How to Grow Your Writing Platform: 6 (Neglected) Principles (That Actually Work)

Paul Maxwell, Ph.D.

Paul Maxwell, Ph.D., writes about theology, mental health, marketing, and fitness. Paul has been writing on PaulMaxwell.co for over a decade.

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When I first started writing in Christian publications like Desiring God, The Gospel Coalition, and Christianity Today, I didn’t know what I was doing. Everything felt like a happy accident. And because I didn’t know what I was doing, I wasted a lot of potential, handicapped my audience growth for years, and leveraged my opportunities in a way that mildly paid off in the short term, and cost me in the long term.

I have crystallized the advice I wish I knew then in 5 tips. I wish I knew these things when I was younger. I really wish I did, because if I had … my entire life would be different today. If you want to be a writer, do your older self a favor and take heed.

Here’s the crazy thing:

Even today, most Christian writers still don’t get it.

But here’s the good news:

You can get it. And it can change your writing career, and it can change your life. Here are the five pieces of advice I wish I had deeply understood when I first began my Christian writing journey seven years ago.

1. Realize That No One Cares About Your Writing

Straight up. Readers are selfish (as they should be). Reading blogs isn’t charity work. It’s “give me value or I’ll go to the next Google result immediately” work. You convert your readers to subscribers by wow-ing them with how much value you add to their life, or they bounce.

Here’s the thing:

It’s liberating that no one cares about your writing. When people land on your page, there’s no obligation, no favors, no pity. Just one question: “Do you have what I’m looking for?” If your writing is self-indulgently autobiographical (you talk about yourself too much), the answer is “No.” If your writing gives outdated, tired, or cliche advice, the answer is “No.” If your writing is boring, the answer is “No.”

No. No. No. Yawn. Goodbye.

That’s everyone’s disposition toward me, and you, and everybody on the internet. All you have are words. No butts. No explosions. No miracles. Just lines and curves on the page, and the degree to which those persuasively represent your ideas. The words better be persuasive. The ideas better be fresh.

“Don’t take for granted the charity of your readers. Your message should be clear (and you should have the quality to back it up): ‘Get on this train, or else you’re missing out.’”

Don’t take for granted the charity of your readers. Your message should be clear (and you should have the quality to back it up): “Get on this train, or else you’re missing out.”

2. Prioritize Reps Over Form

Once you’ve built your strategy, the first year of writing is all about putting in the reps, not focusing on perfect form.

If you’re spending 10 hours writing some gush-piece about your faith experience, you’re doing it wrong. You should focus on high-output, high-efficiency, high-value writing that has a straightforward utility for readers. This doesn’t mean you can’t draw from life experience—or even write about your story. But don’t waste time trying to prove to your College Writing 101 professor that you’re finally a “real writer” by spending all your time shoehorning in vocabulary, metaphors, and writing styles that are too grownup for you.

Most English is too grown up for me. When I start writing about how “the sunlight spilled onto the kitchen floor as I lay there, queerly numb from my forebearance,” I’m just being a smug twit.

Don’t think about how to write better. Think of how to write more. Quality comes with quantity. Not always true. But if you can learn to regularly achieve high-volume output through consistent writing, that consistency will be the runway to reach heights of persuasion, conversion, and authority that no “oops, I haven’t posted in a while” blogger will ever experience.

3. Track Lessons Learned

Nobody is really a great writer. There is good writing and bad writing. Each sentence stands on its own. It’s either informative or it’s not. It’s either an “Aha” moment or it’s not. It’s either funny or it’s not.

Here’s a lie that writers believe:

The more bad writing you produce, the better you get.

This is false. The more bad writing you produce, the more dire is your situation. Most writers remain bad writers their entire life. But if you use your failures as learning moments, your writing will become better and better. You’ll develop instincts. You’ll be able to sniff out a good sentence buried beneath a bad sentence. You’ll begin to build an arsenal of skills.

“That last blog was too aggressive. I need to win over my readers with humor before I introduce an intense point.”

“My writing feels disordered. I need to frontload structure, and rely less on stream-of-consciousness when I begin to write.”

“Everyone who reads my stuff loves it. I have a high conversion rate. But my traffic is low. That probably means that my content is solid, but my headlines are boring. Time to make my titles more clickable.”

“My audience tends to either love or hate my writing. Person 1 loves Blog A and hates Blog B. Person 2 hates Blog A and loves Blog B. That means my audience is too disparate—I need to pick an audience and focus on serving them to get maximum ROI, or split my lists into two audiences and serve them individually.”

If you don’t intentionally turn your failures into lessons learned, your bad habits will burrow themselves in your subconscious, and you’ll forget how to write well. There’s nothing harder to unlearn than a bad habit. Diligently monitor your bad writing sonar screen:

Blip. 

Not funny, add movie reference.

Blip.

Disordered, make central claim clearer.

Blip.

Too long, summarize this paragraph in one sentence.

Blip.

First sentence is too boring, make it pop.

Lessons learned. Keep your eyes open. For the sake of your long-term writing success, it’s do or die.

4. Listen to Your Analytics

You could be William Bo Jangles Shakespeare, but if nobody is reading your content, you’re not doing it right. If your numbers aren’t growing—especially in the first year of your blog—your strategy is incomplete or incorrect.

It’s normal to have low traffic for the first few months of your blog, but after 3 months, you should be playing with at least quadruple digits, both in monthly views and total email subscribers.

