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This is an email from How to Not Suck at Writing, a newsletter by Practice in Public.

Photo by Leone Venter on Unsplash

How to Not Suck at Writing Episode #7

I once watched a video from a creator that profoundly changed the way I thought about creating content and about the art of writing.

It was an interview with Mr.Beast, the most popular YouTuber in the world with more than 200 million subscribers across his channel.

A company tried to buy the rights to his name for a billion dollars and he said no because he believed his brand was worth at least 10x that amount and several other entrepreneurs agreed.

Anyway, what does a YouTuber have to do with getting better at writing?

The same philosophies he used to build a mega-successful YouTube channel can be applied to how you can build an audience with your writing.

I’ve done what he’s done to an extent, but when I saw the extent to which he did it, it made me feel extremely lazy, but also inspired, because it’s proof that you can work your way to success in any creative endeavor.

Anyway, here’s what he said in the interview (I’m paraphrasing).

To build his channel, Mr. Beast spent 14 hours a day studying YouTube, every single day, for years.

He’d look at thousands of different thumbnails to see which ones got clicked most.

He’d count the number of camera cuts in each video to determine the optimal amount.

He studied titles, descriptions, video content, video length, and every other inane detail about what worked on the platform.

He believed that enough careful study of what worked on the platform would lead to results. Turns out he was right. He said he did nothing but study YouTube and make videos for years — no dating, no social life, no T.V., nothing but YouTube.

You don’t need to be this ruthless and maniacal about your writing career to succeed, but let his example show you that the speed of your learning curve in the writing game is up to you. The more time you sacrifice, the shorter you can make it.

But dedication isn’t the main idea I want to share in this newsletter.

It’s reverse engineering.

Reverse engineering is key to your writing success. Also, it’s something new writers really struggle with.

They practice in a vacuum, meaning they just write stuff and they don’t really know if they’re getting any better or not.

Sadly, there is such a thing as practicing a lot without getting much better. I’ve seen it happen on Medium and it’s tragic — writers who’ve been publishing for years and still earning pennies.

You’d think that would cause them to consider that something is wrong with their strategy, but strangely, a lot of them will continue to practice blindly. There’s that saying “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting results.”

Well, if you don’t want to go insane and you want people to read more of your writing, you have to learn how to reverse engineer.

Reverse Engineer Platforms

If you want to be successful on a platform, you should be ruthlessly studying how the platform works.

When I first started writing on Medium, there were no Medium courses or guides. You just had to figure it out on your own. Like a lot of new writers, I wasn’t getting any views and it annoyed me.

I didn’t stop there, though. I took the time to observe what was working well on the platform.

I kept noticing all the writers who were getting views put their posts in publications, so I started to do it too.

I noticed all the top writers in my niche were using certain tags, so I did too.

I noticed that articles with bright-colored images featuring sexually attractive people did well, I swiped that too with no shame.

There were certain headline patterns I saw working well. I wouldn’t copy the headlines verbatim, but I looked at the underlying idea behind them and reverse-engineered them.

Take this headline for example:

4 Fake Nice Gestures That Are Actually Manipulative

The underlying frame of this headline is actually:

4 [seemingly good things] that are actually [bad things]

You could turn this into a headline that matches your niche:

​4 BS productivity strategies that actually waste time

This idea of reverse engineering platforms has already bled into the idea I’m about to share next.

Reverse Engineer Other Writers

Again, the point isn’t to swipe someone else’s strategy verbatim nor is it to worship top writers.

You should come up with your own style, but it’s wise to look at those who came before you, did the work, and got results.

Side note: developing envy and hatred for top writers will keep you from becoming one yourself. It’s a lot like people who hate the rich and can’t get rich because they secretly despise wealth.

A great rule of thumb to use: If someone has a bigger following than you it means they know something you don’t and you should learn from them. If they’re making more money than you it means they know something you don’t and you should learn from them.

You have to come into the game humble.

If you knew what you were doing already, you’d have the results, but you don’t, so why would you feel you’re above studying the game?

I always take the time to see what other writers are up to:

  • How many times do they post each month?
  • What kind of images are they using?
  • What kind of headlines do they use?
  • How do they structure their pieces?
  • What hooks do they use in their intros?

My friend Tim Denning always opens his blog posts with a catchy, definitive, one-liner, like this:

“I’m a fat pig who loves to eat kebabs.”

​I can already hear what some of you are thinking.

Some people aren’t fans of the way Tim writes or how he promotes, but they fail to realize that you can still learn from others even if you’re not totally on board with their style.

There are certain writers on Medium who I’d label as outrage peddlers, but I still know why their posts work so well and I know there’s something I can learn from them, even if I don’t want to be like them exactly.

I remember one time doing this exercise with students where we were reviewing headlines.

One of them said:

“Well, I personally don’t like that headline.”

There lies the problem.

They’re only thinking about themselves.

This is fine, but you have to also be okay with not getting the results you want either. Stepping outside of yourself is one of the most difficult tasks for writers. Having self-awareness is one of the most difficult tasks for human beings. Both are necessary to become a top writer.

Final Thought

I want you to be brutally honest with yourself.

How much do you practice in a vacuum without taking platforms into consideration?

How much time do you actually spend studying the game?

Do you think, just maybe, you’d do a tad bit better if you took some time to see what’s already working and swipe a bit of it for your own?

Based on your answers to those questions, you know what to do next :)

Until next time,

Ayodeji

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