There’s no shortage of terrible writing advice on the internet.
This puts you in a tough spot. You want to build your writing career. You’re motivated, but you’re looking for clearcut steps to find your voice, build an audience, and become the great writer you imagine you can be.
On this path, you have to sift through about 7 million different writing gurus with contradictory advice.
You don’t know who to trust. Instead of implementing any of the advice you’re given, you keep spinning your wheels reading blog post after blog post, hoping something clicks.
Does that sound about right?
If you’re nodding your head right now, stick with me, and I’ll give you some writing advice that actually works.
Why Should You Trust Me?
So far, I’ve said nothing unique. Every writing guru claims they have the secret sauce and every other guru doesn’t. What makes me different?
Here’s your first clue. I’m not going to promise any of this will work exactly the way I say it will. Good advice is nothing more than a suggestion. Nobody can promise you anything because there are too many variables in life.
Most terrible writing advice centers around some guarantee that if you do what you’re told, things will work out in some precise way.
Of course, luck is involved when it comes to writing. But, there are ways to increase your odds of building an audience and having blog posts go viral. I have a bag of tricks, but I don’t know exactly what will happen after I hit publish. No one does.
Anyone who’s promising you their “proven secrets to virality” is a charlatan.
I offer useful strategies that tend to pay off in the long term because long time scales are more predictable.
I’m living proof of that. My blog posts have been read by millions, I’ve published two books with a third coming out this fall, and tens of thousands of people read my work on a monthly basis like clockwork.
But I’ve also been writing for five years.
Many, many, many people who write about writing edit out the part where they were stuck and frustrated and show you the “roadmap for success” based on a starting point that’s not real — the point where they got traction instead of the very first time they wrote.
I won’t do that.
You’ll get unfiltered straight to the point tips, the opposite of terrible writing advice. A great starting point for success is learning what not to do. Avoid these strategies at all costs.
Anything With the Number Six
I hate the number six.
“Become a successful writer in six weeks.”
“Have thousands of raving fans in six months.”
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen people build careers in six months out of thin air with a few viral hits. It happens. But I hate it when these same people turn around and give advice on how to do it as if it’s replicable.
Of course, there are ingredients to virality. But it’s not predictable. Of course, it’s possible for you to become a top professional writer in six months or less, but staking your hopes and dreams on that goal will kill your career 99 times out of a 100.
If you want to use the number six, try six years.
Jon Morrow, maybe the smartest blogger in the world, sums up the way to look at the timeline your writing career:
Starting a blog from scratch is just as difficult as starting any business. For example, it requires the same time and effort as starting your own restaurant, software company, or accounting service. Yes, those businesses are wildly different, but the first few years are usually the same story: low income, lots of stress, big learning curve.
If you want a more concrete answer than that, we’ve found it takes even our smartest, most dedicated students 3–6 years to make enough money from blogging to quit their jobs. And that sounds like a long time, but so what? 3–6 years to be able to work from anywhere in the world, take a vacation whenever you want, and probably have passive income until the day you die?
Sounds like a pretty good deal to me.
Get an MFA
Getting an MFA is like getting an art history degree — useless.
If anything, an MFA will only teach you how to be even more entitled and pretentious than you already are.
You don’t need a fancy degree to become a writer. You need a computer and a writing habit. If you want to polish your skills, there are online courses you can take for a fraction of the cost. Often, these courses are created by people who’ve had real success with writing.
The problem with learning about writing from a writing teacher is the fact that a successful writer often wouldn’t be a writing teacher. There are exceptions, of course, but usually, if you have a successful writing career the last thing you’d want to do is become a professor.
I went to school for business. I had many a business teacher who’s only job was being a business teacher. What can someone who’s never run or been employed by a real business possibly teach me about business? Nothing.
This isn’t really a knock on MFA professors, but rather me railing against the idea of formal education in general. You don’t need it. You’re capable of being a self-taught professional writer and the digital landscape is giving you every opportunity to do so. So just go.
Write About Whatever You Want
This is the writing version of “just be yourself.”
Writing about what you want isn’t terrible writing advice in and of itself, rather it’s the implication that people should want to read whatever you write.
