Becoming a better writer is not a destination.
It’s a journey.
One of the stories I share on just about every podcast I speak on is how I went from graduating college with a degree in creative writing and no real portfolio, to becoming the #1 writer on Quora and one of the most-read writers on the Internet.
As soon as I graduated college, it became very clear to me that I was never going to become a great writer unless I did two very simple things:
- Wrote, a lot.
- Shared my writing in public.
So, those were the two things I did.
I promised myself that for an entire year straight, 365 days, I would try to write one answer on Quora per day. Even if I was tired. Even if I “didn’t feel like it.” The reason I forced myself into such a rigorous writing route was because I’d already seen and experienced the benefits pure practice can bring to a craft. When I was 17 years old, I became one of the highest ranked World of Warcraft players in North America purely because of how many hundreds (more like thousands) of hours I dedicated to playing that game. And then in college, I got into bodybuilding and went from being this scrawny kid weighing 120 pounds to 170 pounds and shredded. All because I force-fed myself chicken and rice, and hit the gym six days a week.
When the realization settled in that becoming a great writer was going to take real work, that’s when I told myself it was time to buckle down and make it happen.
And sure enough, 3.5 years later, I’d accumulated tens of millions of views on my writing.
I’d published my first book, Confessions of a Teenage Gamer.
I became one of Inc Magazine‘s Top 10 columnists, and I had become one of the most sought after ghostwriters on the Internet — allowing me to quit my job and officially become a “professional writer.” (And 6 months later, I turned what I was doing as a freelancer into a company, called Digital Press.)
So, how can you do the same?
Here are 17 small but powerful ways to become a better writer, right now:
1. Set a writing goal, along with a punishment for yourself if you don’t keep that promise to yourself.
Another story I love sharing whenever I speak at conferences is how, for those 3.5 years after college, I deprived myself of Internet.
I knew that after a long day of working at the office (where I was an entry-level copywriter), I was going to be tired. I was going to want to watch a movie and “relax.”
I also knew that was the only time of the day I had to write.
So, I removed the option entirely. I told myself I was going to write every night before bed, and to make sure I kept that promise to myself, I made it impossible to do anything else. I didn’t have an Internet connection in my apartment for almost four years. I didn’t own a TV, or even a couch. I lived in a studio apartment downtown Chicago with a bed and a desk. And every single day, I would come home from work, go to the gym, cook myself dinner and then write until midnight.
2. Publish something new as often as you can.
I believe there are two types of writing.
There is the writing you really, truly care about. The writing you call “art,” and the material you want to sit with for a long time to make sure you get it right.
Then there is the writing you do to practice. For me, that’s pretty much everything I publish on the Internet. Quora, is practice. Writing here on Minutes, is practice. And I consider this material practice because, while I certainly care about it, I know I have more to gain in publishing things regularly on the Internet than I do withholding material until it’s “perfect.”
The reason is because part of becoming a great writer is getting external feedback on your work.
You won’t always know what it is people want to read from you. You can guess. You can assume. But something *clicks* when you write something, publish it, and for whatever reason it dramatically outperforms anything else you’ve ever written. All of a sudden, you feel like you have insight into which direction to head — which, for a lonely writer slaving away at their desk, is a goldmine.
So, don’t get too married to any one idea. Just write, lightly edit, publish, and learn as you go. You’ll move faster this way.
3. Try to pinpoint what’s going to get you to that “next level,” and set that goal as your next area of focus.
When I first started writing on Quora, my first goal was to break 1,000 views.
Once I achieved that goal, it was 5,000 views.
After I started climbing the viewership ladder, and had written pieces with over 100,000 views, I started to really question what that “next thing” was going to be — what was going to get me to that “next level.”
At the time, it was seeing one of my articles land in a major publication. So I set that as my goal.
A few weeks later, I had a piece republished by HuffPost. Then Inc Magazine. Then Business Insider. Eventually, my work had reached over 50 different publications on the Internet.
My relentless focus to figure out how to get republished by some of the Internet’s largest business publications is how I ultimately taught myself how to ghostwrite for C-level executives.
But it’s worth keeping in mind this is only one “type” of writing. You need to figure out what type of writing you enjoy the most, and then pick targets that align with the most relevant path for you.
4. Read a lot, but never read more than you write.
Reading is a crucial component to becoming a better writer.
However, the moment your time spent reading exceeds the amount of time you spend writing, you’re no longer a “writer studying up on the craft.”
What you are is a writer who is procrastinating.
I know a lot of very smart, very well-read people who make for fascinating dinner party guests. But they aren’t writers. And if you asked them to sit down and write something meaningful, they would struggle. However, they could probably pick apart a bad piece of writing for hours — and understanding the difference between those two “skills” is extremely important.
You don’t want to be a well-read aspiring writer.
You want to be an effective writer, who is well read.
5. Pick one “style” of writing, master it, and then (and only then) move on to the next.
The term “writing” is extremely vague.
There are so many different types of writing in the world, and trying to master all of them at once is not only daunting — it’s impossible.
For example: there are sales copywriters, creative copywriters, technical writers, academic writers, creative non-fiction writers, research writers, fiction writers, poetry writers, the list goes on and on. And to think that just because you can write fiction, you can step right in and also write highly effective sales copy, is flawed.
Each “style” of writing has a different set of rules. Which means, you’re better off choosing one and establishing yourself as a proven writer in that domain before moving on.
This is what I did with life advice and entrepreneurship articles on the Internet.
