. I agree/disagree, and I want you to know why.”

Views = “This strikes a chord. There’s something valuable here.”

How the Online Writing Game Works: 7 Levels of Success

Level 1 is all about answering the question, “Am I playing this game consciously? Am I achieving my goal? Or am I playing this game unconsciously, and do I now care where I end up?”

So, if all you want is your art in your own corner of the web, by all means, throw this book in the trash and live your best life.

If you would like to improve, though, you need to find a category for your writing. Your job is to take the time to read, observe, and study your chosen category to the point where you understand its native language. When your goal is to make something for everyone, you’ll end up making something for no one. Don’t be afraid of specificity. Tell people who you are, what category your writing is in, and what makes you credible.

Define your style. Where do you sit on the spectrum between Educating and Entertaining?

Keep in mind the Rate of Revelation. This is the rate at which you reveal new information to the reader – and new information is what keeps people interested.

Specificity is the secret. The more specific you are, the more likely a reader is going to immediately assume they are in the right place, reading the right writer for them.

Earned Credibility plays a role: any sort of it can be leveraged up to the next.

When choosing a category to write in, be aware that trying to be the best writer in an existing category is really tough while becoming the best in a different category you invented is a lot easier.

Where You Should be Writing Online – And Where You Should Not

If your goal is to write about the things you want to write about, don’t bother writing for a publication.

Articles on major publications which go viral usually fall into one of these three categories: they are about an insanely successful company, they provide an unexpected perspective on a controversial and trending topic, or they focus on personal development / life advice.

Pieces perform best if they are about the reader and put them first. If they get you thinking, make you more productive, help your life in some way.

Republishing writing on different platforms, for example Quora, Medium, or LinkedIn, can be a lucrative option.

How Writing on Social Platforms Works (And How to Not Give Up)

If your goal is to be a successful writer, then social platforms are for publishing first, and consuming second. The number of hours you spend consuming should never equal or exceed the number of hours you spend creating.

As a rule of thumb, in order to be taken seriously on the internet as an authority in your category and a leader in your industry, niche, or genre, you need to be writing and publishing new material at least two times per month.

Let data tell you your next move, give people exactly what they want, and win the game.

Question everything. Nothing a creator does repeatedly is accidental.

Being a writer isn’t actually your goal. Your goal is to write (ACTION) – and it’s through writing that you will BE “a writer”.

The reason I like tagging posts with both broad and niche hashtags is because it gives each post a chance to be exposed to the masses, and to be found by highly targeted readers.

Building syndication relationships and getting your writing to be reposted on several different platforms is a net positive, even though it could be flagged as duplicate content. You never know which environment is going to be the one that makes it go. Reach out to websites and publications and let them know you are writing content that aligns with their target audience, and that you’d be willing to let them syndicate your content for free.

How to Always Write Something People Will Want to Read: 5 Forms of Proven Writing

There are five type of writing on the internet. Actionable Guides, Opinions, Curated Lists, Stories, and Credible Talking Heads.

What you’re aiming for is the most value you can possibly deliver without confusing the reader or wasting their time.

Actionable Guide: Make yours stand out. If everyone else writes short guides that don’t go into much detail, you can be the one to write long, insightful, walkthrough-style guides. If everyone else writes great material but organizes it poorly with huge paragraphs and no subheads, you can simply win by making yours more visually appealing and therefore easier to read and understand.

Better Stories: you can tell the reader a story about someone famous or noteworthy from history and then expand upon the story with your own personal opinions and insights.

Better Subheads: If you make the subheads complete sentences which are thoughts in itself, the reader can skim the article and get the gist of it just by reading the subheads. Value provided.

Better Arguments: When everyone else is writing about what to do, you can be the one who writes about what not to do.

The Perfect Post: How to Write Headlines People Can’t Help But Read

A great Headline contains three pieces of information. What the article is about, who the article is for, and which problem it will solve or solution it will offer (The PROMISE).

In a headline, true creativity is the art of clarity.

Your headline is, quite literally, a micro-version of your entire Actionable Guide, Opinion, Curated List, Story, or Credible Talking Head monologue.

The size of your audience is a direct reflection of the size of the question you’re answering.

Do you want to try to reach as many people as possible? Then you need to answer a universal question – something that will resonate with anyone.

Are you more concerned with reaching a specific type of person? Then you need to answer a question highly relevant to that niche.

Example: “7 Tips for Becoming Smarter” is clear, but a bigger PROMISE can help it reach more people. “7 Tips for Becoming Smarter, Achieving Chess-Master Memory, And Becoming The Most Interesting Person in the Room.”

Titles that only answer 1 of the 3 questions are weak. Titles which answer 2 are good, and titles that answer all three are exceptional. What’s it about, who it’s for, and what’s the PROMISE.

The PROMISE is what readers look for most. They want to know what happens in the story before they even read it.

The Art of Writing Online: How to Structure the Perfect Post

If you can say it in three sentences instead of five, try to say it in two. And you can say it in two sentences, do your very best to say it in one.

