Let me get this out of the way: I am not some great expert on this topic. You aren’t supposed to say that before you try to give advice, but I’ve only been writing here for about 6 months so I felt a disclaimer was necessary. That said, I feel as though I’ve learned a few things that might help someone who wants to start a website (I am and will be forever resistant to the word ‘blog’).
Read books about persuasion and psychology. Writing is sales in disguise. It’s about getting people’s attention, entertaining them, and delivering useful information—all in about 500 words. Instead of getting them to buy something, you are winning them as readers. There are several principles of persuasion and influence that have been very valuable to me when thinking about how to structure and title a post. Here are the best resources:
Influence by Robert Cialdini—the Bible of persuasion. This book explores durable principles like reciprocity. Give people something and they feel obligated to give something back. For example, you could write a helpful post for aspiring writers and hope that in return they pre-order your book ;).
Fascinate: Your 7 Triggers to Persuasion and Captivation by Sally Hogshead – explores the principles of lust, mystique, alarm, power, prestige, vice, and trust.
http://socialtriggers.com/ – a good resource site for mental triggers.
Spend as much time on the title and lead paragraph as you do on the rest of the post. Josh Brown took me to lunch right as I started writing. When I asked for his advice, he told me to spend as much time as possible on titles and lead paragraphs. He was right. When I’ve spent lots of time crafting a post’s title, it has almost always paid off.
Scratch my back… I am just okay at this one. I have noticed that the financial writing community is very cooperative. Many of the best writers support others through links, tweets, and references, and get great support in return. I don’t do linkfests, but maybe I should.
Build an email list. This advice is ubiquitous because it’s true. The best engagement comes from readers who respond to you through email. I am blown away by the response I’ve gotten from readers, many of whom are much smarter than me. I also now have a handful of people I write for advice on new posts and other ideas (Steve from Australia, you are my man!). I’ve never met these people, but I trust them.
Try to write evergreen content. It is always tempting to write response pieces to breaking news or hot topics. If you have the energy to do this, god bless you. I don’t. I rely instead on writing things that will still be relevant years from now.
Cross genres. I’ve heard the opposite advice from many writers: “focus on your niche and become a deep and reliable expert.” Yet my most read and popular posts have been a mix of different areas of interest. This post on contrarian ideas got more response via email than my next 5 most popular posts combined. 11 of the 15 ideas in that post had nothing to do with investing. If you can find a way to work your various interests into your niche in a way that is complimentary, I suggest you do it. A perfect example is Ben Horowitz opening each chapter of his book with rap lyrics.
Don’t be a shitty writer. I am no Cormac McCarthy, but I do spend time editing (I sure hope there are no typos in this post!). Maybe I am just sensitive to bad writing, but when I read a poorly written post I get annoyed. Clear writing is the key to making an impression on readers. Here are the best resources:
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
On Writing by Stephen King
On Writing Well by William Zinsser
One helpful tip: when you wrap up a post, search for “ly” to find all of the useless adverbs that are polluting your writing. I just did this search for this post and found 18(!) adverbs that did NOTHING to improve the sentence.
Ask for help. In the early days, I asked lots of people for help. Having other popular writers support your posts is essential if you want to build a big audience. Ask your favorite writers to read your stuff and many will say yes. Most of my readership has come from those generous enough to link to me (especially Tadas Viskanta, Josh Brown, and Barry Ritholtz—thank you guys).
Vary your content. My favorite websites tackle many different topics. Our brains get used to patterns and then take them for granted, so if you only write about the same thing over and over you’ll lose people’s interest. Jesse Livermore is best example of varied content. Sure his writing is all about economics/investing, but his last five posts have been about bitcoin to paypal transfer, Supply and Demand, Shiller CAPE, the history of individual country valuations and returns, and banking on the gold standard. Because I never know where he’ll go next, I am always checking his site for new posts.
Find a voice. At first I wrote trying to mimic the style of other writers. I was going for a Sam Harris-style sophisticated complexity. He is much smarter than me. He is a much better writer than me. Mimicking him was a bad idea. Writing in your own voice (which sounds obvious, but is quite hard to do) makes writing easier and more fun.
Incentivize. I stole an idea from Ryan Holiday to run an incentivized pre-order campaign for my book. The results have been awesome. I’ve been getting emails with the required receipt non-stop since I first posted the offer 6 weeks ago. I don’t know how Amazon’s system works, but I am convinced that strong pre-orders is part of the reason the book was listed as one of the best of the month for October. Even if their editors had loved the book, I am not sure they would have given it such prominent placement if it hadn’t sold any copies. I am also going to be experimenting with incentives to join my reading list after the launch. Tit-for-tat works, so use it as often as you can.
Write. D’uh. Write a lot. Be willing to throw most of it away. If you have more words on paper, you’ll feel less attached to each passage and be more willing to cut the fat. I write every single morning at home with my coffee. I write most nights. 80% of what I write blows.
Learn from the masters. Here are a few people who are masters at what they do, follow them and steal their strategies. James Altucher, Ryan Holiday, Tim Ferris, Ramit Sethi, Noah Kagan, Chris Guillebeau, and Seth Godin.
I hope this helps!