the art and business of online writing summary

Book Summary: The Art and Business of Online Writing by Nicolas Cole

The Book in Three Sentences

In this summary of The Art and Business of Online Writing, you’ll learn the secrets of writing on the Internet. In the book, Nicolas Cole shares the strategies he used to become a viral columnist with more than one hundred million views on his writing. Among other things, this guide can help you develop a portfolio of articles that delivers long after you’ve posted them.

The Art and Business of Online Writing Summary

Introduction: The Game of Online Writing

Back when he was seventeen years old, the author used to be one of the top World of Warcraft players. At the same time, he decided to start writing online. This was back in the mid-2000s when most social networks were new and blogs had to be custom coded. Cole started a blog about gaming, but little by little, he used the site to talk about his real life. Thanks to his blog posts, he quickly became one of the most popular writers on the site.

Since he saw it as an opportunity, Nicolas soon tried other blogs and platforms, but it wasn’t until he discovered Quora that he thrived as a writer. Over the course of a year, the author answered a question a day on Quora. Soon, Nicolas had more than three million views on the platform. He then launched a personal website, wrote two ebooks, created a digital store, and started making money as an author.

Nicolas focused on writing every day and his posts became more and more popular. He eventually became the most-read writer on Quora and received an invitation to the top writer conference in New York which changed his life. The author kept writing on Quora but also became a contributor to Inc. Magazine where his articles exploded. Around that time, the prolific writer also released a memoir on Amazon.

Nicolas has officially beaten the “game” of writing. He worked as a ghostwriter for a while, but it wasn’t until he teamed up with a friend and created their company (which they called Digital Press) that he achieved true success. This book is the recipe for that level of success.

Chapter 1: Want to Start Online Writing? Don’t Start a Blog

Despite what you think, you don’t need a blog or your own website to write on the internet.

Before moving forward, there are some useful definitions to consider:

  1. Blog: This is a public diary where people post documents in sequence. For those unfamiliar, blogs usually take the form of articles, thoughts, or rants. Starting a blog involves monetizing the site through ads or attracting customers to get their email addresses or sell a product. Unfortunately, the problem with blogging is that it doesn’t belong to the business of writing, but the business of ads, products, or services.
  2. Website: A website is like a business card. It tells people what you do, if you’re credible or not, it compiles your work, and more.
  3. Online writing: The author defines online writing as “sharing thoughts, stories, opinions and insights on a platform”.

Blogging isn’t the best writing strategy because you start with no traffic. To get traffic, you must spend money on ads, use SEO, build an audience on social networks, and direct them to your site. The problem is that none of these things involve writing online.

That said, starting a blog is the right decision when you’re a business selling a product or when you want a marketing tool for your business. There’s a third scenario which is the least common, but you can also start a blog when you write for yourself.

Chapter 2: The New Way to Think About Being a Writer In the Digital Age

Data tells you what’s working and what isn’t. Become the kind of writer who uses data to improve your writing. Before you write a book or launch a product, you should write online. You do this because writing online reduces risk, helps you find your voice, helps you build an audience, and lets you know what people want. A lot of people don’t do this because they’re scared, but the faster you get feedback, the faster you improve. Writing online is all about practicing in public and this makes you care about the craft. Whatever you do, don’t wait for the perfect moment to start, just write.

Chapter 3: How the Online Writing Game Works: 7 Levels of Success

In a way, when you’re posting an online article, you’re competing for attention. To succeed, you have to understand how the game of online writing works:

Level 1: Conscious vs. Unconscious

Everything you post online is a part of you whether you accept it or not. The ones who accept it are playing the game consciously, and the ones who aren’t are playing the game unconsciously. To be a successful writer, you have to be part of the former.

Level 2: Choose a Category

Determine, as early as possible, which category you’re competing in. Once you do so, you can start climbing the ladder you choose. Alternatively, you can create your own category.

Level 3: Define Your Style

Writing exists on the following spectrum: Educating <<<>>> Entertaining. Your job is to determine where you fall under the spectrum.

Level 4: Optimize Your Writing Style for Speed

The internet doesn’t favor good writing, but fast writing. This happens because people don’t read online, they scheme, browse, and scroll. When writing online, don’t focus on a backstory, just get to the point. In fact, start with the main point. The author calls this the “rate of revelation” which describes the pace at which you reveal information to keep people interested. Finally, you must keep the “rate of revelation” fast to hook readers and hold their attention.

Level 5: Specificity Is the Secret

Become the most specific writer in the category you choose. The kind of writing that doesn’t resonate with people is the one that’s not specific. To this effect, niche down until you find a category you can dominate. If you can figure out a way to niche down until you can’t, then you’ve found your niche. By being specific, you always know what you’re writing about. Start from a niche and expand from there. On the contrary, never start from a broad category and then niche down.

