There has never been a better time in history to be a writer.
So long as you are a Digital Writer.
Something we talk about constantly in Ship 30 for 30 is the importance of using data to inform where you choose to invest your time as a writer, what topics are worth creating (and which topics aren’t), and how you can consistently create content you know readers want—long before you create it. This is hard to do in the beginning of your digital writing journey because your library of content is small (or you haven’t started building your library yet), which means you have a small number of data points to analyze. But the more you write and publish, the larger your library grows, the easier it becomes to notice trends and breakout data points that can inform what’s worth creating next.
This is easy to understand in theory, but I find it’s hard for people to hear this once and immediately understand how to actionably apply this way of thinking to their own writing.
So, I thought it would be helpful to do a deep dive into how exactly to turn 1 breakout data point into dozens of proven content ideas—by showing you exactly how I have done this over the past year. (Note: This is data-driven approach is 100% the exact same process I used to become the #1 most-read writer on Quora, as well as one of the most-read writers on Medium.)
To really follow the thinking here, and understand how the journey of being a digital writer is really all about small steps compounded over time, I want to walk you through exactly:
- What happened
- What I noticed/thought about
- What action I took
- And how those actions played out (and repeated themselves) over time
Let’s dive in.
Step 1: Make Noise
In December, 2020, I saw a tweet by Jack Butcher that captured by attention.
I had been following him for quite a while, was really enjoying his content, but honestly was still very much struggling to figure out what niche and what voice I wanted to create for myself on Twitter. (Yes, even someone like me, who has been writing online for 10+ years, has to go through the same learning experience when starting on a new platform. And in 2020, I was making the decision to start writing on Twitter more deliberately. Since I know someone will ask this question (”Why? Is Twitter a better platform?”): the reason was because I was bored by Quora and Medium. I’d climbed to the top of both of those writing communities, written thousands of 800-word articles, accumulated hundreds of millions of views, and was ready for a new format to play with.)
This tweet from Jack Butcher summarized something I had just written about elsewhere, and so I retweeted it with my own riff on what he said.
I called it Category Creation 101
At the time, I got more engagement on this 1 Retweet (riffing on someone else’s content) than I had gotten on almost anything else I’d written on my own on Twitter.
Up to this point, I had written HUNDREDS of tweets, and started experimenting with threads, almost all of which fell flat. I started with a few thousand followers on Twitter (that I’d slowly accumulated over a 10-year period), and yet despite starting to take the platform more seriously, I felt like I was barely growing (and my content was barely getting any engagement). And, just like everyone else, I went through all the classic mental blocks that come with starting on a new platform:
- “This is stupid.”
- “Twitter is broken.”
- “I tweet great stuff. People must just not understand my brilliance.”
- “It’s the algorithm’s fault.”
Step 2: Listen For Signal
The moment I saw this breakout data point, I sat there for a long (long) time and thought about it.
- “Maybe people like short, easy explanations?”
- “Maybe it was the list that worked? 1, 2, 3?”
- “Maybe retweeting other people’s viral content with my own thoughts is a growth hack?”
- “Maybe people find ‘101’ explanations of difficult frameworks and ideas super valuable.”
I had no idea whether any of these conclusions were correct or not. But this is what we stress to new digital writers constantly: your job is to treat your writing like a science experiment and a startup. Try something. See if it works. Think about why it did (or didn’t) work. Form your own hypotheses. Pick a data point to replicate. And try again.
So, that’s what I did.
I took the signal I heard, and I tried to replicate it.
A few weeks later, I tried another tweet: Overcome Any Fear 101
It fell flat. Maybe the tweet wasn’t valuable enough. Maybe “overcoming fear” wasn’t the right topic for a 101 sort of format. Maybe “overcoming fear” wasn’t a problem the people who follow me feel like they have/resonate with. Maybe it would have taken off it I’d expanded it into a thread. Now, I had EVEN MORE hypotheses as to why this method would or wouldn’t work.
So, I tried again.
Online Writing 101
This time, I saw a little more engagement, and it felt like I was starting to trend in the right direction (tweets, threads, and “101” formats specifically in the niche of digital writing advice seemed to be working). And since that first tweet (Category Creation 101) had taken off, I wanted to keep experimenting to see if I could engineer that sort of success again.
So I tried another: Viral Writing 101
About the same.
Then I tried another (Headlines 101) but using a slightly different medium: video.
This one received 2x the engagement! “MAYBE I SHOULD BE A YOUTUBER,” I thought. (Then I remembered I much prefer writing to being “on video.”) So instead of doubling-down on video, I thought, “Clearly the 101 idea is working. I’ve proven that. Now, I should expand it.”
Step 3: Double-down on proven data points.
*I want to point something out here: all of the above happened over the course of several months. Once every 2-3 weeks, I would try the “101” framework again. I had no idea (at this point) whether or not it was going to work. But as I sat down every day, deciding what to write about, I kept coming back to it as a format I could potentially repeat. So I did.