If people aren’t visiting your website, that doesn’t mean you have to give up on your brand. But it feels like a kick in the gut to face the facts. Here are a few common reasons you might be struggling to grow your website traffic and email signups as a writer:

  • You’re a boring writer.

  • Your headlines don’t give people a reason to click.

  • Your niche audience is so broad that it’s uninteresting.

  • Your content is too generic (you aren’t saying anything new).

  • You aren’t using your distribution channels well (you use social media to talk all about yourself).

  • Your website is ugly.

  • Your email opt-in fields are too hard to find (you should make it a pop-up, put it on every blog, and put it on your home page).

  • Your email pitch is unattractive (You say, “Sign up for my newsletter!” when you should be saying: “Get this free eBook that [attractive benefit] for [target audience].”

  • You haven’t partnered with enough (or any) other writers in your niche to gain access to their audience and build backlinks to your website.

  • Your writing isn’t SEO rich enough for any topic-relevant keywords for Google to send its hordes of traffic to your site.

Don’t be discouraged by slow (or no) traffic. Find your pain point and solve it. Ask friends and family for honest feedback. Press “Pause” on your ego and make the necessary changes to start driving the right kind of traffic to your blog. The floodgates of traffic can often be opened with a single strategy.

5. Build Your List

What is every writer’s dream? To have 1 million people visit their site every month? Wouldn’t that feel awesome? What if you got 1 million visits to your website in a single day, and then 0 the next day? How would that feel? It would be a major let down.

“That wouldn’t happen,” you say. Here’s the truth: it happens all the time.

I know a guy who had one blog post that went viral. It got over 10 million views in a single weekend. It got picked up by all of the major news outlets—FOX, CNN, MSNBC, and thousands of other Christian blogs. He even got a 5-figure book contract with a major publisher out of it.

>
“Building your email list is the most undervalued endeavor in writing. ”

That was 5 years ago. He didn’t have an email capture device on his website, so nobody was able to subscribe to his email list. He wasn’t optimized to retain any of that traffic. Today, he has the same job. He lives the same life. He spent all his book contract money. And he has a very, very small social media following. He has no email list. He has virtually no website traffic. And he’s never getting another book contract, since his book sold less than a thousand copies.

If he had leveraged that short window of massive traffic, with only a 5% opt-in rate, he could have an email list of over 100,000 people on top of his book contract. Then, he could have marketed his book to them. He could have nurtured his relationship with those readers. He could have used email marketing tools to better understand that audience as he wrote his book in order to write a book that they wanted to read. You can sell sponsorships on a 100,000 person list for several thousand dollars per month.

In my opinion, if he had leveraged those three short days of media attention to build an email list, he would be a millionaire today.

But he didn’t. And he should have. I know several writers personally who have used this exact strategy—prioritizing their email list and focusing on building value within their brand, rather than being dependent on other brands for value—who have become millionaires in the past 2 years.

And that’s what you should be doing. Building your email list. It is the most undervalued endeavor in writing. Build your list, nurture your relationship with those people, and make it the gravitational center of your business model.

6. Have a clear monetization strategy

Once you have an audience, it’s important to know exactly how you want to monetize them. Most writers make the mistake of trying to sell to their audiences (“Please buy my book!!! I’ll give you a free chapter!”). This is a very short-sighted monetization approach, because very few people want to buy books, and very few people will buy your second book.

Don’t see your audience relationship as a source for you to use for your own short-term gain. If you did that in a one-on-one relationship, that relationship wouldn’t last long (we all know those network-y types). Here are a few ways to monetize your email list without asking them to buy a single thing:

Affiliate Products

Register on Amazon for an affiliate account, and Amazon will give you a portal through which you can create custom links to any product on Amazon. If someone buys any product through your link (or any other product on Amazon by clicking that link), you will get anywhere from 4%-10% of that sale (as of 2020). With affiliate links, you can recommend products (“Here’s what I’m using”), which can itself be seen as a value-add, even though you’re benefiting. But you’ll have to disclose in the footer of your email or website that you use an affiliate account.

Affiliate Services

Service-marketing is different than product-marketing, and often pays more. While Amazon offers a lower percentage on a million products, digital services (like Envato Elements) will offer you up to 50% on high-price products, resulting in a lower click-volume, but a much higher financial ROI.

Sponsorships

Either by introducing yourself to marketing directors of companies that serve your niche, or through cold-emailing those same marketing departments, you can leverage your list (“I have 5,000 pastors interested in buying tech-related products”) to sell single-email or month-long sponsorships (or any package you please). If you can pair this with a banner ad on your website, or podcast ad reads, then you can create a high-value product that you’re selling to companies, rather than your audience.

Partnerships

Other writers in your space might be willing to pay for space on your platform in order to gain exposure to your audience. If you sell this space as a premium, or trade it for a sponsorship deal with their brand so that they pitch your products, then you can once again angle your monetization strategy as a genuine value add (to both your audience and theirs).

With monetization strategies like these, you can build your list faster by building a reputation for being genuinely helpful, and leverage the growth rate and size of your list to earn increasing and recurring revenue for your brand month-over-month.

Conclusion

If you take seriously these five pieces of advice, your writing career will thrive. You will generate large amounts of traffic to your site, you will not get bogged down in the discouragement of low traffic, and Google will quickly come to value you as an authority in your niche. In my opinion, these five pieces of wisdom are the difference-makers for pro writers that become millionaires, and those who diminish into hobbyists.

Which do you want to be?

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