Level 6: Engineering Credibility

You don’t need credibility to be a popular writer. Learning how to play the game takes time, even if you’ve achieved professional success somewhere else. Credibility isn’t something you start with, it’s something you earn along the way. Thankfully, this is easy: you prove you know what you’re talking about and prove you’re worth listening to.

There are three levels of credibility:

  1. Implied Credibility: When you consume online content, you judge the content but not the author. Implied credibility is how much “better” or “worse” what you offer is when compared to everyone else in your category. Implied credibility shows in your profile picture, bio, production quality, grammar, organization of thought, and specificity.
  2. Perceived Credibility: This happens when you have best-selling books, when you’ve been featured on TV channels or magazines, when you have millions of followers on social media, or when you have testimonials from famous people. All this makes you a credible person. While these signals can help you, they can also backfire. You have to deliver when it comes to your writing regardless of the kind of achievements and badges you mention.
  3. Earned Credibility: This is the most ignored yet the easiest to acquire. By playing the game and taking it seriously, you’ll be consistent and create something that resonates with people as a consequence. Earned credibility sends a powerful message because you worked hard for it.

Level 7: Create Your Own Category

Competing in someone else’s category is difficult. How can you be perceived as better than Stephen King, John Grisham, or J. K. Rowling? Since this is highly unlikely, you must create a category of your own. Don’t set out to be the next George R. R. Martin, therefore, create a different category altogether and thrive. Always remember that different is always better.

Chapter 4: Where You Should Be Writing Online – And Where You Should Not

These are five facts about how much exposure you get from big publications:

  1. Writing for a major publication doesn’t mean millions of views
  2. Major publications don’t give you the freedom to write whatever you want
  3. Writing for major publications isn’t the same as self-promotion
  4. Social platforms have more reach than major publications
  5. You don’t own the audience on major publications

The benefits of working or contributing to a major publication include:

  • Perceived Credibility
  • SEO
  • Social Exposure
  • Money

The Five Phases of Social Platforms

Before writing for an online publication, you have to find your category, your unique voice, and your audience. You can do this on social media platforms that have a large user base and provide you with analytics.

The advantages of writing on social media are:

  • It’s easy for readers to discover you
  • Credibility comes in the form of views, upvotes, comments, and shares
  • You can interact with readers and other writers
  • You can build an audience fast
  • You own your content
  • Your content seems objective
  • Your content is easier to share

The disadvantages of writing on social media are:

  • Immediate feedback
  • Direct criticism
  • Anyone can write

For reference, some of the social platforms that will be relevant for years include Quora, Medium, LinkedIn, Wattpad, Twitter, and Amazon. However, all social networks have a limited lifespan.

This is what the life cycle of a platform looks like:

  • Phase 1: The new website is invented. When a new platform is invented, investing in it is risky for content creators, but as the platform grows, you grow along with it.
  • Phase 2: The website gains traction. As an early adopter, you’ll be an “influencer” by now.
  • Phase 3: The website is established and will be profitable eventually. This gives you a five-year window to continue using the site to write and build an audience.
  • Phase 4: The platform launches advertising mode and some users inevitably leave
  • Phase 5: Organic reach declines and it’s time to find a new platform

Chapter 5: How Writing On Social Platforms Work (And How to Not Give Up)

The most difficult part about writing online is not giving up. Most people expect overnight success, but there’s no such thing. For this purpose, the best quality you can have as an independent writer on the internet is a commitment to consistency. You’ll work hard and get hurtful comments along the way, but it’s incredibly rewarding nonetheless.

Since you’ll be using social platforms to post your writing, always publish first and consume later. In other words, create more than you consume. Write a lot and the more you write, the more data you’ll gather, the better skills you’ll obtain, and the faster you’ll learn from the craft.

These are the stages of growth when writing on a social network:

  • Stage 1: Just start writing
  • Stage 2: Write consistently for six months and then make a decision

To be a successful writer, you don’t have to be the most talented, you have to be the most consistent.

These are your goals during the first six months of online writing:

Goal #1: See if you can be consistent. The minimum amount of writing and posting is one per month, but you should write twice per month. Ideally, you should write daily or at least several times per week.

Goal #2: Gather data about the most popular categories

Goal #3: Pay attention to popular writers. To be better than other online writers, do what they’re doing, but more consistently.

  • Stage 3: Once you’ve proven consistency, keep writing until your content “explodes”

The only way to be a writer is by writing consistently, hence the idea of posting something new on a daily basis for six months. This involves identifying mistakes, confronting your fears, and writing.

