In the depths of Scottish winter I was sitting at my desk, like a writing gremlin pecking away at the keyboard. Eight hours later I surfaced, exhausted, but satisfied with a hard day’s work. It all went to sh*t the next day.
Ninety percent of the hot garbage I’d vomited on the page was unusable. I had gone way past my limits of valuable writing time and couldn’t even face going back to fix it.
These mammoth writing sessions were the first big mistake I couldn’t shake. It was like a giant honey trap of hope that I’d find myself jumping into again and again. But no more. Slow and steady wins the race.
Here are the 19 other mistakes I’ve made and lessons I’ve learned.
19. Publishing Day Is Never as Exciting as You Hope
Views start slow and snowball over time. The most viewed article I’ve ever written was about Starbucks drinks. Here’s how it went after publishing day:
Views after day 1? 0
Views after month 1? 20
Views after 2 years? 250,000
Good things happen over time, not overnight.
18. Earning Money Takes Much Longer Than You Want
My first ever freelance job was a $6 gig writing about a toothbrush. I submitted my piece, and was told in broken English that it was ‘very very not good’. That’s when I became a writer not-for-hire. But I still expected that I could make a full-time income within 12 months from blogging. I was a fool.
I was writing online for 15 months before I earned over $100 in a single month. 9 months after that and I was a full-time digital marketer. More of my side hustle adventures here.
17. Most of Your Views Come from Less than 20% of Your Articles
Time and time again I’ve found that about 10–20% of my articles result in most of my views. I’ve tried to use that to only write winners but it doesn’t work. You need to write every article to find the few that work. Accept that only 1 in 5 articles will do particularly well but keep writing.
Some articles spread like wildfire. Most articles fizzle out like a match in the rain. But you have to strike all the matches to light the fire.
16. Every Sentence Counts
I used to think if I wrote a giant review article nobody would read it to the end. Now I cringe that I used to think like that. It was an excuse to be lazy, to not edit as tightly, and to let things slide so I could publish faster. The result was subpar content.
It’s true that not everyone will read your whole article, but your whole article will be read. Every sentence will be glanced at by somebody skimming past. Every sentence is a chance to bring them back into the story. Make each one count.
15. Mr Get Rich Quick Has Ideas for You — Ignore Them
Wherever I go, Mr. Get Rich Quick knocks on my door and offers me a pot of gold for little to no work. The few I chased never worked out. And they always wasted time I could have spent focused on what I wanted to do. Write.
Don’t be pulled away by shiny objects or grass that looks green from far away. Success takes dirty hard work so stay your course and keep writing.
14. Feedback Will Make or Break You
You can keep on writing but if there’s no one to correct you, the chances you’ll get better are slim. Here are my three suggestions for great feedback
- Find an expert — Ask a better writer to read everything you write. For me, that’s my wife. She is an incredibly talented writer and helps turn my scribblings into articles.
- The James Clear method — From the foreword to Ultralearning: ‘I personally emailed nearly all of my first 10,000 subscribers’ James Clear says ‘to say hello and ask for feedback on my writing’. That’s a boatload of feedback. If there are even a few people reading what you’ve written, ask them what they thought.
- Data Harvest — Study your stats. If an article is getting more views than any other, try and figure out why. A person providing feedback is better but this still works.
13. The Advice “Just Keep Publishing till You Go Viral” Is a Lie
I truly believed this when I spent a year blogging daily. I thought if I kept publishing my short, witty, and clever observations I’d go viral and become a sensation.
It didn’t happen.
While I’m proud of the blog posts I wrote there was no way they were ever going to “just go viral”. Much better advice is “Just keep publishing and improving, and maybe you’ll go viral”.
12. Pressing Publish Should Always Bring the Nerves
I see nerves before publishing as a sign I’m on the right track. It shows I’m taking risks, I’m pushing myself, I cared.
Hiding behind mediocre content is easy. If you weren’t trying then it doesn’t matter if you fail right? Be afraid. Publish anyway. You’ll get braver.
11. Mechanical Keyboards Suck
I had this idea of how professional I would feel with a mechanical keyboard. The click-clack sound, the soft action of the keys, the exotic lights flashing from below.
I could not have been more wrong.
The lights were distracting, the sound infuriating, and without pushback from the keys to work with, I made more typos. You don’t need a magic keyboard. You need to sit down and write.
