Nicolas Cole was one of the most read-writer on Quora for four years in a row. He wrote for the best online publications out there (Forbes, Inc, Time…) then created a ghostwriting agency that became a multi-million dollar business.
The object of his book is in the title: The Art and Business of Online Writing: How to Beat the Game of Capturing and Keeping Attention. However, the book itself gives many more insights. I learned lessons about hard work, how to be successful and beat the competition, how to write, how to think about writing, and most importantly, how to get someone’s attention through writing.
That book is a fantastic book. I would not only recommend it to people that want to read, but also to people that are seeking life lessons on becoming the best in their field.
Find below a summary of The Art and Business of Online Writing: How to Beat the Game of Capturing and Keeping Attention written by Nicolas Cole.
What gets people to read online is stories. Whatever you are writing should always be valuable to the reader and wrapped up in a story.
Chapter 1: How to Start Writing Online
Don’t start a blog. Blogging, writing online and having your own website are three different things.
The way the author defines online writing is sharing opinions and thoughts on a platform that already has an audience. It is better to start writing where there is already an audience than start a blog where you have to build the audience. When you start a blog, you are not writing. You are doing digital marketing.
What you choose to start with depends on your purpose. If you want to build a company, you need a website. If you just want to write, then start writing on an existing platform.
Chapter 2: The New Way to Think About Being a Writer in the Digital Age
You need data.
Data tells you what works and what doesn’t so that you can improve your craft. The only way to get data is to start writing online so that you can find your voice, see what works, what doesn’t, and adjust.
The only way to get data is to get feedback. The only way to get feedback is to be exposed and do whatever you do in public. The biggest musicians played in the street or in the subway before booming. It’s what splits dreaming professionals from professional professionals.
Chapter 3: The 7 Levels of Success of Online Writing
Writing online is a competition. Writers compete for the attention of readers against everyone else (Youtube, Netflix…). The reason why most people fail as online writers is that their writing sucks.
Level 1: Conscious VS Unconscious
Anyone posting online plays the game of getting attention, even if they don’t want to admit it to themselves. The only difference between a model in bikini with a Lamborghini and someone with his grandma is that the former knows what she is doing while the latter doesn’t.
Successful writers are aware of this game.
Level 2: Choose a category
The entire game of OW is understanding in which category you are playing (self-dev, tech, art, culture, etc).
What is a category? Imagine you walk into a bookstore. You’ll have the science category, the cooking category, the business category, etc.
Choose a category to write in and study it to the point where you understand its native language.
Level 3: Define your style
Are you more of an educator, or an entertainer?
The secret to create unique writing style is to do what would be considered unexpected in your chosen category.
Level 4: Optimize your writing style for speed
The internet does not always favor what is good. It favors what is fast. As soon as the writing starts to slow, readers are gone. So you have to be fast.
The rate at which new info gets revealed is the rate of revelation. And it needs to be fast.
Level 5: Specificity is the secret
Be the most specific writer in your category = the broader you are, the more confusing you are. Ineffective writing is writing that does not resonate.
A lot of people don’t want to be specific as they feel they are putting themselves in a box. They are morons. Being in a box is EXACTLY what you want.
The more specific you are, the more you gain clarity as a writer about what you are writing about.
Level 6: Engineering credibility
Credibility isn’t that important as it is reflected in the writing most of the time. Writing that has no credibility won’t do well.
There are three levels of writer credibility:
- Implied credibility: how much “better” or “worse” your content is than everyone else’s in your chosen category. When the content is good, credibility is implied.
Things that reinforce your credibility: profile pic, bio, images, videos, graphs, grammar, organization of thought, specificity.
- Perceived credibility: what other people have to say about your writing (being featured in Forbes); how many followers you have; selling high barrier to entry products (books, courses); badges and achievements; money you have made.
- Earned credibility: the most undervalued form of credibility: it’s experience. Signals of earned credibility are: how long you have been making content; how often you create content; how much content you have created; how many people read your content; how well one of your pieces of content performed.
You should display your signs of earned credibility.
Level 7: Create your Own Category
Competing in other people’s category sucks. So, you should make your own.
Eg: Malcolm Gladwell was the first to create the pop-science category.
New categories are created at unlikely intersections between categrories, spotted by writers with an intimate understanding of one or several categories. In the end, the category you create is your own way of seeing the world.
