How to Write An Atomic Essay: A Beginner's Guide

Jerine Nicole

Ultimate Guide Table of Contents

If you've been hanging out in the creator space on Twitter, you might have seen the ship icon on many users' profiles.

The 🚢  ship icon symbolizes one of the fastest-growing writing communities on the Internet called Ship 30 for 30. The mission is to empower 1,000,000 writers to write online. And so far, 1000+ writers have taken on this writing challenge.

There's only one goal when you join: publish 30 atomic essays in 30 days.

So, what's an atomic essay? 

It's a 250-word, single-idea essay published in a visual screenshot. It was Dickie's solution to the need to write “something longer than a Twitter thread, but shorter than a blog post." Dickie, one of the co-creators of Ship 30 for 30, built his Twitter audience of 50k+ in less than a year from writing daily, and is now helping others to do the same.

But why write an atomic essay?

The Atomic Essay format is the sweet spot for writing simple and concise messages, and gathering data without waiting for the lengthy feedback that comes with weekly blog posts.

Writing an atomic essay lets you refine ideas before spending more time and energy on a 1000-word blog post or anything on the Internet, for that matter.

 This is what Nicolas Cole, one of the co-creators of Ship 30 for 30, calls data-driven writing. 

Cole is a viral online writer with more than 100 million views. His work has been featured in TIME, Forbes, Inc, Harvard Business Review, and more. He and Dickie teach in Ship 30 for 30 that for you to become a successful online writer too, it’s crucial for you to gather feedback and let data drive your writing.

Atomic Essays, then, are how you test your ideas with readers before you decide to invest more time in that direction—whether it’s a long article, a business idea, a book, an online course, or even creating a whole new category.

In short, writing Atomic Essays will help you:

  • Think clearly
  • Publish with prolific momentum
  • Eliminate the friction of sharing ideas online
  • And create your niche by gathering data

The 30-day writing challenge has helped so many new creators build an audience, launch digital products, and create new categories for themselves on the Internet.  

And they all started from writing atomic essays. 

Here are seven steps you can take to write your very first Atomic Essay today.

Step 1: Pick a specific topic you want to talk about.

With so many (or little) things you can write about, you might suffer from analysis paralysis

The solution to this problem? 

Start by answering a question.

For example, "What was a time you thought about giving up but pushed through the end and accomplished something?

By answering a simple question, your creativity muscle will immediately start to engage.

Now, you have a starting point.

Some people write about their expertise. For example, shipper Julia Saxena is known for her copywriting atomic essays. Or, if you want to explore your inner J.K Rowling, you can experiment with fiction stories. Shipper Sangeeth Kar does a beautiful job at touching our hearts with his atomic fiction essays

Atomic essays give you publishing constraints and the freedom to explore whatever topic you want. 

Here are some writing prompts that will help your creative juices going today, no matter what industry you’re in:

  • Write about what you’re consuming. Are you watching a lot of YouTube or TikTok videos? Or maybe you just listened to the new Tim Ferris podcast episode? 
  • Respond or expand on someone else’s writing. Maybe you read a new post that you didn’t quite agree with? Or maybe it was a piece of content that you deeply resonated with and you want to share your perspective on it. Translate that into writing and tell the world why.
  • Curate “the best of” any industry/topic. Maybe you’ve been secretly learning how to code. Along the way, you have probably compiled handfuls of helpful resources for yourself. So, why not write about them and share them publicly? People appreciate creators who have already done the hard work for them by curating the most relevant resources on a given topic. 
  • Teach a reader “How to” do something. Do you have specific knowledge in your industry? Maybe you know how to invest in cryptocurrencies, or maybe you know how to be productive without using an over-complicated system. Share your secrets and you just might change someone’s life. 
  • Share a powerful life lesson you learned. Tell your readers what you learned by sharing a personal story and how it changed you (or not). Don’t be scared to be vulnerable if you know people will be able to relate. 

There are infinite ways to convert one topic into multiple different angles, a tactic that Cole and Dickie call their Endless Idea Generator (which they share with Shippers inside the program). But for now, focus on brainstorming around ideas you can’t stop thinking about. 

Step 2: Decide who you're writing for.

One of the first key lessons in Ship 30 for 30 is to know who you're writing for.

Say your expertise is on cryptocurrencies. You have to decide whether you're writing for your grandma (someone who is brand new to “internet money”), for people with some crypto knowledge already, or for crypto experts. These three different audiences all need different things in order to resonate with your content.

Cole calls these your “audience buckets”:

  1. General Audience
  2. Niche Audience
  3. Industry Audience

When you're writing for a general audience, these are topics that most, if not everyone can relate to. So writing about health, money, and relationships will allow you to reach more people simply because more people are interested in those types of “general” topics. 

Whereas, if you want to write about health for a niche audience like fitness influencers, you might assume they have more health knowledge than the average person, which means you need to speak to them in a way that keeps their “working knowledge” in mind. 

Or maybe you have a prediction on the trends of the creator economy or the future of work, and you want to write for an industry audience. 

As Cole says, “The size of the question dictates the size of the audience.”

How to apply this:

  1. Ask yourself, "who am I writing this topic for?" 
  2. Are you trying to reach a mass audience, or are you trying to reach a smaller audience?

