Over the last few years, a handful of readers who contact me regularly have asked for me to write a post about the actual nuts and bolts of writing for a blog and building an audience for that writing. Honestly, most of the same things hold true for things like building a Youtube channel and building an audience for that.
Many, many people launch blogs every day. Many people launch Youtube channels every day. The vast majority of them don’t take off. Why? What’s the difference? How can an average person create something that will get other people interested?
The first question many of you will have is why? Why write about this? What relevance does writing informative and entertaining articles have to personal finance?
It’s simple – writing such content makes for a great side gig, and it can even grow into your full time job.
I speak from experience. I started The Simple Dollar in 2006 – and it was not my first blog. While my primary motivation for writing the blog was to help me organize my thoughts about my financial turnaround and share the things I’d learned with friends (and friends of friends), I did want to make some money for my time.
It paid off. For a number of reasons – some of which I’ll discuss below – The Simple Dollar caught fire. It became more popular than I ever expected, to the point where it became my full time job in 2008. Eventually, by 2011, it was popular enough that managing the back end of the site was crowding out the part I loved (the writing), so I sold the site and signed a long term agreement to continue to write for The Simple Dollar.
The key to all of that is content – good stuff that people enjoy, people get some value from, and people want to come back to in the future. Without that, none of those things would have ever happened.
So, how do you create that kind of stuff? How do you write (or record) things that people will enjoy, people will get value from, and people will come back to in the future?
These are the lessons I’ve learned over the years about how to do just that.
Choose a Topic That’s a Genuine Part of Your Life
It is absolutely possible to write genuine and compelling material about any topic under the sun. However, it’s far easier to create genuine and compelling material about something you care deeply about and that is already a routine part of your life.
That’s a big part of why I started writing about personal finance. My finances – particularly as I started my financial turnaround – were a central part of my life. I spent a lot of time thinking and reading about financial issues, as well as trying to apply what I was reading to my own life. That made it very easy to write about personal finance, as it was something that was already very present.
If you’re writing for a blog or developing videos for someone else’s Youtube channel, it’s likely you have some control over what you’re writing about. If you’re writing for your own site or creating your own Youtube channel, you have complete control over the topics.
With that freedom in hand, start in a smart place. Create content about something you care about deeply. That way, it’s going to come from the heart, and that’s something that will always attract others and it’s something you just can’t fake.
You Are a Healthy Part of the Package – But Not the Whole Package
One of the most important things about creating great online content – whether written or otherwise – is that simply copying what other people are doing will never get you anywhere. You can do similar things, sure, but doing the exact same thing as someone else is a bad idea.
So, what do you have that’s unique? What can you add to the things you create that inherently makes it distinct from what anyone else might produce?
The answer is easy. You.
Your personal story, your perspectives, your anecdotes, your related interests – those are things that can’t be duplicated by others. Those things are what will set you apart from others.
Almost always with online writing and content, you should inject yourself into the mix. A great article or video is one where you are a healthy part of the package, but nowhere near the whole package. Your particular mix of perspectives and experiences and insights are what make things unique.
Having said that, the value comes from the subject, not from you. You are flavor. You are the example, the source of anecdotes. The real core of the article or the video is the topic that you’re trying to cover.
When you read an article here, my own experiences add flavor to the article and bring it to life in some respects, but the true backbone of the article is in the topic, not in me. This is why personal blogs rarely reach much popularity. The people who come to your content aren’t there for you, they’re there for the topic, and you just add unique angles and flavors and stories to accentuate that topic.
Lurk on Lots of Messageboards and Other Blogs – and Participate on Some
I read literally hundreds of personal finance messageboards and blogs. I’m reading not so much for my own education or entertainment – though there is some of that – but I do it looking for questions that go unanswered or ideas that go undiscovered.
Those things inspire me. They inspire me to investigate those things more deeply. They inspire me to try them in my own life just to see if they work. They inspire me to go down a new path that I hadn’t considered before.
Here’s the truth, though: every time someone asks a question, there’s an opportunity. Someone is feeding you a topic idea, something that someone else wants to read.
A question that someone else asks is a missive from a curious mind. That person is likely one of many asking the same question, and many of those people are typing that question into Google right now. They’re reading message boards right now, seeking the answer to that question.
