In this week's Digital Writing Compass, we want to talk about fundamentals.
Specifically, the fundamentals of writing in an age of global internet connections, lightweight laptops, notification-buzzing smartphones, and noisy Twitter chatter.
The Dream Of Escaping To A Cabin In The Woods Is Dead
Nearly every aspiring writer shares this daydream in common:
“If only I could save up enough money. Then, I could quit my job and go escape into a cabin in the woods. There, everything would be quiet. There would be no distractions! And I could finally, finally start writing.”
But guess what?
Aside from the fact this daydream is unrealistic, it’s also a lie.
You will not write “more” when you’re by yourself, alone in a cabin in the woods. In fact, you’ll likely do everything you’re already doing right now in your life. You’ll watch Netflix on your phone. You’ll call your friends and ask them to keep you entertained. Or, instead of writing, you’ll rationalize doing something sort-of-like-writing—like reading!
But you won’t write.
And do you know why?
Because how you start writing doesn’t begin by quitting your job, running away from modern-day society, and hiding away in a cabin in the woods.
Start Writing Online
Writing in the digital age means embracing both the tools and the distractions of modern society.
- Is Twitter noisy? Yea, it is. So how can you use that noise and constant chatter to your benefit? You can use Twitter to research what topics readers want to read about. You can use Twitter to test small ideas before investing huge portions of your life into tackling big ideas. You can use Twitter to engage with readers directly, gather feedback, and practice in public.
- Do you feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day? You probably do. We all do. But instead of complaining about how you “never have time to write,” how can you use today’s tools to write on the go? Better yet, how can not-having-enough-time-to-write become a forcing function for you to cut the fluff from your writing and get straight to the point? Having a “lack of time” can help increase the potency of your writing.
- Does it feel like every idea you come up with is unoriginal? Do you feel like everything has already been said before? The challenge of the Internet is that it makes it seem like every idea has already been explored. But this challenge also presents opportunity: how can you take two seemingly unrelated ideas and smash them together? How can you push yourself to create something new out of old things “everyone thinks” have already been fully understood?
Said in a different way:
We’re not going back.
Hemingway’s era is over. Faulkner is tired. Dostoyevsky got the weight off his chest. And Anaïs Nin said what she needed to say.
The dream of being “that type of writer” is gone, and it’s time to move on.
It’s time to embrace what writing, from here on out, is going to look like.
Which is why we are on a mission to help writers like you step forward into the future.
Because there has never been a better time to be a writer—so long as you’re a Digital Writer.
Digital Writing 101
Digital Writing is not “writing as it has always been,” just on the Internet.
No, Digital Writing begins from a completely different point of context.
It starts in the digital world—not the Hemingway world.
When you are a Digital Writer, you are not writing for the person curled up in a nook next to a fireplace with a paperback book in their hands. You are writing for a distracted, hyperactive, 47-tabs-open, dopamine junkie. You are playing a game called: Catch Their Attention. And only if and when you catch their attention, and “sell” them on why they should listen to you, do you get to experience the luxury of entertaining a reader.
And there are rules for doing so.
These are the 7 fundamental rules you should live by—if you want to be a successful Digital Writer:
Digital Writing Rule #1: Don’t Start A Blog
This is lesson number one we teach in Ship 30 for 30, our cohort-based course helping people start writing online.
Here’s the game of Digital Writing, in a nutshell:
- Write where readers already are (social media platforms, popular websites, etc.)
- Publish often (because you never know what’s going to “work”)
- Gather data and see what sticks (let the readers tell you)
- Double-down on your winning topics (write for your most-engaged readers)
- Become known for a niche you own
That’s the game.
Unfortunately, 99% of people who want to “start writing online” approach it through the lens of the old world. They want to be Hemingway, on the Internet. So, what do they do? They start a blog.
And it’s the biggest mistake you can make (because nobody knows your blog exists, which means you can’t gather feedback and see what’s working, which means you have zero insight into how to improve, which means it’s going to take you 1000x longer to become known for a niche you own).
For a full explanation on why you shouldn’t start a blog, you can listen to Nicolas Cole give his full strategy here:
Digital Writing Rule #2: Start Before You’re Ready
We have a saying in Ship 30 for 30, and it goes like this:
“You can’t steer a stationary ship.”
Everyone wants to wait until they know exactly where they’re headed before they set sail. So they sit themselves down at their dinner table, open up 7 different notebooks, and spend hours, weeks, sometimes years “planning” their grand entrance into the world as a writer. They want to make sure it’s “perfect.” (This, of course, is a defense mechanism. And striving for the idea of “perfection” is a form of procrastination.)
