It started when one of my friends made a surprising change.
“I’m going to focus on my YouTube presence more,” he said. “I feel I’m going to be able to differentiate myself there.”
Then he said:
“It’s hard to differentiate yourself as a writer.”
Truthfully, I’m a little jealous. He will spend the next year romping around Pittsburgh with a camera and a cute toddler. I assume his popularity will skyrocket.
Writing is my bag, though. I can’t quit it any more than the tide can stop washing up on shore. It is not sexy. It is an old art. But it’s mine. I can’t explain it any better.
Maybe you feel the same way. Maybe you want to be a Writer with a capital W. You scrawl random words on post it notes and wake up in the middle of the night to jot something down in your notebook. You want to see your name on a cover.
If so, I have awful news for you:
My friend is right.
It’s difficult to separate yourself as a writer. Your Instagram friends will cross the world and shoot infinite exotic and beautiful locations. You will lock yourself in a room, pushing buttons to try and express how you feel. The latter is not a natural thing.
So, as you attempt to use the same 26 letters everyone else uses to make the same vocabulary words everyone else uses so you can post them on platforms everyone else uses, keep this in mind:
You are in for a battle.
However, it is a battle which you can win — IF you do the right work (not the most work, but the right work).
In order to chunk this monster post up a little, I’ve divided the key components into three sections:
- Why You Should Even Bother Writing
- 10 Ways to Outstrip Your Writing Competition
- Practical Steps to a Viral Post
Here are a few things I’ve seen work for writers who have gone the distance. Go ahead and bookmark this post. This map will have no cities or roads, only vague instruction and (maybe) a compass.
You fill in the blanks with your work.
Okay, did we scare off the posers?
Before we go deeper on HOW to differentiate yourself as a writer, let’s first talk about WHY:
#1 Writing runs everything
The truth is, writing IS worth the effort. Despite the sexy other forms of “content” flooding the internet these days, writing is the driving force for almost everything that goes on in the world, including:
- Books (fiction and nonfiction)
- Television broadcasts
- Sales copy
- Webinar scripts
- Facebook/Twitter/Instagram Ads
- Website pages
- New business plans
- Design ideas
It all starts with writing.
#2 Recognition to your work
With sites like Quora, even people will wouldn’t think of as creators — such as startup founders and business owners — find writing invaluable today.
Or Ryan Hoover, who created Product Hunt, but has largely used writing to both grow his status as a creator as well as bring more and more attention to his business. Ryan has gained over 250,000 followers on LinkedIn.
Make no mistake:
Even if your primary source of income is NOT writing, becoming a good writer can lead you to success in any area.
#3 Clear communication
Humans need to communicate to survive. Even before we had words, there were gestures, scribbles, and grunts to indicate what was happening.
Here is the problem:
Many, many, many people communicate poorly.
The more accurately you are able to translate the random electricity shooting around your brain to language, the better your odds of getting seen, heard, and recognized.
10 Ways to Outstrip Your Writing Competition
Some of you will read that word “competition,” and think:
“Ewww, that’s a nasty word. Aren’t we all in this together?”
Well, yeah. We are. But what do you think “differentiate yourself means?” It means some writers will not be able to keep up. Part of putting your stake in the world as a writer involves outworking and outperforming your colleagues.
Here are a few ways you can do that:
Not for typos, for flow.
Editing grammar is an obnoxious chore that, although a useful skill, can be handled with machine assistance. Don’t waste your time here.
Instead, find a rhythm to your work. Does one sentence lead us to the next? Does one paragraph naturally morph into another? Are we seamlessly swept from one idea to the next until we wake up and it is dark outside and we really have to pee?
How easy is it to follow this thing you made up in your brain? The best writing is not complicated, but can be infinitely complex. Complexity is the synchronized movement of complementary parts.
It is shocking how few people do this, choosing to write stream-of-consciousness and then publish. I like to remember something Ernest Hemingway said. You may know Ernest. He wrote a few things.
“The first draft of anything is s**t.”
Making the effort to create even one extra draft will vault you above many others.
*Sometimes I like to humanize legends by calling them by their first name. It’s a bad habit.*
#2 Tell your own stories
If I were to write a letter to my 22-year-old self, it would go something like this:
I know you think you’re being cool, but everyone has already heard Simon Sinek’s talk. You don’t need to tell them a “why” is important.
They’ve also heard the one about the boy wizard who goes to wizard school. Probably you don’t have to write a similar story about people who use metal rods instead of wands, but essentially could be role playing Rowling’s superb work.
What about the time you got stitches from putting your hand through a window? Did you learn anything from that?
Maybe you can find a link between the endless hours you spent in the news room putting together a paper and the work you do now.