These are people who are going to want to read what you write. They are your audience. The first step to creating an audience is creating something that someone else wants to see or read, and they’re literally telling you what they want to see or read.
What about participation? I don’t participate in very many message boards or discussion forums. I mostly go there to lurk, to find out what people are curious about. I’ll occasionally participate, but mostly I gather ideas. I’m very selective about where I participate and I don’t like to shout it from the roof tops, either. (I’ll discuss why in a bit.)
Carry a Pocket Notebook (or Some Other Method of Recording Stray Thoughts)
Most of the rest of my article ideas come from stray thoughts and observations I have as I wander through my day to day life. Those ideas often pop right out in front of me when I’m doing ordinary things like shopping at the grocery store or spending quality time with my children or having a conversation with my wife or reading through a bill.
The thing is, like many of our spare thoughts, it’s very easy for that thought to just disappear unless you do something about it quickly. For me, that means carrying a pocket notebook and a pen with me at all times. I’ll just pull out that notebook, jot down the note, then go back to whatever I was doing. Once or twice a day, I’ll go through that notebook and do whatever’s appropriate with those thoughts.
Most of the time, those thoughts are junk, but every once in a while, there’s a real gem in there, the seed for what will turn into a really good article. The same is true for all of the other stuff I jot down – mostly junk, but occasionally really useful. The “occasional gem” makes it all really worthwhile.
In other words, take inspiration from your everyday life and your spare thoughts. A lot of good ideas pop into your head when you least expect them, so having the ability to record and save them quickly is vital.
Structure Every Post as a List
So, you’ve got an overall topic that you’re passionate about. You’ve found a bunch of questions that people are asking which has helped you come up with a bunch of specific topics. Now what?
Here’s my biggest secret about writing articles: almost every single one starts off as a list.
I take the core idea that I have – one that usually comes either from one of those stray thoughts I had in my pocket notebook or from a question someone asked me or asked on a message board somewhere – and then I just brainstorm answers. Often, I’ll do some research to come up with additional answers. I try to make a big long list of potential solutions to the problem.
From there, I’ll start winnowing the list. I’ll cut away items that don’t make as much sense. I’ll keep adding more items if they pop into my head. I start thinking about an order that will make sense, too.
So, let’s take this article itself as an example. The core idea was simple – “writing a good blog post.” From there, I started brainstorming ideas that went all over the place. I deleted some ideas and added more. Most of these brainstormed ideas were short phrases, mostly very similar to the headers in this article. After the list began to seem strong, I reorganized it, putting similar ideas near each other and putting them in an order from the basic “what is my idea” section through the actual craft of writing to the things you need to do later.
Once you have that list in a sensible order, start fleshing it out. Flesh it out with a mix of useful information and personal stories. Pull examples from your own life or from the lives of others that illustrate each of those points. Do some research and add facts that reinforce and explain those points.
Make It Easy to Read
You can write the most glowing prose in the history of the internet and most of your readers will skim it. That’s the sad truth. Yes, you’ll get some readers who read every word, but many of them will just browse quickly through your article, trying to extract a few key points, and then move on from there.
You can help those quick browsers by simply using bold font and headers to illustrate your key points. That simple move makes those key points stand out from the rest of the article so that someone who is reading through quickly can pull out those key ideas.
The key thing to always remember is that you need to send your readers or viewers away having gained something of value from what you gave them. If you don’t do that, they won’t come back, and you often don’t have much time to do that. That’s why bolding your key points makes a lot of sense. It enables the people who browse to get something of use out of your article even within just a few seconds. (If you’re using video, the best way to do this is to make your point clear as soon as possible in the video and to have a good description of your video.)
Why do you care about these “quick browsers”?
Every Happy Reader Is Potentially an Evangelist
Every single person that reads your site or watches your videos and gets value from what you’ve created has at least some chance of sharing that creation with their friends. They might send a great article via email to their friends. They might post your video on their Facebook feed. They might share your content on their internet forum of choice. They might tweet about something you’ve created.