There are some strategies that separate amateurs from professional writers:

  • Audience hacking: This is collaborating with another writer to introduce each other’s audiences
  • Trend jacking: Using something that’s trending on social media to bring attention to yourself or your content
  • Engagement hacking: You introduce someone else’s audience to your writing
  • Hashtag stalking: A hashtag is a way to organize content. When posting something on social media, research hashtags and use the most appropriate ones
  • Publishing hacking: This involves 1) deleting the original post, changing a few things, and posting it again and 2) getting around the “duplicate content” rule

Publish anything you want on as many platforms as you can. Furthermore, you should establish relationships with publications to syndicate your content. You can also publish articles on social platforms, and your own site, and syndicate them to other publications. Republish your articles from major publications on social platforms and include a link to your site.

Chapter 6: How to Always Write Something People Will Want to Read: 5 Forms of Proven Writing

Online writing has five forms:

  • Form #1: Actionable guide
  • Form #2: Opinion
  • Form #3: Curated list
  • Form #4: Story
  • Form #5: Credible talking head

To win the online writing game, you have to create the best version of your form of writing in your category. So first, determine the type of writing you’ll be doing. Second, determine how you’ll do it. Your objective is to write specific, comprehensive, and informative content so that readers will bookmark it, share it, and feel that they know so much that they don’t have to read anything else. Third, aim to provide the most value without confusing the reader or wasting their time.

  • Actionable guide: A piece of writing that people will bookmark and come back to several times.
  • Opinion: These are easy to write which makes it easy to stand out
  • Curated list: This is a way of organizing information. For a list to be valuable, you need specificity and speed
  • Story: A story is one of the most powerful tools to draw readers’ attention
  • Credible talking heads: This is the category of people or publications that are most qualified to talk about a given topic

Chapter 7: The Perfect Post: How to Write Headlines People Can’t Help but Read

When reading a headline, a person has to understand three things:

  1. What the article’s about
  2. Who is it for
  3. The promise (this is the problem you’re focusing on and the solution you’re offering)

All of these combined are known as The Curiosity Gap.

If you want to be creative or clever, be clear in your intentions. Always deliver your promise because otherwise, readers feel tricked.

Chapter 8: The Art of Writing Online: How to Structure the Perfect Post

The most popular online articles follow this structure:

  • Section 1: Introduction
  • Section 2: Main Points
  • Section 3: Conclusion

The introduction should answer the following questions:

  1. What the article is about
  2. Who is it for
  3. What’s the promise

The first sentences should be short and clear and should answer the first question. Once that’s done, you can follow the 1/3/1 structure to answer the remaining two: include one strong sentence, three description sentences, and one conclusion sentence. Alternatively, you can use the 1/5/1 structure which is the same but gives more space for description or context. As a general rule, felete anything that’s not necessary.

Regardless of the structure you follow, the main points are the reason people are reading. The more main points, the less explanation you’re going to include for each one. The fewer main points you have, the more explanation you’re going to include for each one. To win the game, optimize your writing for speed.

Also include subheads (these are bolded, highlighted, and emphasized parts of your article) because readers are looking for them. Understand the visual nature of online writing and use it to your advantage. By using subheads, you’re letting your readers know that your article is easy to read, that they should trust you, and that you’re logically organizing things for them.

Conclusions are difficult. They are the result of the story’s climax and are all about reflection and takeaways. Conclusions are optional in online writing because readers don’t need them. In long articles, conclusions should be a paragraph or you can also end in a single sentence. You can end a piece on a cliffhanger, make an extended main point, write a summary, or end with a strong opinion. Also, you can follow some of the following writing rules: write for the average person, write how you speak, write short sentences, and write with confidence.

Chapter 9: How to Talk About Yourself without Making Your Writing All About “You”

Readers don’t care about you or the products you sell, they only care about themselves. With this in mind, your goal is to speak to their interests and desires. So if you’re going to talk about yourself, do it because it provides context. This is what the author calls The Golden Intersection. In other words, don’t make yourself the most important character, the reader is.

Chapter 10: Your Content Roadmap: Constructing a “Sticky Web” for Your Writing

Volume is paramount when it comes to the game of online writing. To do this, be a timely writer (the kind of writer who talks about what’s happening now) or a timeless writer (the kind of writer who creates evergreen content). To be successful online, you have to have a roadmap for success.

There are three types of “content buckets”:

  1. General Audience: universal topics and broad categories that resonate with most people
  2. Niche Audience: content that’s relevant to a small group of people
  3. Company/Industry Audience: content that’s only relevant to a given industry

Cole developed the endless idea generator to always know what to write about.