The basic structure is, introduction, main points, conclusion.

The introduction is an extension of the headline and provides information for the reader what value the main points and conclusion will contain. After the introduction, the reader needs to feel confident that the article will provide that value and is written for them.

A conclusion can and should also transition into the next section of the article or into another article altogether.

If the sweet spot of an online article is 800 to 1,200 words, then your job as a writer is to pack as much value into your Main Points as possible – without inflating the piece’s word count.

You should be asking yourself: “How can I make this shorter? How can I make this faster? How can I require less of the reader’s time?”

Great writing, no matter how fast or slow, benefits from dynamics. You want to be staccato, and then you want to be legato. You want to crescendo, and then you decrescendo.

Writers severly underestimate how powerful subheads are in the world of online writing. Readers are looking for them because they feel like shortcuts.

You never want to have three or more long paragraphs one after another. That style of writing has been dead for years.

Have one paragraph with a lot of short, strong sentences. Have the next paragraph be one long, winding sentence.

The conclusion of a story is the descending action. The climax has happened, now it’s more about reflection and meaningful takeaways.

The summary. Readers appreciate them. There’s a reason why every self-help book ends each chapter with a “recap” or page of “action steps”.

Actionable advice, or an unexpected insight, are things that make the reader feel like the conclusion is another Main Point, just speaking a bit more holistically.

Let there be some dissonance in the air. Let readers feel like you could have said more, but didn’t. This is what gets them to come back again and again.

Write how you speak. As a rule of thumb, anyone who tries to sound professional ends up sounding inauthentic.

Alternate sentence length.

Write confidently and declaratively. A lot of people hesitate to “make a point” or “take a stance” because they are afraid of being criticized in the comments.

How to Talk About Yourself Without Making Your Writing All About “You”

Remember that you are not the main character in your story. The reader is.

Talk about yourself if you need to establish credibility when giving advice, for example.

Focus on the Golden Intersection of Answering the Reader’s Question and Telling Them an Entertaining Story. Talking about yourself can be used to provide context. If you’re writing about how to learn a skill, tell the reader how you learned that skill.

When you talk about yourself less, viewership goes up. That’s because it is making the piece about the reader instead of about the writer.

Your Content Roadmap: Constructing a “Sticky Web” For Your Writing

Timeless content is a better long-term investment because you can continue to reuse, re-publish, and re-share this content long into the future.

There are three main content buckets for your writing. The first is content for a General Audience, something everyone can read and enjoy. The second is content for a Niche Audience, a highly specific piece which is uniquely relevant to a small group. The last one is Company/Industry specific content.

When you have an idea for an article, ask yourself which of these buckets it would fall into. If not, what can you tweak so it will?

If your piece might not stand the test of time, can you change parts to make it more timeless? If you have already written about something similar, which new angles can you explore to give the reader a new and different experience?

Pillar Pieces: How to Turn Proven Online Writing Into Longer, More Valuable Assets

The best way to continue earning a reader’s loyalty is to direct them from a piece of written content they already find valuable, to a longer, more extensive resource they will want to bookmark forever.

Make a pillar piece by expanding on a central topic of your writing. You can combine content you have already written, curate additional expert opinions, add statistics, tell personal stories, provide more examples.

Once you have a Pillar Piece written on a specific topic, you should then direct readers over and over again to this Pillar Piece in your relevant social content.

Give away 99% of your best writing for free. Your goal should be for readers to think and write “I seriously can’t believe all this amazing content is free!”

How to Make Money Online as a Writer

But how to make money? People don’t buy products. They buy solutions to urgent problems. The last 1% which you’re not giving away for free should contain even more value than the free 99% combined.

My recommendation is to explore anything and everything that advances your writing career forward, and can “double” as a marketing vehicle for your writing, allowing you to add more revenue streams into the mix.

I highly recommend reading the essay “1,000 True Fans” by Kevin Kelly, where he explains how you really don’t need millions of readers in order to make an amazing living as a writer. Instead, if you can get 1,000 true fans (who spend at least $100 per year buying and supporting everything you put out into the world), you can earn yourself $100,000 per year.

You can sell a course. Compare this: In order to make $1 million as a writer, you need 100,000 people to buy your $10 book. Or, you need 5,000 people to buy a $200 course.

You can start a paid newsletter. Readers will subscribe on a monthly basis. This gives you more stability and reassurance that your income isn’t going to just magically disappear 30 days from now. For example, publish your book-in-progress chapter by chapter on a paid newsletter and you can probably make even more money while still having happy customers.

Basically, anything you know how to do, with an end result that other people want as well, can be sold as a service. For example, the whole of the internet is nothing more than a massive library of content. So every single entity with a presence on the internet, in some sort of capacity, needs content – and if you can provide the words they need, you’re in demand.

The goal is to write something that is even more valuable, and even more relevant to the target reader – and successfully encourages them to take some form of action like signing up for a newsletter or purchasing a product.

The 1 Habit Every Single Writer Needs to Master in Order to Become Successful

Writing. A lot.

The question is, do your habits reflect your desires?

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