Chapter 4: Where You Should Be Writing Online, and Where You Should Not
Where you write today should not necessarily be where you write tomorrow. Platforms and publications rise, then die. Be looking for the rising platforms.
Writing for big publications does not bring in as many views as you can expect. Also, you can’t just write what you want. This is why you should write on social platforms when you start.
The 5 Phases of Social platforms and why phase 3 is your window of opportunity.
- Phase 1: the platform is invented.
- Phase 2: the platform is getting traction.
- Phase 3: The platform is well-established.
- Phase 4: Advertising model is launched and user reach starts falling.
- Phase 5: Business model is established, it’s time to find a new platform.
The best platforms to write on:
Chapter 5: How Writing on Social Platforms Work
It takes time to get noticed. You have to write regularly and go over the fact that people will likely tell you to go kill yourself in the comment in the beginning.
The purpose of social platforms is not to read, but to write. The number of hours you spend consuming should never equal or exceed the number of hours you spend creating on social platforms.
Here are the stages of growth you will go through:
- Stage 1: just start writing
- Stage 2: successful writers are the most consistent writers. Write consistently for six months and then make a decision about keeping it up or no. Over these 6 months, you have three goals: #1 see if you can be consistent; #2 start gathering data about the articles that perform best; #3 pay attention to the top writers of your category and measure yourself against their performances.
- Stage 3: Go all-in once you have proven yourself you could be consistent.
If you fail to write consistently for 6 months, you are not a writer. Consistent output is the secret to growth on the internet.
- Audience hacking: collaborate with a writer that has a similar audience
- Trend jacking: when someone is making the headline, jump on their train and talk about them/the trend. Eg: when Keanu Reeves did this whole breathtaking thing for Cyberpunk, you could use that to write “Keanu Reeves is a marketing genius”.
- Engagement hacking: engage the audience of other writers in the comments
- Hashtag Stacking: a “#” is just a folder. The biggest mistake people make is to treat them as words in a sentence. To get the right #, look at what # popular writers are using.
- Publishing Hacking: #1 rewrite an article changing a couple of stuff and republish; #2 get your articles syndicated (post every article you write on every social platform you can)
Chapter 6: How to Write Something People Want to Read
There are five types of writing on the internet:
- #1 actionable guide
- #2 opinion: least likely to stand out since everyone has one. To write good opinion pieces, get fact-based data; get quotes; better insights; use stories to outline your lessons; be clear.
- #3 curated list: need to be specific, and fast. To be better than others, you should: get unconventional examples (forget about Apple, Michael Jordan, and Elon Musk); better structure; better intro
- #4 story: one of the most powerful ways to hook your reader in your writing. For this, you need: better openers (get to the point fast); better transition (get the eyes of the reader moving down the page fast); better characters (make them different than what everyone is using: create “unexpectation”), better dialogues; better category
- #5 credibility: getting an opinion from someone credible about a subject that matters to you. Eg: “5 Books Warren Buffett Thinks you Should Read”. You need: better association (speak about your experience with a credible person); better context; better arguments; better perception (look better).
The way to win the game is by creating the single best possible version of whatever form of writing in your chosen category, which requires research.
Length ≠ value. A valuable article
- #1 does not confuse the reader,
- #2 does not waste their time.
The first mistake many people make is that they try to fit in too many ideas in their article.
Chapter 7: How to Write Headlines People Can’t Help but Read
A great headline gets people that read it to:
- understand what the article is about
- understand who the article is for
- understand what is the promise of the article
This is called the curiosity gap.
True creativity is the art of clarity.
You should write the headline before you write the article. Doing so, you should think about who it is that you are writing the article for. The subject is directly linked to the audience – treat them together.
The size of your audience = the size of the question you are answering.
Writing for the masses = solving a universal question.
Writing for a specific niche = solving a relevant question.
The best is to combine them both: use a niche to answer a universal question. Eg: “How to become a better writer to solve childhood traumas”.
The first words of your headline are extremely important. A good headline should say/have:
– What the article is about
– A connector that connects the beginning to the end
– who this article is for
– the promise of the article
Magnets that make your headline work:
– Dollars signs
– Big names (Elon Musk, etc)
– Timelessness tags: “now”, “today”, “this just happened”, etc
– A success story
– Things that shouldn’t go together: “7 things that bill gates and your pet rabbit have in common”.
