How To Write For Online Publications: 6 Things Most People Don’t Know
I’ve been published in almost every major publication on the Internet.
TIME. Forbes. Fortune. Business Insider. CNBC. The Chicago Tribune. Slate. The list goes on.
I’ve also had over 50 articles “go viral,” meaning they accumulated at least 100,000 views, each. I’ve even had articles, like this one republished by Business Insider, accumulate over 5,000,000 views.
So whenever aspiring writers, all the way up to founders of companies, ask me how they can get published by major publications, the first thing I do is ask them this question:
“Why do you want to write for a major publication?”
The reason I ask this question is because I’ve learned a lot about the publishing landscape over the past decade — particularly the past five years of my writing career.
I’ve written over 4,000 articles (under my own name) on the Internet. I’ve also ghostwritten close to 1,000 articles for founders, C-level executives, investors, etc. — and I’ve gone on to build a writing and thought leadership agency, called Digital Press, which does this at scale. My company is now one of the largest producers of high-performing thought leadership written content online.
Through all these experiences, I’ve learned that most people (especially leaders in their industry) want to write and get published in major publications, but aren’t really sure why. If I ask them what their end goal is, they usually just say, “Because it’ll give me credibility,” or something along the lines of, “Because major publications get millions of views.”
Look, I remember wanting to write for a major publication too. Right after I graduated from college with a degree in creative writing and no real writing portfolio, I thought the next milestone for me was to have a column. And I wrote relentlessly until, one day, I was given my own column by Inc Magazine. But that experience also taught me a lot about how the landscape “truly” operates — which is what I’d like to share with you here today.
So, if you want to know how to write for online publications like Inc, Forbes, or Minutes here, there are 6 things you need to know first:
1. Ask yourself what your true “end goal” is, and whether or not a publication will help you achieve that goal.
Do you want exposure?
Do you just want somewhere to share your thoughts and opinions?
Do you want “industry credibility?”
Are you trying to “go viral?”
If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past ten years of writing on the Internet, it’s that the answer to each one of these questions is a different goal entirely. So many people think that just because you’re writing for a publication that gets 20M views per month, that means 20M people are going to read your individual article. Or they think that nobody is going to pay attention to what it is they have to say unless it’s published by a major publication.
These are false assumptions.
Yes, writing for a major publication can give you an added sense of credibility. But we’re now in a day and age where the quality of what you’re saying is much more important than the environment where you’re saying it. This is a big reason why sites like Medium and Quora have become so popular. They aren’t publications. They don’t have editorial teams. And yet, the content there is just as compelling, if not more compelling, than many “industry-leading” publications.
So, if your goal is to just share your knowledge with the world, save yourself the trouble and publish on a platform like Quora, Medium, or even LinkedIn, where you have less barriers to entry.
2. Publications do not automatically guarantee millions of views.
After I stopped writing for Inc Magazine in 2017, I did an audit of the 400+ articles I’d written over the course of two and a half years.
I wanted to compare my performance writing for a major publication to the monthly exposure I was getting on social platforms like Quora and Medium.
There wasn’t a single month where my exposure on Inc Magazine (a publication that averages 25–30M page views per month) exceeded my exposure on Quora. In fact, my viewership on Quora was often 10x what it was on Inc.
The reason I think this is so important to share is because I find so many writers, companies, content marketers, public relations firms, and everyone in between, believing that getting one single article in a major publication will mean “massive exposure.” They assume that simply because the site is so big, that guarantees people will see their byline, column, or featured article.
What they forget, however, is that most major publications are publishing 50, 80, 100+ articles per day (and many sites publish even more than this). On top of that, the average time spent “on site” for most of these ad-filled publications is less than 60 seconds. So not only is it unlikely that someone will come across your individual article, but even if they find their way there, they won’t spend more than a minute reading it.
3. Publications are, by definition, “publishers.” Which means you are going to have to write what they want you to write.
People forget that whenever you’re writing for a publication, you have to play by their rules.
Since most publications live and die by clicks and ad revenue, that means they are hyper-focused on publishing what’s popular, trending, newsy, or quick and easy. They don’t want longwinded philosophical reflections. They don’t want you to write about something niche. They want topics, angles, and titles that have the widest reach possible.
When I became a columnist for Inc, they gave me a column because my articles on Quora were going viral constantly.
In 2015, I was the #1 writer on Quora (which had over 200M users), with many of my pieces being republished by major publications like Inc, TIME, Forbes, etc. I had mastered the art of “the listicle,” and knew how to write things people wanted to read.
However, even as the #1 writer on Quora, as soon as I started writing for Inc, I had a different level of oversight. Since they didn’t want to “mess with my mojo,” they pretty much gave me creative freedom. But as time went on, I found myself naturally adjusting to their editorial team. I started writing a lot more about trending entrepreneurial topics: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, etc. I also started covering more news events, and trying to “adhere to their rules.”
Now, I didn’t mind this process too much.
I became one of Inc‘s Top 10 columnists (bringing in over 100,000 page views month after month). But personally, I found myself enjoying writing there less and less. Writing about Jeff Bezos or some big news event wasn’t really “me.” That wasn’t the kind of writing that had established me as such a popular writer on Quora, and even though I could do it, I knew that wasn’t what I wanted to write about forever.
I tell this story anytime someone asks me, “How can I write for a major publication too?” I ask them if they’re ready to play journalist. If they want to cover news events, and write about what’s popular. And as soon as I point this out, I find most people say, “Oh, that’s not what I want to do — I want to write about other things.”
Which means, it’s not really a publication you’re looking for. It’s a social platform like Medium, Quora, LinkedIn, etc.
