Succeeding as a writer on the internet is not for the faint of heart. You have to spend years publishing your work, and potentially hear the sound of crickets chirping.
You have to be thick-skinned enough to tolerate being vilified by strangers on the internet, and committed enough to believe that something will come from your efforts when nothing is guaranteed and the odds are against you. There are many better options for a career.
As I said in my piece about what I wish I'd known about building a career in the arts, "the only good reason to do this is that you can't imagine doing anything else." After 10 years, 100's of articles, and 2 traditionally published books, this is what I've found it takes to succeed as a writer on the internet.
Mastery Instead of Metrics
Focus on mastery instead of metrics. If there's one thing that early writers do wrong, it's the opposite. They waste time chasing traffic, tweaking their websites, and accumulating fans and followers. Checking your traffic won't cause it to go up. Writing something worth reading will. There are wildly popular blogs that have terrible designs. If the writing is good, the audience will overlook many other faults. If you want to succeed as a writer on the internet, spend more time on the craft instead of the prize.
We live in a world full of distractions, most of which will do nothing for your success as a writer. In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport profiles two successful writers who don't use social media at all: Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Lewis. Gladwell has become a cultural icon. Three of Lewis' books have been made into movies, and nearly every one of them has become a New York Times’ Best-Seller.
The state of your attention determines the state of your life, and your ability to succeed as a writer on the internet. Unless you can do deep work and focus on your writing for an extended period, you will always be at a significant disadvantage. This one skill will have a disproportionate impact on your writing efforts.
Discipline and Consistency
It's hard to overestimate the profound power of consistency and discipline. Even though I had always been a prolific writer, I never made significant strides as a writer until I consistently wrote 1000 words a day. Two years after I started the habit, I got my book deal with a publisher.
- Seth Godin has published something every day on his blog for 10 years. The results speak for themselves.
- By publishing a new article twice a week, James Clear built a massive audience and his recent book Atomic Habits became a New York Times’ Best-seller.
The paradox of discipline and consistency is that they liberate you. If what you wrote today wasn't any good, it doesn't matter because you'll be back tomorrow.
My friend Reema Zaman is exemplary of the commitment it takes to succeed as a writer on the internet. When a friend introduced me to her, I was skeptical. She had no online presence or platform. What she did have was a finished manuscript I couldn't put down. She also had something that distinguishes the athletes who make it to the big leagues from the ones who don't: The Intangibles: discipline, persistence, and commitment. For the last two years, she's spent countless hours working on a manuscript that nobody was willing to buy and publishing her work anywhere she could. She'd also spent years doing the same before those past two. Her efforts paid off. Eventually, she got a book deal. Her book comes out in February.
Be willing to suck
This is the first step to becoming great at anything. My early writing was so bad that one of my readers suggested that I focus my efforts on interviewing people and he became the co-founder of what eventually turned into The Unmistakable Creative. When you start writing, you'll be attempting to bridge what Ira Gap refers to as “the taste gap”.
Don't worry about the fruits of your labor.
Focus on the labor, and you'll end up planting seeds for the person you want to become. Steven Pressfield spent almost two decades writing before he got his first big break as a writer. It's worth asking yourself if you're willing to go far past where the average person would quit.
Always carry a notebook.
Unless you capture your ideas, you'll never capitalize them. Ideas rarely show up when you sit down at your computer to write. They show up at inconvenient and inopportune times like when you're taking a shit or shower.
Write by hand as often as you can.
Even if you can't read your writing, there's something valuable about writing by hand. It transforms your writing into a meditation of sorts.
If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut. Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life. - Stephen King
Read A Lot of Books
Outside of writing 1000 words a day, reading books has been the most valuable thing I've done for my writing life. Reading gives you the opportunity to learn from those who've gone before you and makes you feel less alone. It makes you realize that all artists are fucked up, insecure, neurotic human beings, who occasionally appear as if we know what we're doing. But the truth is we're all confused. We're making it up as we go along because the only way to navigate the geography of a creative life is with a compass.
A Bold and Compelling Point of View
When you have a bold and compelling point of view, you're inevitably going to piss some people off. This is a good thing. It becomes your line in the sand that clearly states who your work is for and who it's not for. It's impossible to have a bold and compelling point of view if you want everyone to like you.
A Sacred Space
Uninterrupted creation time is an essential nutrient for the life of a writer. Have a location. Treat it as a sacred space. In the same way that you'd never bring alcohol into a temple, don't bring sources of distraction into your sacred space. Ideally, there's nothing in this space other than whatever you need to write: a pen, a notebook, a desk.