Once I had sufficient data that clearly something about this format and approach was working (aka: it was grabbing readers’ attention, no matter how small), I felt comfortable investing more and more time in doubling-down on this format and striving to make my content more and more valuable.
For example: My next “101” tweet I made a thread.
Memorable Writing 101
4x more engagement! Now I knew not only did the “101” idea work, but 101 threads had the potential to perform much better. (Took me about 5 months to realize, if I titled something “101” as if signaling to the reader I would be giving them a full introductory class on X topic, they were probably expecting more than just a few lines in a single tweet. I needed to seriously UP the value I was providing.)
So, I did it again—this time, tackling a more specific niche where I had a ton of personal credibility.
This is the thread that took off—and confirmed the format was a winner for me.
I want to point out that it took 7 months from the very first “101” tweet (December, 2020) and 7 different attempts (didn’t plan for this, but basically one each month) before I hit with a massively viral thread (June, 2021).
This Ghostwriting thread became one of my most-read Threads ever.
Step 4: Turn 1 breakout data point into dozens of proven content ideas.
There is a framework I write about in my paid business newsletter, Category Pirates, called “A Super Of 1 Is A Super Of 9.”
What this means is, if you are a Superconsumer (or “Super”) of 1 specific category of thing, you are likely also a Super of 9 other tangentially related categories. So, for example, if you are a Super of Online Courses (you love, love, love online courses, you buy multiple per year, you are a firm believer in investing in yourself, etc.), you are probably also a Super of (what are tangentially related categories to “Online Courses?”): note-taking apps (to document your learnings from all the courses you take), productivity journals, iPads, self-help books, ergonomic desk chairs, professional cameras for a pro-grade video setup, studio microphones, even sweatpants and athleisure clothes (because you spend so much time at home, taking online courses!).
Whenever you notice a breakout data point, your VERY FIRST THOUGHT should be, “What other tangential categories are my Super-readers interested in?” Aka: what other relevant problems can I help them solve? What other related topics would they want to read about?
So I thought, “What other kinds of 101 writing-related threads can I write?”
That month (June, 2021), I doubled-down hard and wrote the following:
- Freelance Writing 101
- Asking For Help 101
- Writing On Quora 101
- Self-Publishing 101
- Creator Economy Jobs 101
- Writing On Medium 101
All of these threads combined generated more than 2,000,000 views on Twitter (and attracted thousands of new followers).
For the rest of the year, I continued to return back to the “101” thread format over and over again. And universally, the “101” threads that were more closely related to writing advice outperformed the threads that tried to enter other subcategories I was not as much of an expert in, or touched on content my readers weren’t as used to seeing from me. (My rationale here was: “I don’t know if these topics will perform well, but let’s find out.” And, “I want to write about these topics because they matter to me, and I’m fully aware they probably won’t get as much engagement because this isn’t my core competency.”)
Once data (objectively) tells you what’s working, DO IT A LOT.
For the rest of the year, I continued writing “101” writing advice threads over and over again, each time tackling a slightly different problem, topic area, or question I thought writers (my readers) would be interested in (A Super of 1 is a Super of 9):
- Languaging 101
- Paid Newsletter Growth 101
- Editing vs Rewriting 101
- Asynchronous Entrepreneurship 101
- Quora Monetization 101
- Creative Writing 101
- Original Ideas 101
- Social Blogging 101
- How To Become A Prolific Writer 101
- Writing Differentiation 101
- How To Be A World-Class Reader 101
- Lean Writing 101
- Sales Copywriting 101
- Productizing Yourself 101
- Investing 101
Step 5: Repeat this same process again with a different idea & hypothesis.
This is what makes Digital Writing a game.
And to beat the game, all you have to do is:
- Step 1: Make a bunch of noise
- Step 2: Listen for signal (no matter how faint)
- Step 3: Double-down on your most promising data points
- Step 4: Turn 1 of those breakout data points into dozens of related content ideas (A Super Of 1 Is A Super Of 9)
- Step 5: Repeat
Your favorite writer? This is what they do. Your favorite YouTuber? This is what they do. Your favorite TikTok creator? This is what they do. They might not know this is what they are doing (consciously), but every time they post a piece of content, somewhere they are comparing the performance of that content to everything else in their library. They then make the decision, “Since X performed better than Y, maybe I should do more of X?” They form a hypothesis. They try again. They test, measure the results, and then make a different decision. And on and on this process goes.
This is what we mean when we say that becoming a digital writer is not a destination.
It’s a process.
You are a writer the moment you hit publish. You did it. You added a new piece of work to your library. You created a data point (or a dozen data points). And the more you publish, the more data points you’ll gather, the faster you’ll learn what works and what doesn’t, the more you’ll create content that resonates, the more people will say, “Hey! You’re a great writer! You know exactly how to speak to me!”
And on and on your flywheel spins.
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