10. Your Friends Won’t Care as Much as You Do
My friends care about me so they’ll sign up for newsletters when I ask them to. But when I was blogging daily a friend of mine said “I actually read some of your emails”. Thanks?
It seemed like a backhanded compliment but I was expecting them to care just because I was writing. I didn’t stop to consider if the content would be helpful to them, or if they were who it was even for.
I expected their full commitment to my project which wasn’t fair. They’re your friends, not your fans. That’s fine. Friends are more valuable anyway.
9. Word Count Challenges Don’t Work
Every 6 months I’d try to supercharge my blog with a word count challenge. Some dramatic goal like “Write 50,000 words this month” would come to me and I would dive in with gusto. I never got past week two.
Then, just like with the mammoth writing sessions, I’d need an extended break to recover. After a month there would be less written than if I’d just kept showing up every day.
They might work for some people but they sure as hell don’t work for me.
8. Your First Draft Is Always Terrible
I spent years trying to perfect the art of the “one and done” article. An article that’s a perfect first draft and ready for publishing.
Waste. Of. Time.
Your first draft is a way to get ideas on the page. A way to organise your thoughts and make a start. There’s no piece of writing that can’t benefit from at least a second attempt.
Don’t be arrogant. Learn to rewrite.
7. The More You Publish the Better You Get
Publishing 4 articles in a month will leave you more experienced than publishing 1 article you spent a month perfecting.
My progress skyrocketed when I committed to a weekly post-publishing schedule. Because it allowed me to practise the whole sequence of article writing: idea, headline, first draft, rewrite, polish, and publish. The more you can go through that whole process, the better you’ll be.
6. Grammarly Isn’t Gospel
Grammarly is not your editor. It’s a glorified spell checker. Sure, it’s great at polishing your article before you publish, but it doesn’t replace a careful read-through by you.
I’ve spent many hours updating older articles riddled with mistakes that Grammarly missed. Had I taken the time to reread them carefully the first time I wouldn’t be standing with my pants down like I found myself so often.
Now I read my articles bottom to top one sentence at a time to catch spelling and grammar mistakes.
5. Focus on Yourself
I joined the Just Start subreddit when there were 750 members, now there are over 135,000. But I had to abandon it. I would read other people’s case studies and if they were doing better than me I would find myself enraged or in a pit of despair.
My jealousy would lead me to switch strategies at the drop of a hat leaving me unfocussed and frustrated. So I stopped going on the subreddit. I focussed on me and my work and the results spoke for themselves.
It doesn’t matter if someone else publishes more than you, does it better, or is more successful. Everyone has a different path to follow. And if looking at their progress isn’t good for you, just stop looking.
4. If You Aren’t an Expert Don’t Pretend to Be One
I failed several niche sites because I came in with pretend expertise. It made the content almost impossible to write because I was lying. I didn’t have 1/10 of the expertise I was trying to pass off.
Instead, I should have started learning and documenting my journey through the niche. That’s much more interesting to do, to write, and to read about. Sometimes we don’t need more experts. Sometimes we need beginners to show us what they did.
3. SEO Is Worth Learning
I’ve had articles go viral on Reddit. And I’ve had articles rank #1 on Google for competitive keywords. But I’ve never had a single article that did both.
You can either write engaging opinion pieces that will be shared by people, or you can write SEO articles to get traffic from Google. Learning both will make you unstoppable.
2. Read Widely
The last 10 books I’ve read have all mentioned Walden as a source. I’m sick of hearing about it. Don’t get me wrong it’s an incredible book, but if everyone is talking about it it gets boring. Mix up what source material you use.
Just recently I bought a 200-year-old book about student life at Cambridge. I’m curious to see what study habits were like back then. Do you think anyone else has quoted this book when talking about productivity? I doubt it.
1. If in Doubt, Keep Showing Up
Some days you aren’t feeling it. You want to skip a day because you’re tired, or busy, or running late, or Mr Get Rich Quick is at your door again. The last thing you want to do is to sit down and peck away at your keyboard.
Want to know how to conquer those days? Sit down at your desk. Open your laptop. And write. Learning to push through could be the greatest skill you ever acquire.
The Most Important Lesson I’ve Ever Learned
No matter what it is you want to do. No matter how big or how small. No matter if you’ve never done anything like it before and the task ahead seems herculean. Find a way that lets you start and do it. Everything becomes easier once you’ve started.
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