4. If you want to write for a major publication, you need to learn how to write for the reader — not yourself.
This is more of a “writing secret,” and the kind I stuff I like to break down in my monthly letter for aspiring writers who are serious about mastering their craft (called The Nicolas Cole Letter).
When it comes to writing for a major publication, you need to consider that you are there on the publication’s behalf. They have their own audience. Their own style. Their own topic preferences. Their own format and approach. Which means it’s your job to figure out how to fit your voice into this pre-defined construct.
Once I had established myself as one of the most popular writers on Quora, I knew the next “plateau” for me was going to be writing for major publications. I knew it would give me added credibility. So, I spent a considerable amount of time studying what the biggest publications on the Internet liked to publish, and then started mirroring my own writing accordingly.
The biggest difference I noticed between people who wrote for major publications and people who didn’t was a simple difference in tone.
Less seasoned writers on social platforms or smaller publications tend to write for themselves — as if they could go on and on and the audience would never grow bored (think: bad foodie blogger).
More professional writers, and those who had columns at major publications, wrote differently. They wrote with the reader in mind. They made sure everything they were saying was directed at the reader’s wants, needs, questions, and interests. They wrote to capture their attention — not entertain themselves.
As soon as I made this shift in my own writing on Quora, my work started getting syndicated like crazy. There was a six-month period in 2015 where I was having one of my Quora answers republished by a major publication every single week. CNBC. TIME. Forbes. Fortune. This one shift in tone opened the floodgates — and I’ve since taken this very difficult tone shift and built an entire company around it.
Turns out, a lot of people struggle to write things readers care about.
5. There are only 2 ways to get your writing into a major publication.
Almost every publication operates the same way.
First of all, it’s worth acknowledging that some publications simply don’t accept outside submissions. This is a quality control decision. Instead, they hire and train writers and editors internally, and everything that gets published comes from inside the organization. For publications like these, it’s extremely rare that you’ll get your work published there — and even if it is possible, it probably isn’t worth the effort.
The more conventional route is to track down an editor of your target publication on LinkedIn or Twitter, shoot them a message, and build a relationship from there.
A few basic ways to get your writing accepted by going this route are:
- Message or talk to an editor and ask them if they are looking for any material that month or quarter. Most publications have some sort of editorial calendar and will know which types of articles will perform the best for that time of year. The editor might say, “We’re really interested in publishing articles on productivity.” Which means, guess what? You’ll need to write a really great article about productivity.
- Ask an editor if there is someone at the publication whose responsibility it is to field outside submissions. Most editors at major publications are responsible for a handful of internal writers or outside contributors, so they won’t be your best point of contact. Instead, keep asking around until you get ahold of the person who decides which bylines to let in and which ones to decline (and then repeat the above: “What sort of content are you looking to publish this month/quarter?”)
- Come up with a few working titles and pitch those first. To save yourself some time, see if you can get ahold of an editor and say, “Do you mind if I send you a few working titles to see if any of these fit what you’re looking for?” Now, keep in mind, editorial teams get blasted by these kinds of requests by PR firms all day long — so don’t be surprised if you get a negative or annoyed response. If you’re lucky enough to get an editor to say, “Sure, send me a few titles,” make sure you come back with 3–4 attention-grabbing titles, along with 3–5 sentences underneath each one explaining the idea in a nutshell. And don’t forget: these titles/ideas need to be in the same format as everything else that publication likes to publish — otherwise, you’re just wasting their time (and yours).
However, there’s a second way to get your writing into a major publication, and most people don’t know about it.
Every major publication is always looking for the next great writer or thought leader to publish, and one of the ways they go about it is scouring other social platforms like Quora, Medium, LinkedIn, even Facebook and Twitter.
In fact, of all the work I’ve had published in major publications, 95% of it was re-published from Quora or Medium.
The reason this happens is because editors love syndicating “proven material.” Social sites are how they can tell if a piece has already performed well, or if it’s resonating with audience members. For example, some of my earliest work republished into Inc Magazine or Business Insider were articles that had already gone viral on Quora.
This is why I encourage people to try their hand at writing on social platforms first. Not only is it a great way to practice, find your voice, and really figure out what it is people want to hear about from you, but it’s also a way to get into major publications without playing the “pitching bylines” game.
6. If you want to write for a major publication, you need to look the part.
This is Personal Branding 101.
I recently wrote a whole article here on Minutes about the strategies I’ve used to build my own personal brand online.
So many people want to “play in the big leagues” and write for a big site, but invest very little into their digital footprint. Their profile picture is a blurry photo from seven years ago. Their header image is a poorly cropped image from Google. Their bio says: “Making the world a better place. And coffee.” Their last Retweet is a viral video of a 13-year-old singing the national anthem, or a cowboy eating 37 hot dogs. It doesn’t matter if they’re the CEO of a really successful company — on the Internet, they look like a troll or a bot.
Before you go pitching articles to a major publication, or spending $10,000/mo on a public relations firm, take some time to clean up your digital presence.
Because here’s what every single editor, at every single publication, is going to do:
- Your email is going to hit their inbox.
- They’re going to copy/paste your name into Google.
- And if you look unprofessional (or worse, invisible), they’re going to delete your email and never talk to you again.
This is one of the biggest reasons I continue to. invest a considerable amount into my own personal brand online. When someone searches “Nicolas Cole” online, they automatically get the sense that I’m credible, I’ve been doing this whole writing thing for a long time, and I’m the right person to talk to.
And that has opened more doors for me professionally than anything else.
Originally published at www.minutesmagazine.com on April 14, 2019.