You can write in many genres — romance novels, self-help, history, psychology, sci-fi, memoir, etc. I’m not saying you need to be pigeonholed.
But often, writers take license to write whatever the hell they want without taking other people into consideration.
If you want to write a memoir about your life, you better have lived a damn interesting one and find a way to connect your experiences with the people reading your book.
You can tell personal stories, but the stories must connect with the audience.
Most writers fail because they make their writing all about themselves. They’re not writing anything useful. They’re vomiting their personal diary into the abyss. This is a great way to fail.
If your first instinct is to ramble on about how you feel, you’re on the wrong track.
Josh Spector has a great quote on this:
“You can write for yourself or you can write for an audience, but you can’t do both.”
Write On Word Count a Quota
Ok, this isn’t exactly the most terrible writing advice ever, but it is when taken to the extreme. I’ve given advice on writing a set word count per day.
I did it because most aspiring writers are inconsistent and don’t build the writing habits they need to succeed.
The habit matters more than anything else. If setting a word count goal helps you get there, fine, but often people turn word count goals into this weird sport that makes them beat themselves up if they don’t reach their goal every day.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions and well-intentioned advice can become counterproductive. All strategies should be a means to an end, not the end itself.
Your goal should never be to write 1,000 words. Your goal is becoming a better writer.
Should you write every day? Probably.
Is there a word count sufficient to make your writing session “count”? Maybe.
At the end of the day, don’t overcomplicate the process. You need to write more, period. You know this already. Do it.
Anything That Doesn’t Boil Down to “Write More”
“Authors need an awesome about page.”
“Your website design builds credibility.”
“Get on all the social media channels.”
“Learn how to do SEO.”
All that stuff is secondary. At best, they’re ancillary tips. At worst, they’re major distractions.
Both of my blogs cost less than $500 to make. I’m just now considering doing a redesign for my sites five years into the game because I’ve built my career to a point where it may be necessary.
I know how to do SEO, but I didn’t start learning that until a few years ago after I had already written more than 100 blog posts.
I promise you, get 100 blog posts under your belt and it will make everything else easier. When you write 100 blog posts, you tip over the “lead domino” that knocks the rest of them over via momentum.
Once you have the habit, you can write books, build your social media, create products, monetize, all of that good stuff you really want to do. But you won’t be able to do any of it if your writing sucks. And your writing will suck until you publish about 100 posts.
Join a Writing Group
Yeah, I’m killing a sacred cow here, sorry.
Jim Rohn says you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. You should use this mental model when it comes to writing as well.
Look, if your writing group has motivated people in it who regularly publish work, get shit done, and have useful insights to offer, by all means, stay in it.
But those groups are the exception, not the rule.
I used to be in many online writing groups. I tried to help, give tips, provide free coaching, all of it, but none of it stuck.
Most of the people in those groups were either too lazy or too filled with self-doubt to do anything. As are most aspiring writers. They’d keep asking me for my “secret.”
I don’t have any secrets. I’m a writing machine. That’s my secret.
Writing groups are like those groups they forced you to be in for class projects. One person usually did all the work and everyone else rode their coattails. Don’t let that be you.
Become a Great Writer
How could “become a great writer” possibly be terrible writing advice?
It’s terrible writing advice when you associate the word great with someone like Ernest Hemingway.
I don’t have to know you to know that you’re probably not going to write the next Great American Novel.
I’m actually astonished at how many people with little to no experience think this is an achievable goal.
Maybe you can’t be Ernest Hemingway, but you can be somebody like Sean Platt, who published a huge library of self-published fiction books and makes a full time living with their writing.
You could be like Steve Scott, who hasn’t and never will hit the New York Times bestseller list but makes $40–50k per month with his library of books (to boot, the vast majority of traditionally published authors are broke).
At some point, I became okay with not becoming the next Malcolm Gladwell. I stopped basing my goals on vanity and started basing them on actual success.
If you’d stop thinking about your ego, you’d realize you can have a tribe of people who love your work, an income, and a pretty damn good writing career.
That’s all you really want, anyway. Focus on that and everything else will fall into place.