Learning to write commercially

Earlier this year I tricked myself into writing a book. I did that by selling it before it was written, through Kickstarter. Writing it was a slog, but, because it was something I was passionate about, the words came out.

After it was finished there was a hole inside of me. For a couple of months, everyday involved writing a few thousand words, or editing and proof-reading. I really missed writing when I no longer had to force myself to write.

So I started blogging. I loosely committed myself to writing one blog post a week. I didn’t always stick with this, but this plan meant I always had a few drafts on the go. And blogposts were low-risk anyway; no one was paying me and I didn’t have to please anyone.

Then in August, I quit my full time job to start a company. My co-founder and I committed to writing a blog for our new company publication every week. Primarily this was to build up SEO authority, but it has also kept us grounded. Each week we reflect on the work we’re doing in building our startup from scratch.

In writing for the company blog, which we hosted here on Medium, I also started reading more posts on this platform, and therefore seeing other publications I could submit to. I started submitting to Medium publications alongside writing on my own personal blog.

And here’s what I learnt. Medium publications are ruthless. So many posts I’d written that I thought were stone cold bangers weren’t getting accepted by big publications.

I was arrogant. I thought because I had a good degree from a good university and had self-published my own book that my writing was out of this world. But it’s not.

Looking back at my earlier posts, I realised why. My sentences waffled on. I used excessively eloquent vocabulary and complicated sentence structures. But worst of all, my posts didn’t have any focus. They were just reflective musings; they didn’t cover anything new or provide any value.

This meant that for my writing to become succesful on Medium, it had to become more commercial. Commercial writing doesn’t necessarily mean writing that earns lots of money. What it does mean is writing that is succint, addresses a specific audience, and answers a clear need.

I quickly changed my writing style to match these requirements, and very soon after began to see noticeable changes to my articles’ view/read count.

My story on November 3rd, about Variants in Figma, had a clear audience and gave me a big spike in views.

My Strategy #

Based on what I learnt, here’s what I do with every post I write now:

  • Start with a clear audience in mind

There’s no point trying to address everybody. Now, before I start writing a post, I have an idea of the audience I’m writing for. This also usually means I know which publication I want to submit to, before writing. (For this article, my target audience is writers who are new to writing on Medium).

  • Outline one main learning point

I want the reader to learn one main thing. My article can still have lots of detail, but there should be one key takeaway. Any more and the message gets lost. (The key takeaway for this article is that writing on Medium forces you to become a better, more commercial writer.)

  • Outline the article before writing it

Diving straight in leads to waffle. Starting with a clear outline instead helps me stay focussed. It can be brief, but it should have the thread of a story running through it. (For this article, my outline was story about book / blog post writing / the problem / proof of success / concrete steps I used to improve.)

NB: I’ve found that for longer technical articles, this outline usually gets converted into the article’s subheadings, which allows the reader to follow the thread of the article more easily.

  • Re-read the article

Reading and re-reading to edit my work is essential. For longer articles, I usually print the article out and read it out loud. Seeing written words in a different format tricks the brain into catching janky phrases that may have been previously missed.

Writing on Medium has shown me how to write more commercially, which in turn has led me to becoming a better writer. I think this platform gets a lot of flack, especially around considerations about owning your own content. But, had I stuck to writing on my own personal blog, I would never have become the writer I am now.

Thanks for reading!

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