Honesty, Vulnerability, And Transparency
Honesty, vulnerability, and transparency lead to emotional resonance. But they can't be manufactured. It's not a tactic to put your heart on the line and trust that the audience won't break it. The things that make you angry, you're afraid to share, and require you to get out of your comfort zone have great creative potential.
Determine Whose Feedback Matters
You need it to evolve and grow as a writer. You also need to learn which feedback to ignore completely. There are plenty of trolls on the internet. It's easier to be a critic than a creator. As Scott Stratten likes to say "you're not the jackass whisperer." You'd never let someone take a piss on your lawn. Why would you tolerate similar behavior in your digital home?
There's feedback from strangers on the internet that you don't have a relationship with. There's feedback from fans and followers. And there's feedback from editors, agents, and other people who are in the business of helping you make the best art you're capable of producing. Choose who you listen to. If you don't discern the value of someone's feedback, you run the risk of watering your art down for someone whose opinion doesn't make a difference.
This is about connections, not transactions. This is why interviewing famous people is such a lousy strategy for growing your podcast. So often people want to connect with an "influencer" in hopes that they will get something out of it.
- Chris Brogan had a podcast guest who harassed him about sharing their interview to help grow his audience.
- A few months back, somebody I'd never met sent me a message on Facebook asking me to share his Facebook page.
Despite having access to hundreds of very influential people because of The Unmistakable Creative, I've been extremely mindful about asking people in my network for favors. Instead, I promote them in my work. I quote them in the blog posts I write and share their books with my audience. I don't ever bother them about sharing our interviews because I know the best way to get someone to share our interview is to do a kick-ass interview. When it comes to relationships, if you give unconditionally you'll grow exponentially.
Promote Your Work
If you don't believe enough in your work to promote it, you shouldn't expect anyone else to. And this is where you raise the stakes and take a risk. When you're lingering in obscurity, the fastest path out is to do things that don't scale.
Email 25 friends and tell them about your latest article. Your relatives are fair game. At this point, all you're doing is searching for what Seth Godin calls “the smallest viable audience”, even if it's one person who your work resonates with. One of my biggest fans, when I started writing, was the study abroad coordinator at Pepperdine. She cheered me on when there was nobody else in my audience.
Publish on a website like Medium. It's not likely a million people are going to read what you write the first time you share it. But it's far more valuable to have 100 people who read everything you write and would miss if you were gone than 1000 people wouldn't notice if you disappeared.
If you're a published author, avoid looking at best-seller lists on Amazon or The New York Times. It's rocket fuel for envy and comparison. The stupidest part is that it doesn't help you sell more books. It's like rubbing salt in a wound and wondering why it won't close. I'm telling you this from personal experience.
Don't read your book reviews. The most useful thing I ever heard Seth Godin say about book reviews was the following. “I've never heard any writer say ‘I've read all my 1-star reviews, taken the feedback to heart, and I'm a much better writer now.’ Reading your book reviews is a form of seeking validation. If you get it, you'll want more. If you don't, you'll risk watering down your work for somebody who already hates it.”
Raise the Bar
The internet gives all of us a microphone, the ability to build what Seth Godin calls “a permission asset, a platform, and an opportunity”. But this also raises the bar. If your writing is not remarkable or so good they can't ignore you, you'll struggle to gain the trust and attention of an audience. Attention on the internet follows the laws of supply and demand. It's in short supply and high demand, which makes it the most valuable commodity on the internet.
The brand comes from the work that you do.
A few months ago Oprah was interviewing Tom Brady on her podcast. He shared a story about a teenage girl who was concerned about building her personal brand. Oprah said "Honey, you don't have a brand. The brand comes from the work that you do."
Don't Follow Anyone's Advice to the Letter
You could do everything I've suggested above and execute it to perfection. But you still may not succeed as a writer on the internet. This isn't school. You're not required to follow instructions and do what you're told. You'll create some of your best work when you don't follow anyone's advice to the letter, if trust your instincts, and create what you want to see exist in the world.
The road to mastery requires patience. You will have to keep your focus on five or ten years down the road when you will reap the rewards of your efforts
- How far are you willing to go past where the average person quits?
- How long are you willing to stick it out?
Rumor has it that the average blogger quits after about 90 days. According to Yaro Starak, only a small percentage of people who buy his course go through the material. A portion of those people finish, and a percentage of those who finish persist long enough to see a result from their efforts.
Sam Altman tells startup founders that their most significant competitive advantage is a long-term view. And I think the same goes for someone who wants to succeed as a writer on the internet.Time is the ingredient that fuels the accomplishments of anybody who has achieved any level of success as a writer.
There is no shortcut, lifehack, or magic bullet that will cause you to succeed as a writer on the internet. It requires years of focus, discipline, deliberate practice and persistence. Like most things in life, what you get out of your efforts is determined by what you put into them.