– Call out your industry: “4 trends marketers must know about to survive in 2021”
– Question/answer: Procrastinate too much? These 7 Buddhist techniques will help you get things done fast.
– X numbers: This French chef reveals the 3 ways to bake the best chocolate cake ever.
You can also combine all of these techniques.
Headlines are important. At Buzzfeed, every writer must write 30 versions of a headline to find the best one.
Chapter 8: How to Structure the Perfect Post
1. Intro: answer these three questions:
- What is the article about?
- Who is the article for?
- What are you promising them, and will you deliver?
The first sentence of your article should be clear, short, to the point.
2. Main points: the reason why readers are reading your stuff. Juice it up with knowledge that takes as least space as possible. Use subheads.
3. Conclusion: it’s tricky, since the climax already happened. Once it happens the reader is done. The truth about conclusion is that online readers don’t need them.
If you still want to write them though; here’s what you can do:
– cliffhanger: finish with a cliffhanger that makes your reader want to read more of you.
– write the conclusion in a short paragraph at the end of your main point
– write a summary/recap
– strong opinion
Other writing tips:
– Write for the everyday person
– Write how you speak
– Avoid long sentences
– Alternate sentences length
– Write confidently and declaratively
Chapter 9: How to Talk About Yourself Without Making the Story All About You
The more you promote yourself, the fewer people listen and the other way around. People, especially consumers, only care about their own interests and desires. If you can speak directly to those interests and desires, then you can attract them as customers.
The reader should be the main character in your story.
Talking about yourself for the mere sake of it ≠ talking about yourself to give some context. This is key. As such, talking about yourself should always be done when it adds value to the text (eg: establishing credibility).
You need to use the golden intersection not to appear self-promotional.
The Golden Intersection of great writing = “Answering The Reader’s Question” x “Telling Them An Entertaining Story.”
If you are writing about how to best ride a horse, you should tell a story about how you learned it yourself first to give context.
Always bring things back to the reader’s wants, needs, and desires.
Only mention information that is truly relevant to the topic at hand.
Make the thing you want to draw attention to part of a larger point. Self-promotion should never feel like self-promotion. it should feel like context.
Don’t hard-sell readers.Make whatever you are selling accessible to them, and if they want it, they’ll buy it.
Chapter 10 Your Content Roadmap: Constructing A “Sticky Web” For Your Writing
Volume is what separates good from great writers. The key isn’t to write one good article – it is to write 1000.
Timely VS timeless content: timely content will get more attention at instant t, but timeless content will stand the test of time.
You should have three content buckets, three audiences you write for:
– General: life-lessons everyone can learn
– Niche: content people like you want to know
– Specific to industry: content people in your industry would like to know
Step 1: What type of writing: Actionable guide; opinion; curated list; story; credibility.
Step 2: What idea: Explanations; habits; mistakes; lessons; tips; stories; timely events.
Step 3: Why me: I am an expert; I talked to the experts; I am just sharing my opinion.
Chapter 11: Turn Writing Into Valuable Assets
You can make money off writing when:
• You start to get people’s email addresses
• Earn advertising revenue
• Earn from paid subscriptions
• Sell products or services
• Speak, coach, consult, advise
It’s time to start your own website when:
1. You know what people want to read
2. Know how to resonate with your reader
3. Already have their attention elsewhere
The problem with having your own website is that you will have to work harder to keep your readers’ attention.
The best way to do so is to take them from an article they like to an article they will bookmark forever.
Exceed readers’ expectations. The first interaction they have on your website should be amazing!
Once you have an article that performs well, you should redirect readers towards that article.
Once you build a blog, that blog should be a web of information that traps your readers in never-ending loops.
Give away 99% of your best writing for free.
How to get email addresses:
– Create an email course and give it for free (or not)
– Curate a case study (the best investment book of all time) and give it for free
– Early/exclusive content
– Give templates/worksheet
Chapter 12: How to Make Money Online as a Writer
- Have ads on your blog
- Write behind a paywall (paid content must be even better than free content)
- Sell a product or a service (a book, an online course, a paid newsletter.)
Becoming a professional writer today is in fact becoming an entrepreneur.
Chapter 13: The One Habit You Need to Master to Be Successful
It’s taking action.