Answer by Oliver Emberton:
In my first year of blogging I was read over 4 million times, mostly through a cunning strategy I call “screwing everything up and learning”.
Let me save you some time. Here are the 5 most surprising lessons I learned:
1. The world owes you nothing
The cold, unfeeling universe does not give two shits about you or your writing.
Anyone can walk into a bookstore and pick from Shakespeare, Pratchett, JK Rowling and a million more. Tell me (a) is your writing more deserving of attention and (b) how would anyone even know?
This may sound dispiriting, and it’s meant to. We live at the centre of our own private universes, which can fool us into thinking the world responds to our merits, as we see them. If you believe this, you’re in for a lifetime of tear-stained keyboards.
If you acknowledge the truth, you can arm yourself accordingly.
2. Give people a reason to care
You are in competition with every other distraction on the Internet. Your beautifully written sonnet must joust for attention against Miley Cyrus with a kitten.
If you want an audience, don’t write for yourself. Forget yourself. Start with:
- Who am I writing for?
- What can I do for them?
- Why should they care?
Let’s say you’re writing for casual bloggers. It’s not hard to think of things that casual bloggers might struggle with (“How to win your first thousand followers”), find entertaining (“My blog cost me my job, wife and kids”) or inspiring (“How my blog got me a date with Natalie Portman”). Start there.
3. Hook emotionally
Brilliant intellectuals can appreciate content on a purely intellectual basis. For everyone else, there’s urgent news, sex, themselves, gossip and sex.
You know when you feel compelled to click on a link? You don’t have time to think about it. Hooks are entirely emotional:
- Scary & urgent – “Terrorists will attack your town, tomorrow”
- Big names – “A day in the life of Tony Stark”
- Self-interest – “How to win your dream girl”
- Sex-appeal – “The hottest babes in tennis”
- Trendsetting – “The show everyone is talking about”
These emotions can be conveyed in a headline. Your headline is where you will win or lose most of your audience. A title in a tweet is judged and dismissed by 99% of your audience before they see another word; ensure yours punches them in their emotional face.
4. Edit as much as you write
Editing is a superpower which can turn charcoal into diamonds. Most people seem content to shovel coal.
Don’t mistake editing for proof reading. Editing is where you take your work apart in a blender, rearrange, rewrite and rethink everything. Everything. At a minimum, you must edit for:
- Verbosity. Nothing will kill attention faster than excess words. Like these. For example.
- Confusion. Your readers may not speak English as their first language. They may be bouncing a baby on their lap. Don’t make them think any harder than they have to.
- Predictability. If someone can guess your next sentence from the previous one, you have a delicious unicycling mongoose. Avoid cliche, add sparkle.
I personally spend 2-3x as much time editing as writing. It makes all the difference.
5. Build a platform
If you’re searching for an audience, it doesn’t take long to realise that the famous get most of the attention. The mistake is to assume this dooms you to failure. You just need to become slightly more famous.
It’s slowest at the start, which is where most people give up. My writing did nothing for 4 months; later that year I had 4 million views. Write continuously, and test everything you can think of. Think of it like.
To win in the long term, your platform must efficiently convert readers into followers. Forget likes and tweets; followers are what you’re after. Best of all, start a mailing list – it’s more work, but you’ll have far higher engagement than you’ll ever get from Twitter and Facebook.
If you write something and it doesn’t clearly encourage people to follow you, you’re playing the wrong game.
Some writers may find all of this a bit dirty. Well, yes. Unfortunately, it’s also how people work. You must appeal to their nature before you can win them over with your writing. Otherwise, no-one will even know what wonders they’re even missing.