First step: Determine the type of writing

  • Form #1: Actionable guide
  • Form #2: Opinion
  • Form #3: Curated list
  • Form #4: Story
  • Form #5: Credible talking head

Second step: Determine the idea you’re sharing through your piece of writing

  • Idea #1: Explanation
  • Idea #2: Habits
  • Idea #3: Mistakes
  • Idea #4: Lessons
  • Idea #5: Tips
  • Idea #6: Stories
  • Idea #7: Timely events

Third step: Determine why you should be the one writing it

  • Credibility #1: You’re an expert
  • Credibility #2: You know all about it from experts
  • Credibility #3: You’re giving your opinion

By combining items from steps 1, 2, and 3, you can get different pieces of writing on any topic.

Content Roadmap Template

First step: List your three content buckets

  • General audience
  • Niche audience
  • Company/industry audience

Second step: Write more than three topics under each bucket

Third Step: Use the endless idea generator to come up with headlines for each topic

People remember you through repetition, so you might have to rephrase an idea in several articles.

Chapter 11: Pillar Pieces: How to Turn Proven Online Writing into Longer, More Valuable Assets

Never forget to collect data about the articles you write online. Identify the content that resonates with people to win the game of online writing. You can launch your own website when your writing has the potential to become your business. This happens when you gather people’s email addresses, make money from ads, or sell products.

Start your own website when:

  1. People want to read from you
  2. You know how to write pieces that resonate with your readers
  3. Have your audience’s attention somewhere else and want to direct them to your site

When an article outperforms other articles, write more pieces on that subject to make sure people want to read about it. Once you’ve confirmed your hypothesis, you want to redirect people to your site. In there, people should be able to find “Pillar Pieces”. These are valuable articles and extensive resources they want to bookmark. A good way to provide this is by using the topic you wrote about and expanding on it in the form of timeless pillar pieces.

You can do this by:

  • Combining content: Combine several articles into a comprehensive guide that’s convenient for the reader. Curate relevant information into a long and comprehensive piece.
  • Curating expert opinions: Reinforce your insights with the opinions of credible people. Study interviews, social media posts, or articles from experts and curate the information you found helpful.
  • Adding statistics: This makes your content look professional
  • Telling personal stories: Feel free to share something about yourself as long as it’s relevant to the reader
  • Giving more examples: An ultimate guide is longer because it gives your reader dozens of examples

Once you’ve written pillar pieces, you have to direct people toward them. The idea is to capture people’s emails once they’re on your site. This involves giving away most of your writing for free, playing the long game, and selling a small fraction of your content. Focus on getting people’s attention by discussing a specific problem. the more specific the problem, the better.

  • Curating credible case studies: This involves creating case studies of those who were successful in the industry
  • Providing early/exclusive content: Examples include the first chapter of an unreleased novel
  • Creating content for different levels of audience: Ideally, you should provide resources for each level of reader. Beginner, advanced, and expert.
  • Giving away templates/worksheets

Once you know what people want to read about from you, you have your site and written some pillar pieces and you’ve given people some free resources, it’s time to sell them things. Remember you’re not selling products, you’re selling a solution to a problem.

Chapter 12: How to Make Money Online as a Writer

Making money as an online writer isn’t a priority until:

  • You can write in public regularly
  • You have defined your Content Buckets. This means you know how to capture people’s attention.
  • You launched your site and conquered your niche

There are three ways to monetize your writing: Ads, Paywalls, or Services

The Advertising Model

This is also called “The Attention Model” because people’s attention equals money. For this model to work, you need a lot of attention and it has some flaws:

  1. People hate ads
  2. People don’t trust different sponsorships
  3. Ads require volume
  4. Ads are inconsistent

You can monetize your writing with this model using these techniques:

  • Sell ad space
  • Get a brand sponsorship
  • Run Google Ads
  • Become an affiliate

The Paywall Model

This is also called “The Exclusivity Model” because people have to pay to access your content. Its challenges come in the form of:

  1. You have to build attention first and then monetize
  2. Your exclusive content must be better than your free content
  3. Paid content requires more attention to detail

To monetize your writing through the exclusivity model:

  • Write behind a paywall
  • Create a product
  • Sell a course
  • Start a paid newsletter
  • Host an event

The Service Model

This is also called the “I’ll-Do-It-for-You Model” because people will pay you for your services, such as writing and marketing an Amazon book, or writing PDF guides.

You can monetize your writing through the services mode:

  • Confident writing: writing content for others, such as celebrities, influences, companies, or entrepreneurs
  • Ghostwriting and scriptwriting
  • Copywriting
  • Company messaging, consulting, and advising

To become a successful writer, you have to be an entrepreneur. This means you are a brand, a company, a publisher, a creative director, and a distributor, all at the same time.

Chapter 13: The 1 Habit Every Single Writer Needs to Master in Order to Become Successful

To conclude, write a lot. Don’t treat it like a hobby or think about it, just do it. Writing, like most skills, is a game and anyone can play it. To win the game, you must play it and master it. If you deserve to win, you eventually will. 

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