Or how about when your grandfather died? Do you remember when you started crying in the back of your class not long after? Do you remember telling your mom, how she buried her face in your chest to weep? Do you remember that was the moment you realized although you’d lost a grandparent, she lost a father. Do you remember realizing one day you would lose your parents too, and that you’d be left alone to figure out the world?
Tell those stories. Tell your stories.
Everyone else’s are already taken.
Also, in the fall of 2014, don’t eat chili.”
#3 Write a lot
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
— Stephen King
Actually, do you know what — I think I have another quote here. Double quote time!
“It is only by going through a volume of work that…your work will be as good as your ambitions.”
— Ira Glass
When in doubt, produce quantity. Many of the one-hit-wonder writers of years past would have never seen the light of day in this era, simply because they did not create the amount of work our world has come to expect.
#4 Find a coach/teacher
She drove me bonkers.
She cut up my stories.
She made me want to quit forever.
The next editor did the same, and the next, the same. Each one broke me, puncturing my offerings over and over until I received papers back which looked like they had been covered in blood.
I wouldn’t trade that for the world
We often forget there are two types of critics:
- The critic who tears down
- The critic who builds up
Critic two sees a future beyond who you are. C.S. Lewis used to leave notes for J.R.R.-freaking-Tolkien which said, essentially:
“Come on JRR. This dialog is garbage.”
I think it is natural for a writer to plug her ears after releasing work into the world, hiding it from those who criticize. After all, art often demands that kind of thing.
But you need someone to hold you to your best work. Find that person.
#5 Create controversy
(But not for the sake of controversy)
The most popular TED talk of all time is named “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”
You are a writer, not a speaker, so let’s focus on the title of that speech instead of the content. In just four words, we are faced with a bold, divisive statement. It is also a legitimate argument, not trumped up claims.
For bonus points, nearly everyone has an emotional stake in the state of our school. If the title were “Failing Art Departments Leave Students Empty,” there is no chance the video is as popular.
To examine how a writer specifically can leverage controversy, let’s take a look at three titles of posts James Altucher has written:
- Why We Should Abolish the Presidency
- Why I Will Never Buy a House Again
- Why 50 Shades of Grey is Great Literature
Each one of these titles is close to irresistible. You have no idea what points the author is going to make, you just know it’s going to be outlandish. All three of these ideas are completely counter-culture.
#6 Spend the majority of your time on the first line
Here are a few of the top posts from around my feeds:
These are all very good leads. Captivating openers typically do a few things:
a) Grab attention
Hopefully this is obvious. Most social sites are a blur of grey for most people as they scroll through feeds at a million miles per hour.
Your opening line is going to be different. Know exactly how many characters someone will see before a click and optimize each one. Be concise. Be memorable.
b) Drive curiosity
The best opening lines create cliffhangers right from the start. They will either leave your audience thinking — “What will happen next?” or “What will I learn from this.”
It’s not a post, but one of my favorite first lines comes from Dan Ariely’s TED Talk, Are We in Control of Our Own Decisions?
“I’m going to talk with you today about irrational behavior. Not yours, of course. Other people’s.”
Immediately, the audience is caught off guard and laughing.
The flip side of that coin is this headline from Heath Sanchez which is instantly sobering.
How would you not read this post?
When I was learning to write. I poured over hundreds of first lines so I could write mine better. Do this for Netflix shows, YouTube videos, or literally anything in these endless feeds we have.
Copy what works. Discard what does not. Add your unique flavor.
#7 Stop Asking Stupid Questions
Question — When should I post?
Answer — Who cares?
Yes, there are scores of data about incremental differences between posting at 6 A.M. and 6 P.M. They are well researched and optimized for the ultimate google ranking and created mostly for the purpose of gathering shares.
Reminder — people who are coming up with these statistics are likely selling you
a) writing software
b) wordpress plugins
c) a social media scheduling tool
d) a writing course
e) email tools
Create first. Analyze second — do not confuse the order.
Question — What social media should I be on?
Answer — Who cares?
Here is a true statement:
Social media is a distraction from writing.
Here is another true statement:
If two writers have the same talent level, the one with a better marketing mind and a better social media strategy will win every time. (See — John Green)
So which platform should you be on?
All of them.
None of them.
I don’t know. How about whatever works for you?
Create first. Market second — do not confuse the order.
Question — How long should my post be?
Answer — As long as necessary and no longer.
That answer is obnoxious. It is also true.
Pat Flynn, owner of SmartPassiveIncome.com, once published a mere 125-words for a post. It became one of his most popular posts of all time.
This, on a website which gives explicit and thorough detail of how to make money online.