There is no right or wrong answer here. It all depends on what you're hoping to explore with your topic.

Step 3: Craft an intriguing headline.

If YouTube videos have a 5-second "hook,” effective Atomic Essays have an intriguing headline.

Having a compelling headline is how you catch someone's attention with your writing on the Internet. If your headline is not-so-good, very few will read the rest of your essay. Writing great headlines takes months, if not years of practice. For example, Ship 30 for 30 co-founder, Nicolas Cole, has been writing online for a decade.

Ship 30 for 30 provides an in-depth guide for creating intriguing headlines that Cole learned from his time writing for Inc Magazine. But in a nutshell, these are the five things that need to be in your headline: 

  1. Who are you writing for?
  2. What are you writing about? 
  3. How are you making the reader feel?
  4. What is the outcome/the promise you’re giving to the reader? 
  5. How many or how much information can the reader expect from you?

Here are some examples of great headlines that shippers have come up with:

Your headline is the North Star of your Atomic Essay as it tells the reader where your story is going. 

Step 4: Outline the key points of the core message of your essay.

Your key points are the meat of your Atomic Essay.

After reading your headline, readers will skim, not read, the key points of your essay. Only then will they decide to engage in your essay. So, you have another few seconds here to earn your readers' trust.

For example, if your headline says, "7 Ways to Simplify Your Daily Morning Routine", there have to be seven key points in your essay. If not, you just created distrust between yourself and the reader. And it’s tough to earn that trust back. 

Here's an example of an atomic essay where the Shipper that matches their headline with their key points:

When you deliver your promise to the reader through your writing, you earn the reader’s trust, and they will come back for more. 

How to apply this:

  1. Once you have a headline, come up with the points you want to talk about. 
  2. Constantly ask yourself this question: “Are my key points relevant to my headline?”

 If your key points don't relate to your headline, it's time to develop new ideas that do.

Step 5: Expand on your main points.

Your readers need to know what you're talking about.

When you expand on your main points, you slowly build your credibility and authority. The  core message of each main point can include:

  • A personal story that gives the readers context of your essay
  • Research to make your essay look more credible
  • Background of where you got this idea from 

This is where all the juicy context comes in as readers engage with your work. This is where you get to deliver the promise that you told your reader by reading your headline and main key points. 

Here are examples of the templates that Dickie and Cole provide Shippers when it comes to expanding their core message:

This is where your creativity shines as you showcase your knowledge and ideas to the readers.

Step 6: Edit your essay to appeal to your readers.

Writing and editing are two different tasks.

When you're writing, you are tapping into your creativity. This is where you put all your ideas into a tangible piece of paper (digital or not) with no judgment. But once you have strong ideas that you have cultivated by following the previous steps, it’s time to edit your essay. 

Edit your essay to make it easy to read, and readers will appreciate you. 

Photo source

When you edit intentionally, you're stepping into the reader’s shoes.

Remember, your essay isn't about you. It's about your readers. When you're editing, you have to look at your essay and have the courage to ask yourself, "Am I making this easy to read?"

If the answer is no, it's time to summon your inner designer.

You don't have to be a designer to know what looks "good or bad." When you're browsing on the Internet, you do this unconsciously. You scroll past the things that don't appeal to you.  You just have to be more conscious about it when it comes to your writing. 

Here are the best practices for atomic essays that (actually) catch attention:

  • Capitalized title
  • Bolded key points
  • Use of colors
  • Use of emojis
  • Properly formatted essay
  • Visually appealing

Here are some examples from some the Shippers from previous cohorts: 

How to apply this:

Look at your final draft and ask these questions:

  • Is this essay visually appealing? 
  • Am I making it easy for the reader to read this? 

Step 7: Publish your essay on one or multiple platforms and gather data

The ship 30 for 30 writing challenge has one goal: to publish 30 atomic essays in 30 days.

The more essays you publish, the more data that you can gather. 

Cole and Dickie believe data helps you:

  • Understand what readers are enjoying from you
  • Decide whether to make more of that same content or try a different topic
  • Steer the direction of your online journey

Data is a very important metric you want to learn to pay attention to. 

Without data, it will be tough for you to understand the writing that gains attention. Not only do Shippers get a Notion template to track their data, but Cole and Dickie also teach them how to interpret the data. 

Here are some tools Shippers use to track their atomic essays data on Twitter:

  2. Twitter Analytics
  3. Hypefury
  6. Google Sheets

How to apply this:

  1. As soon as you hit publish, fill out your template according to the bucket.
  2. Track your audience bucket, category, format, approach and engagement rate over time.

Cole and Dickie are bullish on writing daily because building a daily writing habit is the single fastest way to gaining leverage on the Internet.  

Some shippers have validated their ideas and launched their digital products after their first cohort. Some shippers, like me, used data to create a whole new category. Cole’s take on cutting through the online noise is by being different. 

But Shippers couldn't have confidently and successfully launched "that thing" they wanted to launch without data.

As the founders like to say, “You can’t steer a stationary ship.”

If you liked this guide, try Ship 30 for 30’s free 10-day email course to get your ship moving.

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