That’s organic traffic, and it’s the best thing you can get as a person creating content online. People that go to your site and leave with enough positive value that they’re willing to share it elsewhere are going to drive new people to your site, increasing your traffic and, eventually, your revenue.
It all hinges on having great content that’s useful to all kinds of readers and visitors, and that’s why it’s useful to have content that appeals to the “quick browsers.” Yes, they may not appreciate your nuance, but they still receive value from your key points, and that’s often enough to get them to share your stuff.
Ship Now, Improve Later
The books I’ve written each went through a long editorial process. Many people looked over each word, corrected grammar, offered content suggestions, and moved things around. I never agreed with every choice, but everything was viewed with a fine-toothed comb by a team of people.
The magazine articles I’ve written went through a similar, though perhaps somewhat less strenuous process. They, too, were edited. They, too, were polished. They, too, were revised.
In both of those cases, however, there was a fairly long lead time for the writing. They were intended for the permanent state of the printed word.
Online, things are a bit different. Speed is paramount. Getting your ideas out there quickly, even if they’re not perfect, is paramount. Raw ideas are the valuable commodity online.
That’s not to say you should start sharing complete junk – you shouldn’t do that. Instead, what it means is that pretty quickly in your writing process, after a first draft and a quick revision or two, you reach a point where you need to post it and move on with the next article and the next idea.
Yes, it’s not going to be perfect. What you’re striving for with the vast majority of online writing is good and great, not perfect. You’re going to make little mistakes. Sometimes, you’re going to make big mistakes.
That’s okay. Revise it later if there’s a real problem. Write a new article that updates your old one.
The key is to keep moving forward and to not dwell on one article or one video for too long. Make it good, but don’t lose yourself in making it perfect.
This goes not just for your individual articles or videos, but for your whole site. Launch now. Improve later.
Don’t Be Ashamed to Promote Your Best Stuff
Some of your articles are going to wind up being better than others. That’s normal. Some pieces hit closer to a fundamental truth for a lot of people, while other articles might miss the mark a little. Don’t worry about it.
Instead, focus on those articles that are really successful and promote them. Don’t be afraid to share them on message boards and forums that you already actively participate in. (Don’t join a forum and immediately start sharing unless you want people to instinctively hate your stuff.)
My usual strategy is to write ten articles, post them all, figure out which the best one is (you’ll probably know, and if you don’t know, have a friend read them), and promote that best one where it’s appropriate.
Use a Few Simple Writing Tricks
There are a few additional tips that work really well for online writing. Try using these where you can.
First, when you want to refer to an idea but don’t want to completely spell it out in your current article, link back to a previous article where you did spell it out. I call these basic articles “foundation content.” They are the ones that really spell out key ideas in detail so that, later on, I can just link to them when referring to an idea.
For example, one piece of “foundation content” here at The Simple Dollar is my older article on debt repayment plans. Rather than spelling out what exactly a debt repayment plan is in every article where I might want to refer to it, I instead just link to that old article.
This serves a number of purposes. One, it encourages readers to jump into other articles on your site, which is good for page views. Two, it enables you to keep your current article much more to the point because it doesn’t have to include all of that “foundation content.” Three, it provides a clear route for that subset of readers who do want to know more about that specific point. It’s good for you, it’s good for the readers, it’s good for everyone.
Second, your primary attitude should be positive. Over the long run, positivity about the things you’re writing about attracts readers more than negativity does. Even the snarkiest commentators who achieve any degree of success know that, as much of their sarcasm is in the form of actually lauding something they like more than it is criticizing something that they do not. Focus on things that you like; when you feel the need to be critical, keep it in parallel with the thing that you do like as a comparison point. Rampant negativity eventually drives people away.
Third, don’t be afraid to be flawed. You’re not perfect, and no one expects you to be perfect. Write about your mistakes and your successes. That makes your writing more intriguing and makes you seem much more real.
The thing is, even with a long list of tips like these, the real key to successful online content creation is just simply doing it. There’s nothing that beats simply putting the words down or recording some video. That way, you have something to start with, something to improve upon.
In other words, if you want to write online, if you want to create a blog, if you want to start a Youtube channel, I have one single piece of advice above all else. Just get started. Then, once you’re creating, look for ways to improve what you’re doing.