So as to not leave you hanging, though, most winning posts are either short and punchy (think 200–400 words) OR intense and thorough (think 2,000–4,000).
For bonus points, check out this 8,000 word post from my friend Neal about creating an evergreen course funnel.
Then, check out the number of shares on the left side of the page.
Create first. Measure second — Do not confuse the order.
Question — What writing software should I be running?
Answer — It doesn’t matter
I started this post in the Notes app on my iPhone, expanded it a little more in Evernote, and finished in the Medium editor.
Other blog ideas have been constructed on:
- Pen and paper
- The Facebook status update
- HTML editors (when I didn’t have time to switch windows)
- The Instagram caption
- The WordPress editor
- Microsoft Word
- The voice memo app
Writers write. It doesn’t matter where you are or what you have.
Create first. Optimize second — do not confuse the order.
Question — How do I improve my SEO?
Answer — *aggressive sigh*
This question is usually asked in search of a plugin, a tactic, a strategy, or a shortcut.
You want to know a good way?
Write as many posts as possible on the same topic.
That makes SEO optimization not only inevitable, but probably irrelevant.
Create first. Manage robots second — do not confuse the order
Question — Why do these people hate me?
Answer — Either one of these three reasons:
1. They hate themselves and take it out on everyone else
2. They disagree with what you are saying
3. They aren’t a real person. (Aka — spam bots)
Ignore options one and three. Nothing you say can ever change how those people act.
But option 2 folks we can deal with. Conventional wisdom says “don’t feed the trolls,” but I’m not 100% on that.
If you can hold your ground in a respectful way, do so. Whenever someone else comes across that thread later, it helps to have your side of the story out for everyone to see.
Create first, argue second — do not confuse the order.
Question — How many notifications do I have?
Answer — Not as many as someone else.
A funny thing happened recently when I committed to writing daily posts in order to help promote my new book:
I had less time to care about who liked my work and who didn’t.
Consequently, I went from 30K views a month to 60K, gained 3,000 more followers, got invited on 2 podcasts I never would have thought to contact, and pre-sold 95 copies of the book.
Create first. Engage community second — do not confuse the order.
Question — Why can’t I get more writing done?
Answer — Because you are too busy asking stupid questions.
Create first. Do everything else second — do not confuse the order.
#8 Edit some more
I read this once:
“First, write all you think is necessary.
Then, take out every sentence which could have been written by someone else.“
— Seth Godin
#9 Write with your true voice
This is done by REMOVING THE BRAIN FROM THE PROCESS. Instead, hotwire your fingers with your guts and blood and soul.
At a job — you think about stuff. A specific problem is presented and an objective decision is made based on cost and time and “best” practices.
In writing — you feel stuff. You brain can’t help you find a solution because you don’t even know what the issue is.
The further open the window to your guts, blood, and soul, the more powerful your writing.
As an artist, you are not dealing with tangible problems. You are dealing withemotional problems. Those are undefined and ugly and messy and confusing.You don’t think your way to an answer. You stumble through the darkness and find your way there.
“That all sounds marvelous Todd. Thanks for the imagery. But what good does that do me?”
Fine. Let me step off my metaphysical high horse and back into reality.
The best way to remove the brain from the process is stream-of-consciousness writing.
The steps are exactly what you’d expect:
- Sit down
- Set a timer somewhere between 7–15 minutes
- Write every thought that crosses your mind
Do not write with an agenda. Do not write to publish. Do not write for perfection.
Write to write.
Your first thought will be:
“Eww, I’m a freak.”
(That’s okay. We all are.)
Your second thought will be:
“I can’t can’t spell anything correctly”
Your third (and most important) thought will be:
“Huh, I didn’t know I cared about ________”
If you come out of the exercise with one sentence you like, that would be an incredible result. The less you filter, the better. The more you misspell, the better.
#10 Be willing to go in the red
I did the math once, and I made -$57,799.16 writing until I made my first $2.99 for selling the first copy of The Creative’s Curse.
Sorry, let me revise that — Amazon made $2.99 and I took home a cut of that for being gracious enough to contribute to their library.
This early sacrifice has been necessary. Without it, there’s no chance I earn the audience I have today. Now, I’m slowly pulling my way up, creating a business one word, one sentence, one paragraph at a time.
Practical Steps to Writing a Viral Post
People obsess over this for a very good reason. One viral post can literally separate you from hundreds of your peers, landing you spots on high-profile publications you can then use to leverage for social proof.
Will it allow you to coast for the rest of your career? No.
Will it give you talent you don’t have? No.
Will it help sustain any success you may find? No.
