I failed as a writer for a long time. Like for over 5 years. It sucked.
I wrote articles, which nobody read. I got a book deal and published a big strategy book, which few people read. I submitted articles to FT and WSJ, which got rejected. I posted on my webpage and promoted on Twitter, which didn’t work.
Nothing worked. It sucked.
But I eventually found my way. I started to get some readership on LinkedIn and I self-published a couple short books. And my followers began to grow. It took a month to get from 10 to 100. And then six months to get to 10,000. I finally had a system that was getting traction – so I just kept going. Step by step.
I am now at 2.7M followers – with 3-4 best-selling books. But looking back, there were 5 actions that really cut across everything. So these are my 5 big rules for writing with impact. Note: “write with impact” is the blog of Glenn Leibowitz of McKinsey, which you should absolutely sign-up for (here).
As for my rules, they are, in order:
Rule #5: Choose one topic or question and focus on it long-term.
This is a marathon. You take a few steps every day. You do research. You write an article. You do an interview with the press. And so on. It all accumulates. So you need to really focus on one thing.
In particular, you want to focus on answering one valuable question or topic. It should be valuabe to you most of all, in your career or in your life. But it should also be valuable to the demographic you are speaking to. And it should be specific. Such as:
- How to do business in China?
- What are the emerging technology trends?
- How does AI change financial services?
- How to lose weight?
My question is how do emerging digital technologies in China change strategy and competition?
You want to be specific. Write it down. Then just keep at it. There is a ton of content out there. So super-specialize in one thing and try to own that narrow intellectual space.
Rule #4: Build teams. One for content and one for marketing / promotion / distribution.
You need to resist the urge to be a solo author typing away thinking great thoughts on your own. Those days are over. This is a team sport.
I have co-written several One Hour China books. And for these we built a content team. I had a co-author (Jonathan Woetzel), student researchers, senior reviewers, graphics people, etc. These were small books (about 30,000 words) but we had about 30 people involved in each.
This is kind of my skill. I build content teams with the best thinkers I know.
However, you also need a team for promotion and marketing. And that is a different skill set. So I always think of what group or team can I partner with for that. In the case of One Hour China, it was Glenn Leibowitz, who really should have been listed as a co-author of that book (sorry Glenn).
Rule #3: Stay on the technology frontier
Writing is like any other activity or business. You need to stay on the frontier of technology and incorporate that as fast as possible.
My first break came when Amazon started to allow self-publishing of books. And we were able to do come out with a short China speed read at a price of $4. The technology let me change the traditional publishing rules (300 page books for $25).
Similarly, when LinkedIn started to let members publish within the social media platform, I really benefited from that.
Podcasts are particularly powerful type of content. Although I haven’t done that (I should have).
And now the next wave is video, which I am sort of trying to figure out. You can see a video of this post (shot in Italy) here.
In fact, I no longer even consider call myself an author. I use the word “thought leader” (well, in my head cause it sounds arrogant out loud). But I will use whatever tools work to accomplish that (writing, speaking, teaching, videos, podcasts, etc.).
Rule #2: Publish frequently but write slowly.
This is a real trade-off. I used to do the standard strategy, which was to write 600 words commenting about whatever was happening or trending that day. That is probably the best strategy for getting lots of views. Just have a unique take on current events.
However, that also tends to result in shallow thinking. And mistakes. Looking at something, and then writing it up in 1-2 days is just too fast. Plus there is a sea of people doing that. Especially reporters, who increasingly seem to focus on this approach.
I decided to slow down my writing process. I now typically spend 3-4 weeks on one long article (2000-3000 words). I am doing deeper analysis and lots of checking my thinking. I publish weekly but each article has been under development for a long time.
As a result, I get fewer views. But the content is much better. And I would argue the real goal is not views. It is influence and relationships with readers. It’s better to have a small group of followers who really like your stuff than a tons of people viewing. Long-term you win with quality and depth.
Rule #1: The headline is 50% of everything.
I was told this when I started and it’s totally true. You want a simple, clear headline that communicates the value of the article (a picture also helps). Don’t be clever. Don’t be subtle. State the value of the article directly. For example, “my 5 rules for writing with impact”.
There is too much content out there. You need to speak to a readers’ interest clearly and directly.
Plus, I find a clear headline also really helps me write. If it the headline is fuzzy, I tend to re-write and edit forever.
That’s it. If you are writing and struggling (or just starting out), keep at it. Don’t give up. Nobody has failed at this more than me.
Cheers from Beijing , jeff
I write, speak and consult about digital strategy and transformation.
My book Moats and Marathons details how to measure competitive advantage in digital businesses.
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