Every time I would write about life lessons, habits, daily routines, mindset shifts, or lessons learned as a young founder, my viewership went through the roof. Data told me that people really enjoyed reading that sort of material from me, so I started to double-down in those two departments.
A year later (this was back in 2015), Inc Magazine was republishing so much of my life advice/entrepreneurship content from Quora that they decided to give me a column of my own. There, I doubled down again and wrote exclusively in those two categories — and I became one of their highest performing columnists.
By the time I had quit my job and gone all-in on being a writer, I had written over 3,000 articles on the Internet in one very clear style: the ~800-word article. And, I knew how to position just about any topic, from any industry, so that it fell into one of those two very broad, very popular categories: life advice and business.
This skill is how I ultimately built an entire company of in-house writers and editors around one very specific style of writing.
6. Surround yourself with other writers, preferably with skill sets different from your own, and trade knowledge.
One of the biggest benefits I’ve found in writing so frequently online is how many different writers I’ve met along the way.
There’s a big difference between reading another writer’s work versus talking to the writer themselves. It makes what they do seem less mysterious, which I’ve always found to be the most difficult part of going from “aspiring” to “professional.” There’s something about hearing it straight from the person that helps you believe you can become a great writer too.
Since there are only so many hours in the day, I now actually have a very personal monthly letter I send out to any writer who wants to learn from my directly — called The Nicolas Cole Letter.
But, a really great example of the power of connecting with other writers to continue your own development is how much I’ve learned from Craig Clemens, one of the most successful sales copywriters in the world with over $1 billion in sales. He was one of the first people I met when I first moved to Los Angeles in 2017 (through a friend), and we immediately hit it off just talking shop. Turns out, a lot of the same fundamental lessons he’d learned writing sales copy, I’d learned writing viral articles on Quora — and vice versa.
Since then, we’ve spent a lot of time together talking through projects, bouncing ideas, and helping each other grow. I now consider Craig a great friend and mentor of mine.
7. In the digital era of writing, volume wins.
This has become my mantra.
Something you have to understand about writing in today’s digital day and age is that any “one” piece of content isn’t going to move the needle. Even if you write the most brilliant, most magnificent article (or even book), the chances of someone even finding it are slim to none. On top of that, even if your work goes massively viral, whatever success you experience will last for a moment and then fade away as if the whole thing had never happened to begin with.
I know, because I experienced it.
Back in 2014, a few months after I made that promise to myself to write one Quora answer per day (no matter what), I experienced my first massive viral hit.
I’ll never forget the day because, of course, this was the day I almost (ALMOST) broke that promise to myself. I’d just spent 10 hours at the office. I was exhausted, and really didn’t feel like writing. I also knew I didn’t have Internet in my apartment, so if I went home before writing my Quora answer for the day then there was no way I was going to publish anything that day.
So, on my way to the train station, I popped into a Starbucks, grabbed a cup of coffee, sat down, and wrote a few quick paragraphs to a Quora question.
By the time I arrived home 45 minutes later, my answer had made its way to the front page of Reddit. Hundreds of people started following me on Quora. My inbox was blowing up with messages. And that article went on to accumulate over 1,000,000 views.
And then, three days later, the Internet acted as if the whole thing had never happened. My next Quora answer got less than 1,000 views — and I was right back to “practicing.”
This is why I preach the importance of long-term volume to writers so much. A viral hit is going to make you feel great for the moment, but it’s going to be your commitment over time that gets people to pay attention to you and your work — and that’s ultimately what you want.
You don’t just want someone to click. You want their loyalty.
8. Always aim for your writing to be both “timely” and “timeless.”
This is something another one of my mentors, Ron Gibori, taught me about creating branding and messaging that lasts.
He was the creative director and one of the managing partners at the advertising agency I worked at right after graduating college. And whenever we would work on a campaign, he’d say, “If it’s timely but not timeless, it’s going to disappear tomorrow. And if it’s timeless but not timely, nobody is going to pay attention to it today. It needs to be both, timely and timeless.”
I took that piece of insight and have applied that to every aspect of my career as a writer.
There are a lot of really great “timely” writers. They’re masters at writing things that get people to perk their ears up right away.
The problem is, most of their work has to be re-done the very next year (or sometimes, the very next month, or week, or even day). For example, I know one writer who is a master of writing about digital growth hacks. His biggest issue though is that what’s relevant in 2019 won’t be relevant in 2020 — and so on, and so forth.
On the other hand, there are a lot of really great “timeless” writers. They’re masters at writing things that get people to think deeply, and their work is most likely to stand the test of time.
The problem is, these types of writers are also the ones who have the hardest time getting people to pay attention today. It’s tough figuring out how to give something a sense of urgency, especially when your approach is all about imagining what’s going to be “timeless.”
Which is why the secret to great writing is all about finding that balance between both sides of the spectrum. Your work should aim to speak to the readers of today, while also having enough depth that it lasts for the reader who finds it tomorrow.
This article, to be perfectly honest, is a great example. The title, the way it’s formatted, the writing style, all of these are mechanisms I’ve picked up and honed as a writer in the digital age (“timely”). But the content, the stories I’m choosing to share, the insights themselves are ones that won’t change for quite some time — if ever (“timeless”). Which means, I can keep this article in my library for a very, very long time. I can continue reusing it, republishing it, and sharing it over and over again (for YEARS) without it losing its value.
In everything you do, that should be your goal as a writer.