My answer might surprise you
First, let’s eliminate all potential whining from whiny writers.
We’re living in the best possible time in human history to be writers. As a writer today, you don’t have to jump through the insane hoops, obstacles, and barriers your predecessors had to.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote for twenty-five years before publishers discovered him.
Today, you literally have access to billions of potential readers. With time, patience, and effort, people will notice you.
The times have created a “wild west,” of content creation and publishing. With the floodgates open, the water gets muddier.
With today’s publishing and online writing landscape, it’s just as important to be able to market your work as it is to write well. But where do you draw the line?
Do you write to write well, or do you write for clicks and subscribers to help you build the platform you need to reach a wider audience?
The Truth About Online Writing We All Must Understand
Great art and marketing aren’t mutually exclusive.
If you think high-quality literary writing should stand on its own two feet and spread through pure word of mouth, you will fail.
There are exceptions to this of course. If you’re Malcolm Gladwell, you can get away with doing zero marketing for your work and just write. But you’re not Malcolm Gladwell and you never will be.
Unless you’re one of the freakishly talented writers who go viral based on their words alone, you’re going to have to market your work and hustle. There’s no way around it. If you don’t want to do that, quit.
If you think writing for an audience means you have to dumb down everything you write into “top ten,” lists to get attention, you’re also misguided.
People are looking for interesting stories. Great writing isn’t dead. You don’t have to write an entire blog post of one sentence paragraphs to succeed.
You need balance.
How do You Want the World to See You?
At the end of the day, you have to write based on your definition of writing success (with elements that will help you build influence.)
I could write a new top ten list every day, publish it, and inflate my number of clicks and subscribers. It’s simple. All you have to do is write “Top 10 Ways to Do X,” name drop Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, or Harvard research, and fill each point with a quote plus one sentence of original writing.
I could do that, but I won’t. Not because I have the right to judge what makes good or bad writing, but because I wouldn’t be happy with myself if I wrote that way. It would feel empty and cheap based on my standards.
But just because I don’t write top 10 lists for every post doesn’t mean I don’t bake elements of marketing into my work — including writing list posts from time to time, because they work.
I try to write intriguing headlines, break up sentences to make them easier to read and use active voice to draw people down the page.
I push my words to the right websites and publications because I believe in them. If you believe in what you write, you should do everything you can to promote it without shame, because if you need to say it the world needs to hear it.
Maybe your aim is to build up your subscriber base to launch a product, gain visibility for your company, and establish yourself as a guru. In that case, write for clicks if you like. Just know what you’re sacrificing in return.
The Rules of Influence
If you (just) build it, they won’t come.
You must earn attention. Nobody will hand it to you.
Using good grammar and sentence structure doesn’t make your writing interesting. It makes it pretty. You can write well and remain obscure. It takes more than pretty words for people to notice you. An MFA is a prerequisite for absolutely nothing in terms of real-world success.
You have to show up over and over and over again when most others won’t.
You also have to come to grips with the fact that you will probably lose out to click-bait articles in the short term if you focus on your craft.
If you write well and become a better marketer your time will come, but in the short term, people who publish “top ten rules for success,” will run circles around you.
That’s fine. Don’t worry about them. Run your race.
I have a sneaking suspicion you want it all — to write well and to have the audience, income, and body of work.
It’s possible. Continue you learn how to blend art and marketing until it’s just right. Then you win.