But handled properly, a viral post can give you credibility, unlock doors which were previously closed, and expose you to an audience who would have never seen your work otherwise.
Unfortunately, there are 2 reasons most writers will never know what going viral feels like:
1. You believe writing can’t go viral
Despite what you may think, it is not any “easier” to go viral with one medium than another. Video is different. It is not “better.”
We writers often excuse ourselves from the viral conversation, like somehow text can never to hope to reach millions (despite the decades’ worth of evidence to the opposite).
If you believe you will never go viral, you are probably correct.
2. You believe it is immoral to market your work.
Make no mistake — going viral is as much a science as it is an art.
I used to be proud of my ignorance. I told myself artists didn’t have to learn how algorithms worked. Looking under the hood felt wrong somehow. Some of the strategies in this post felt like cheating (especially #4).
Now, I know better. Now, I’m tired of guessing and hoping. Now, I’m a student of virality.
Actually, forget about the word “viral” for a moment. What if you could go from mediocre to memorable, even if you don’t break the Internet? What if you could turn your D+ results into a B-? Would 1700 views be more valuable to you than 300?
These strategies will also help with that.
Viral Strategy 1 — Determine what is *unique* about the platform.
Take a look at the main display for an answer in my Quora feed:
At first glance, everything seems pretty normal. Profile picture? Check. Share buttons? Sure. Preview of the content? Seen it before.
But take a closer look — right up beside the profile name.
In Quora, that’s called a “credential,” and it gives me a chance to know something about you before I get into your actual work. This is a completely unique function to the site which the top writers use to great effect.
Check out these examples:
A simple tweak, but it works. Can we find something unique about Medium as well? Let’s take a look:
At a glance, we see something different from other platforms around the post — publication names. Publications are unique to the Medium platform, and therefore something you must address to get the most out of each post.
To go viral, you have to think about what the consumer sees, not just you the creator.
Viral Strategy 2 — ASK for shares
This is the easiest way to get traction, but 90% of people don’t do it.
If you feel shy about asking for shares or recommends (like I did), ask yourself two questions:
“Do I believe this is quality work?”
“Do I believe a single other person on the planet could benefit from it?”
If the answer to both these questions is “yes,” how could you possibly be embarrassed to ask for a share?
Be as creative as you want with this ask, just don’t be apologetic. A simple, strong request for shares goes a long way.
Viral Strategy 3 — Wait
Yes. You read that correctly.
Benjamin P. Hardy gets close to ten thousand people viewing his every post. If you ask me, that’s pretty close to viral capacity. The reason he can do this, though is because he has over 150,000 followers. He earned this crowd over time.
For every ONE person who is interested in your work, you add one person to your viral engine. The higher your baseline, the easier it is to reach more people.
Win your readers over, one by one by one by one.
At that point, you’ll find going viral is not only easier, it may not even feel necessary anymore.
Viral Strategy 4 — Use Proven Viral Headlines
How do you figure out what makes a good headline?
Step 1: Go to the platform in question.
Step 2: Click “top stories” or “trending” or whatever channel highlights the best stuff.
Step 3: Copy the crap out of those headlines.
I just did this on Medium’s Top Stories and immediately found a pattern:
The pattern is quotes.
Next time I’m hurting for a headline, I’ll just grab the best quote from the post and use it instead.
It is not a crime to copy headlines. I assure you the person you steal from has swiped them from another.
As you learn and experiment with headlines that work, you can also copy your own successes. When something works once, you are allowed to use it again.
(*Note — The last post in the Medium Top Stories example doesn’t purely use the quote tactic, but I included it because it copies other patterns which are successful on Medium:
- “Seven Other Things I Learned” (Numbered Lists)
- “from Peter Thiel” (Plays on a recognized name/brand)
Viral Strategy 5 — Cultivate curiosity at every turn
Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, possibly the most viral book of all time, is still selling copies today is because he cultivates and frustrates deep curiosity right from the start of the book:
“The secret which I refer to has been mentioned no fewer than 100 times throughout this book… those who are ready and searching for it may pick it up.”
In fact, Hill, uses the word “secret” 31 TIMES before chapter one even begins. Watch how you are pulled in:
“Somewhere, as you read, the secret to which I refer will jump from the pages and stand boldly before you.”
Translation: You have to read the whole book, maybe more than once, before you get what I’m saying to you.
“You will recognize this secret at least once in every chapter.”
Translation: You better read until the end or else you won’t get all the secret has to offer
“Without the secret, [men and women] might go through life as failures.”
Translation: Do you really want to be a failure? If not, you better figure out this secret.
Is this kind of thing overtheatrical? Sure.
But the 100 million copies sold speak for themselves.