I posted my first article on LinkedIn on May 22, 2015. I labored over it for about a week and then finally hit “Publish”. And basically nothing happened.
Over the next several days, it eventually got about 50-100 reads. My followers inched up from 500 (my connections) to like 505. It was a pretty frustrating beginning overall.
Now two years later, I am over 2M followers. This is great and something I am really thankful for. But there was a lot of struggle along the way. There was a lot of trial and error (mostly error). Looking back, here are 6 things I wish I had known when I started.
1: Choose one valuable question to focus on.
Albert Einstein used to say the secret to his success was choosing the right question to answer – and then keeping at it. If you view writing as mostly a research process, then that’s a good approach.
Choose one question you are going to answer with your writing. Be specific. Write it down. And make sure it is valuable to readers and in your own career. And then just keep digging into it month after month and year after year. .
The question I eventually chose was: “how are competitive advantages different in China (i.e., in developing economies, in cross-border situations, in digital China and in State capitalism). I am basically adapting Warren Buffett / Bruce Greenwald / Michael Porter thinking on competitive dynamics to situations like China, digital China and US-China.
2: Have a unique take on a trending topic.
My writing falls under the tagline of: the fight for Chinese consumers and digital China. You’ll note this is different than the question I just said I am researching. What I am doing is leveraging my research into a frequently trending topic (i.e., Chinese consumers and digital China). My research in competitive dynamics usually gives me a fairly unique take on stories about Chinese consumers and companies like Alibaba and Mobike. Most people who write about Chinese consumers focus on market research. I look at this topic very differently than most.
I have found “a unique take on a trending topic” is a good phrase to remember.
3: The headline is 50% of the article.
People say you should spend 50% of your time on the headline. I don’t really know how to do that. The truth is the more I play with the headline the worse it generally gets. But I have found that the headline really does determine your readership. Plus it helps with focus. If I have a clear and focused headline, the article is much easier to write.
My approach to writing headlines is to do lots of iterations. Every time I look at the article, I redo the headline. And over lots of iterations, I eventually get to a good headline (usually).
4: Don’t write on a computer.
When I type I get lost in the language. I do lots of re-writing and copying and pasting. I get sucked into the verbage.
So I now do most of my writing while walking. I have a notepad and I just walk somewhere pleasant and think. I jot down notes as I go. The below picture is my favorite spot for writing in Santorini, Greece. The above picture is my writing spot in Rio. Yes, I seem to have alcohol next to my notepad in both photos.
I find my thinking is just much clearer when I’m active – and not sitting at a computer. By the time I start typing, the article is usually 75% done.
5: Publish weekly – but write slowly.
Digging into your key question and building an audience are long-term activities. It is a marathon. So it helps to have a weekly schedule to stick to. My schedule is to write only on weekends (I almost never write during the week) and to publish one article per week.
However, early on I became worried that writing and publishing quickly (say in 3-5 days) was resulting in shallow thinking. Plus I was probably making lots of mistakes (See my article Two Ways Writing (and Publishing) Can Make You Stupid).
So I forced myself to slow down the writing process. I still publish every week but each article now gets about 3 weeks of thinking and re-writing. I find this really makes a difference. I typically have 5 draft articles in process. I usually re-write 3-4 articles every Saturday and Sunday.
My advice is to publish frequently but write slowly.
6: Do a final re-write where you only delete.
Ultimately, I am not trying to be a great writer. I am trying to be a great analyst, who can write clearly. I always do a final re-write where I only delete. I start at the end of the article and read it in reverse. And I try to delete everything I can. I delete paragraphs that are not necessary. I delete weak or extra sentences. I try to delete a couple of words from every single sentence. I am trying to write as simply as possible. I never try to be clever.
Those are my top 6 lessons learned. I hope they are helpful. If you are just starting out or struggling, don’t get discouraged. Keep at it. And thanks for reading. I really do mean that.
I write, speak and consult about how to win (and not lose) in digital strategy and transformation.
I am the founder of TechMoat Consulting, a boutique consulting firm that helps retailers, brands, and technology companies exploit digital change to grow faster, innovate better and build digital moats. Get in touch here.
I host Tech Strategy, a podcast and subscription newsletter detailing the strategies of the best digital businesses in the US, China and Asia.
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Photos by Jeff