But here’s the thing:
Before your ship sets sail, all of your ideas and hypothetical decisions are based on assumption.
- You “assume” you know what you want to write about (you don’t)
- You “assume” you know what the reader wants to read about from you (you don’t)
- You “assume” you know what topics are going to work (you don’t)
And so on.
Which is why Ship 30 for 30 is all about getting started before you feel ready. Because guess what? You’re never going to “feel ready.” And you’re not supposed to.
The only thing you can do is get your ship out of the harbor and sailing—because that’s how you’re going to learn.
“You can’t steer a stationary ship.”
Digital Writing Rule #3: Publish Every Day
Every single cohort of Ship 30 for 30, we hear the same things over and over again:
- “I had no idea people from work were going to read my writing, and actually like it!”
- “Someone read one of my essays and just offered me a job.”
- “I just landed a client because she read something I wrote and loved it.”
- “My boss wants to promote me because of how much people are engaging with my content online.”
- “I just got invited to speak on a podcast about one of my essays.”
The list goes on and on.
These kinds of outcomes seem unrealistic—right up until the moment they happen to you.
But here’s the thing: these kinds of outcomes only happen when you hit publish.
The world has to be able to read your work to reward you for it.
Too often, writers only want to publish something they’ve spent months and months “refining.” But again: you “assume” you know what readers are going to want to hear about from you, and the truth is, you have no idea. So, get out of your own way. Hit publish. Then hit publish again. And again. And again. Let the readers guide you forward.
Digital Writing Rule #4: Prep The Page With Templates
“Writer’s Block” is what you experience when you don’t prep the page.
See, the reason why so many people struggle to start writing is because they are afraid of the blank page. They don’t know where to begin: should you just start picking random words? Should you create an outline? Does the title come first or last? Should you edit as you go?
None of these are right.
Instead, you want to start with a template. (Ideally, you will create your own as your writing journey continues, but when you’re first getting started we recommend using the proven writing types on Typeshare.)
Templates are what allow you to create the shell of your writing quickly and effectively—allowing you to spend the bulk of your time clarifying and organizing your ideas.
This is how certain digital writers are able to be so prolific.
They never start with a blank page.
For a full walkthrough of how to prep the page, watch Nicolas Cole explain here:
Digital Writing Rule #5: Treat Your Writing Like A Startup
This is another one of our fundamental principles in Ship 30 for 30.
We call it “Lean Writing.”
- Start small
- Double-down on “what works”
- Expand “what’s working” into more of “what’s working”
- And if you do this long enough, you’ll become known for a niche you own
It's so simple, it's complicated.
For example, most people don’t know that books like The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fck, The Tipping Point, and The Obstacle Is The Way* all started as short blog posts. When the data said readers were most engaged on these topics, the authors decided to expand those blog posts into full-length books—all of which become best-sellers.
This is the Lean Writing method in full effect.
Don’t sit down and say, “I want to write a best-selling book.”
Start small. Gather data. Listen to your readers.
Then just expand “what’s working.”
Digital Writing Rule #6: Start With Quantity Over Quality
In the digital world, volume wins.
- Algorithms want content. Lots and lots of content.
- Today’s readers want content. Lots and lots of content.
- Even you, as a writer, benefit from building a massive library of content. Lots and lots of content.
The more you write in the digital world, the more data points you create.
The more data points you create, the more opportunities you have to learn and notice trends.
The more you learn, the sharper your aim becomes—and suddenly, you know how to write things that resonate with specific types of readers.
The sharper your aim becomes, and the more you write things that resonate, the faster you grow.
The faster you grow, and the more people who follow you, the wider your reach becomes as a writer.
Digital Writing Rule #7: Realize Perfectionism Is An Ego Problem
Practice doesn’t make perfect.
Practice makes progress.
“Perfect” implies there is an end to writing, and that’s false. There is no “end” to writing. You never “stop” building yourself online. You never reach a point where “you’re done” and you can’t improve anymore. As long as you are living, there are new things to write about.
If nothing else, becoming a Digital Writer is a daily practice in remembering that perfectionism is an ego problem. And if you can solve this in your writing, you will see this same lesson show up in nearly every other aspect of your life. Writing consistently online can teach you to be more present in your life, to be more at ease with the process, and to be less attached to the outcome—any outcome.
And you don’t have to be writing 800-page books in order to experience these benefits of writing.
You can write Twitter Threads, LinkedIn posts, Atomic Essays, and newsletters.
Like we said above: there has never been a better time in history to be a writer.
So long as you are a Digital Writer.
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