10 Hard Lessons From Writing Online For 15+ Years

Dickie Bush & Nicolas Cole

Ultimate Guide Table of Contents

Ahoy and happy Monday!

Welcome to another week of Start Writing Online—where every week we dive into 1 of the 10 biggest problems all writers face:

  • Distractions
  • Over-editing
  • Perfectionism
  • Procrastination
  • Self-confidence
  • Generating ideas
  • Impostor syndrome
  • Writing consistently
  • Finding time to write
  • Loose feedback loops

(And, of course, if you want to crush all 10 of these AND master the fundamentals of Digital Writing in just 30 days, we'd love to have you in the next cohort of Ship 30 for 30!)

This week, we want to help you learn the lessons from almost two decades of writing on the internet.

Collectively, we’ve been writing online for a very long time.

Cole has been writing online since he was 17.

In 2007, he was one of the highest-ranked World of Warcraft players in North America, with one of the first e-famous gaming blogs on the Internet. By the time he graduated high school, he had over 10,000 daily readers and had positioned himself as a powerful voice in the world of competitive gaming. Since then, he’s written online in tons of niches: fitness, advertising, and entrepreneurship.

Needless to say, he’s learned a ton of lessons in the process.

Dickie started writing online in 2020. For 9 months, he sweated over a keyboard every weekend to put out his blog—which no one was reading. Then he switched to X and has now built an audience of 100,000s of followers and created a business around his writing.

Why are we telling you this?

Because today we want to share with you our key lessons from writing online, which we hope will help you on your journey as a Digital Writer.

Let’s dive in!

Lesson 1: Negative comments are positive signal

Everyone likes to get encouraging feedback, especially when you’re first starting out.

We fear receiving negative comments. When someone disagrees with us or says our work sucks or sends us some other critical feedback, we instantly think we should give up and stop writing. But this is the completely wrong way to think about it.

You learn more from what "doesn't work" than from what does work but causes surface-level reactions like "Nice one!".

All the writers we admire (both Digital Writers and writing legends like Hemingway and Ogilvy) took feedback objectively. It’s the only way to improve your craft. You will never progress as a writer if you’re surrounded by people who respond “Great!” whenever you post something online.

Which leads us to the next lesson.

Lesson 2: Virality is an unsustainable dopamine hit

The first time you go viral and your profile blows up with notifications, you feel "famous.”

And then, 24 hours later, everything returns back to normal. You’re a nobody. You still have to keep writing and creating.

Get used to this feeling.

So many Digital Writers and creators think going viral is the chief aim of writing on the internet.

Here’s the brutal truth about going viral:

  • It doesn’t mean you have a business
  • It doesn’t mean you have an engaged audience
  • It doesn’t mean you have a well-defined niche that you own

The only way to get any of those things as a writer is to keep writing consistently and with your audience.

Going viral will never create a lasting, sustainable way of creating community around your writing or monetizing your work—it’s nice to have, but not essential.

Lesson 3: Imperfectly published > perfect but unpublished

People will ignore the writing you think the world will love.

And the things you think don't matter will go viral. In short, you have no idea what’s going to resonate and stick and what’s going to be forgotten the instant you post it. Luckily for us, this isn’t bad news—it’s the best news you can get as a beginner (and even as you advance as a Digital Writer).

Here’s why:

  • The more you write about a topic, the more clarity you get about it
  • You only learn about what works and what doesn’t in your writing by hitting publish
  • It’s the best way to beat perfectionism (you aren’t the judge of your writing, the audience is)

So just hit publish—and let the chips fall.

And, as an important reminder:

Lesson 4: Visibility is more important than ability

Talented people who don't work very hard tend to go nowhere.

But "untalented" people who hit the pavement every single day, practicing their skill, can still become successful.

Seth Godin said it best:

The thing is, almost everything that matters is a skill. If even one person is able to learn it, if even one person is able to use effort and training to get good at something, it's a skill.
It's entirely possible that some skills are easier for talented people to learn. It's entirely possible you don't want to expend the energy and dedicate the effort to learn that next skill.
But realizing that it's a skill is incredibly empowering and opens the door of possibility.

You choose.

Lesson 5: The only right way to write is often

There is no "correct" way to write.

And anyone who tells you there is probably isn't hitting publish. Because the single largest indicator of success is consistency. As long as you can keep going, you will find a way forward.

As we’ve found time and time again in our Ship 30 cohorts, consistency looks different for everyone.

That’s why, in the first week of Ship 30, we encourage people to find their “Sacred Hours” to write.

To find yours, answer these two key questions:

  • What time of day am I most productive?
  • What time of day can I be least responsive?

Your Sacred Hours lay in the intersection between these two times:

These Sacred Hours will look different for different people:

  • Your Sacred Hours could be 10 pm once the kids are finally in bed
  • Your Sacred Hours could be your lunch break at your corporate job
  • Your Sacred Hours could be 45 minutes before leaving your house for work at 8 am

So the most important part of writing is finding the time to do it, not whether or not your commas are in the right places.

Lesson 6: Everyone is an expert in something.

Everyone thinks to start writing about something they need to know everything about a particular topic and be an “expert”.

Well, we’ve got some good news: you are already an expert in something.

In Ship 30, we call this "The 2 Year Test." We encourage all our Shippers to think about the version of themselves they were 2 years ago. This is where you find your expertise.

To uncover what you’re an expert in, ask these questions:

  • What were your goals 2 years ago?
  • What questions did you have?
  • What obstacles were in your way?

The 2-year-ago version of you is your audience. Write to them and you will always have an audience. The scale of the internet means there is someone in the exact same position as you, and they are waiting to hear from you.

So don’t wait to be an “expert”—just start writing.

Lesson 7: The golden intersection of writing online is Creation x Curation

Digital Writers should also be curators of other legendary creators which are in their niche.

Take a look at Dickie’s thread about Gary Halbert:

Writing about these other experts in your niche does two things:

  1. Lends credibility to your writing (before you’ve made a name for yourself)
  2. Helps you reframe your ideas about a particular topic, distilling them down for others

Once you become a legendary curator, you should strive to become a creator that others will curate.

It doesn't have to be an either/or.

Lesson 8: You can monetize sooner than you think

You don't need 1 million followers to launch a product or a service as a writer.

A small audience of <1,000 followers is more than enough to go from 0 to $1. What matters is identifying your audience's problems and then solving them with your writing. Once you can effectively do that, there’s no limit to the financial upside you can create.

Here’s a playbook you can use:

And just to prove our point, Dickie only had 732 followers when he started Ship 30 for 30:

Onwards to the next lesson!

Lesson 9: Timeless content unlocks compounding benefits

Timeless content can be relevant no matter what’s going on in the world.

Timely content does not.

If you want your library to pay you dividends long into the future, optimize for creating things that will be relevant for longer than the 48-hour news cycle. Yes, you need both types of content as a Digital Writer but focus on creating content that will stand the test of time. If it’s good, it’ll be discovered over and over again by people in your audience.

And that’s the kind of compounding content that pays you now and in the future.

Lesson 10: Your niche is not a marriage decision.

One of the biggest hang-ups facing all writers is deciding on their niche.

Choosing a niche can feel like a big commitment. Writing day in, day out in one particular area can feel like a lot. But it really isn’t—once you realize you change your niche at any moment.

Cole started writing online in 2007, and his niche was World of Warcraft.

In 2014, it was fitness.

In 2015, it was advertising.

In 2016, it was entrepreneurship.

Your niche can (and should) change with you over time.

That's it for today!

Chat next week!

–Dickie Bush & Nicolas Cole

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