100 articles and counting - what I’ve learnt
On 31 July 2018, I published my 100th article. My first article was published on 26 May 2017 so it's been just over a year (14 months to be exact by the time I hit 100 articles) and according to Ulysses, my writing app, that's close to 160,000 words. In that time, I've also created a number of other products, wrote some ramblings and drafted sensitive emails or love letters to my wife in Ulysses - the total word count is over 256,000.
My articles are published on my blog and cross-posted to Medium, and some have been published at Freelancers Union, ManyStories and even appeared (unasked for) in a couple of other blogs.
Why I write
When I started out on my own I decided that I would use content marketing as my key marketing strategy. I dislike what I call "hard" marketing - or outbound marketing as it is more commonly known. Rather than directly approaching potential customers, I would create an online presence, establish my authority and credibility as a subject matter expert and drive potential customers to my website.
That's the basic strategy. What I also wanted to do was to make sure that I am continuously providing value; rather than just driving customers through a sales funnel, I would continue to build trust by writing about stuff my audience would find valuable.
This is not totally selfless - in fact, all of this is designed to eventually get people to buy my products. But I didn't want to push people to do that; I wanted to provide enough value to build trust, build my brand awareness and when people are ready to buy, the decision would be easier than coming in cold.
Here's what I've learnt.
1. It takes time to learn to write well
When I decided that I was going to write, I knew I had to get good at writing. And not just good - I would also need to be able to write a lot and maintain the quality of what I produced. So I enrolled in Sean D'Souza's article writing course, and that turned out to be one of the best investments I made. I also bought and read through a series of books on writing, adopting some of the techniques and adapting others for my purposes.
It's been a year now and I know my writing has improved a heck of a lot. I don't know whether I'm a great writer - but I get enough good comments and feedback to know that people read my stuff, some enjoy it and some find it valuable.
I'm still learning - in fact I need to get better at a lot of stuff. But I'm glad that I started out, even if the first writings weren't that great, because actually publishing is the only way you get to have feedback, build your confidence and see what works.
It takes time - but it's never too early to start.
2. It's difficult to maintain a high output
When I started out, I produced one article per week. It took me a couple of hours, end to end, to create anything from 1,200 to 1,800 words. Then, in April of 2018, I decided to up the rate to one article every weekday. I learnt two main things from this:
- It's still taking me around 2 hours to produce my articles, so I either need to get a heck of a lot faster or reduce the amount of time I spend writing every week (I now produce 2-3 articles per week).
- Writing something meaningful - even two to three times per week - can lead to a lack of stuff to write about.
Some weeks I found it difficult to produce even one article - mainly because I was on vacation or out of town working with a client on site. Right now I'm going through a minor pivot in my business (that article will be published soon) and the change in focus has thrown my regular schedule out the window.
The point is that maintaining a high output is difficult, but it is critical if you want to build an audience. I have a number of techniques that I want to try to improve my speed; ideally I will have a collection of 5 to 10 articles ready to be published for those times I get stuck - or go on vacation.
3. You have to show up frequently and consistently
If you're writing to build an audience - and as in my case eventually drive them to my website - you have to show up frequently and consistently.
You can get away with writing as little as once per week. Twice to three times per week seems to work great while 5 (or even more) times per week is difficult - especially if you're trying to produce non-trivial stuff. I've noticed the difference in the number of views I get when I drop below three, and also noticed an uptick in views when I regularly write 4 or even 5 times per week.
But even more important than writing frequently is showing up consistently. If you write once per week you have to consistently produce that article once per week. My two to three articles per week show up on different days, but my subscriber newsletter (which contains a list of the articles from the previous week) appears every Wednesday without fail.
When I fail to produce my regular output, or skip a week, I can immediately see a drop in my articles views and subsequent visits to my website.
4. You have to find a platform
If you want to use your writing as a way to build an audience, you have to find a platform with a ready-made audience. Otherwise it will take way too long to build your own.
My platform of choice is Medium. My articles are published on my blog first and imported into Medium (their import tool sets the right canonical link).
Publishing my articles on Medium gives me immediate access to millions of readers every month. Standing out in the "noise" is tough, but I would rather fight that battle (which also helps me learn about what works and what not) than try to exclusively build an audience all on my own.
5. Headlines matter
The number of views your writing gets is largely determined by your headlines. A bad headline will bury even the best piece of writing; a good headline will promote even mediocre writing.
There are many articles and tools that can help you develop a good headline for your story; one technique (that I started using lately) is to write five to ten different headlines for each article and use the CoSchedule headline analyser to see how well they rate.
6. It works - but it takes time
The ultimate goal of my writing is to drive visitors to my website. In the first months I was writing I was lucky to be tagged by a writer on Medium that has a huge following; the number of views of the tagged article went through the roof. But when I analysed the actual traffic to my website it was dismal - close to zero.
I almost gave up on the whole content marketing thing.
But I persisted, and now I can see regular new visitors to my website every day. It took me over 6 months to get there, but continuously writing - showing up frequently and consistently - has paid off. I now just have to keep at it.
7. I really enjoy it
Many of us have visions of being a well-known writer, attracting large audiences and gaining fame (of sorts) through our writing. I was no different - but I've also learnt that writing is actually fun.
And the fun often comes after the fact.
Now, when I go back and read articles I wrote weeks or even months ago, I realise that it was actually not bad at all. There's value in what I wrote, I even enjoy reading my own writing and it sort of hangs together. There's a sense of accomplishment, a knowledge that I've helped at least one person somewhere, and the body of knowledge is building up slowly but surely.
8. Writing from the heart is the best way to write
The articles that get the most reads and comments are the ones I've written from the heart.
Those articles were not planned in as much detail as others, they sometimes started off with a rant and I ignored what most editors would point out as bad grammar, non-existent story lines or written in a language I thought my subscribers would like.
The articles that really resonate are written purely from the heart. When I ignore grammar, don't worry about what people think and just write I consistently produce articles that other people like.
So even if you don't think you're a good writer - and you need to learn how to write - just start writing from the heart. The people who read your stuff are human just like you, and being human - and even vulnerable - allows them to connect with your writing way better than writing purely from your head.
It's been a journey and I'm glad that I am still on it. Writing is tough but it's also fun. It's also good for my business and every now and then I can rant and get something off my chest.
I've learnt way more than just these eight things, but these lessons stand out as the most important things I learnt starting from scratch. Here's a summary:
- It takes time to learn to write well. After 14 months and over 100 articles (this is article number 102) I'm still learning. And enjoying it.
- It's difficult to maintain high output. You have to develop techniques to write fast without sacrificing quality.
- You have to show up frequently and consistently. Lose momentum and you have to start from the bottom again.
- You have to find a platform. Medium is a great place to find a ready-made audience.
- Headlines matter. Learn how to craft them well.
- It works - but it takes time. I can now see regular new visitors to my website.
- Writing is fun, and the fun often comes after the fact. I now actually enjoy reading my past articles.
- Writing from the heart is the best way to write. Connect with other humans out there.
What you can do now
If you believe content marketing is the way to go - or you just want to write for the heck of it, my best advice is to start. Don't wait for something to happen, don't worry about being the best writer in the world, don't worry that people will laugh at you. They won't, and you will make a difference in someone's life. And that's all you need to do - make a difference.
You can find the full list of my articles on my blog. And as always, your comments and questions are welcome.
Good luck with your writing.