I assume that you want to be a successful writer. And, if you’re reading this, that means you are trying to learn how to be a successful writer. That already puts you in the top 1%. But financially successful writers are in the top .01%.
Most authors are wasting their time. You can tell they’ll never be more than gig-to-gig bloggers. They’ll never build an audience. They’ll never achieve real creative fulfillment.
How do I know? It shows in their writing. They’re purposeless. They write about themselves. They presume that the reader is interested in what they’re saying before they’ve said anything interesting.
Here’s the thing:
It really is possible to make a lot of money as a writer. It is 100% a science. And if you diligently apply these principles below, it’s highly likely you will find both creative fulfillment and financial success through your writing.
First things first: we need to unpack the fundamentals of high-impact writing, making money through writing, building the right audience, and doing it with a conscience—all in the Christian marketplace.
After we’re finished, you’ll no longer be intimidated by that blinking cursor on your blank MS Word page. You’ll be able to stare that thing down, and finally be able to:
Convert readers into loyal fans with powerful words
Know exactly what kind of success you want
Feel confident in your ability to achieve personal success through writing
Achieve a new financial reality for yourself through writing
Let’s take apart the engine of high-performance writing and put it back together. When we’re done, you’ll embark on a more effective, more purposeful, more successful writing enterprise than you’ve ever dreamed.
1. Have a Singular Purpose
It’s commonly said: “The hardest part of writing is starting.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. The hardest part of writing is to reach your goal with your writing. And this is what most writers want.
The hard part is achieving the long-term payoff for “starting” and finishing again and again and again without wasting your time. Common goals in writing are:
Building a large audience.
Gaining web traffic to sell a product.
Getting a book contract.
You can pick multiple goals, but it’s important to pick one at a time. For example, building authority is part of building a large audience. At the same time, the process of building a large audience can be the very process that forges you into an authority in your space.
In the same way, building a large audience is critical to making money through your writing. However, most people are confused about what their goal really is. Some people want to make money by becoming an “influencer” by gaining tons of followers. There’s nothing wrong with this goal. But people with this goal often have no interest in building authority in a specific space. And, even if they do, they don’t know how to productize that authority to generate revenue, and eventually profit.
The most commonly confused goals are audience and profit. Many writers want to gain an audience because they want to write for a living. But it’s very possible to have hundreds of thousands of followers and still barely scrape by in the rat race of freelance work. They have no conception of the mechanics eCommerce, scale, profit margins, and high-return marketing tools.
Conversely, many writers tell themselves that they want to make money online, but don’t know the basic mechanics of list building, search engine optimization (SEO), and eCommerce. In other words, they know what they want, but don’t know the skills they need to get there.
Whatever your goals is, know it. Don’t tell yourself one thing when you mean another. Ask yourself this question:
“Where do I want to be in 5 years, and how does my writing help me to get there?”
Have a very clear answer to that question in your mind. Sell yourself on it. Because there will be many hopeless nights, low-traffic launches, and discouraging seasons that will hammer you into the ground. Clutching your sustainable, big, measurable vision is the only thing that will carry you through the dark, discouraging road of building your audience.
2. Don’t Be Embarrassed About Building a Platform
If you’re offering value, people will want it. People only disdain self-promotion when there’s no payoff. Not everybody will see the value in everything you write, but you will either earn a reputation as a writer who can be trusted to say valuable things, or a writer who wants followers just ‘cuz.
Good marketing only makes bad writers fail faster. But bad marketing is the single greatest reason that most fantastic writers never build a real following. If you are embarrassed by self-promotion, there are a few remedies. But none entirely. You can find subtle ways of self-promotion, such as guest blogging on other platforms and qualifying your social media with false modesty. But at the end of the day, if you don’t promote yourself, you are the one kneecapping your own writing before it has a chance to stand on its own.
Marketing for your writing is like milk for a baby. If you don’t focus on professionalizing your brand and promoting your content to acquire as much traffic as possible, your analytics will always look oddly unhealthy. George Washington (or someone—who cares?) once said: “If I had 6 hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend 4 of them sharpening my axe.”
Writing without a forceful effort toward marketing is like trying to chop down a redwood tree with a butter knife. God may strike it with lighting and give you exactly the results you want without doing any self-promotion … But probably not.
Throw yourself into the discipline of marketing. Learn it. Adopt its language. Poor marketing is the #1 killer of writing careers. If you want to maximize your chances at becoming the 1% of writers who are financially self-sustaining, become an excellent marketer.
3. Find Your Voice
Your voice is the persona you embody in your writing—your tone, trademark vocabulary, repeated metaphors, headline strategy, problem-solving style, and personality. Are you an agitator? Are you an educator? Are you a mentor? Are you an industry leader? Are you an adventurer? As you write, and as you strategize your writing journey, you need to be keenly aware of your unique recipe.
As a writer, your voice is the first thing about you that your readers will experience. That reader’s experience will either be unintentional, or it will be a product of your strategy that helps you to reach your writing goal.
There are two variables that compose your voice—your branded voice, and your dynamic voice. Your branded voice is your crafted experience that enables you to build trust with readers. Your branded voice gives readers a reason to think:
“I like this person.”
“They get me.”
“I want to read more of what they’ve written.”
Your voice is a malleable part of your brand. As you write, it will change. As you write, you will change. This is the dynamic part of your voice—the part that becomes sharper, better, smarter, more eloquent, and more strategic. Your dynamic voice gives your readers a reason to think:
“This explains everything.”
“I’ve always felt this way, but nobody has ever put it into words.”
Always keep one eye on your voice—both the strategic (branded) and the evolving (dynamic) elements that compose your reader’s unique user experience of your writing.
4. Know Your Blind Spots
Every writer has blind spots. Grandiose writers who speak dogmatically about complex subjects usually don’t have any readers. Readers are always roving like sentinels to correct authors for every little mistake. Nothing will kill your blog faster than speaking as if you see the whole picture without the credibility to back you. “Just trust me” isn’t a strategy. “Let me show you” is the only strategy that persuades, converts, and creates loyal readers.
But there’s a hidden strength in knowing your blind spots. If you understand your niche audience (which you should), they likely have blind spots, too. This gives you the opportunity to fill in the gaps and write about it.
This happened in the early 2000s when Christian writers were downplaying the role of human emotions in the Christian life. John Piper came out with his bestselling book Desiring God that placed an emotional experience at the heart of the Christian life. Love it or hate it, it was a fantastic writing strategy. If you can position yourself as the guy or girl with the telescope, standing on the bird’s nest, prophetically speaking to an issue that has been neglected or overcomplicated, do that.
Be a student of your blind spots, and write from that. If you don’t, you’ll either fall into uninformed grandiosity or tired cliche, both of which will repel your readers to bounce away and never return.
5. Hone Your Audience
Christian writers often make the mistake of writing to a “general market.” Here’s the problem—and traditional publishing houses like Penguin and Harper Collins have already figured this out—only celebrities perform well in the “general market.” Major celebrities can write about anything, often called a vanity project, and fans will purchase the book, or read the blog.
The only reason anyone else ever sells a book is because they have established themselves as an authority or expert on a subject, and have a loyal or interested audience to whom they have direct access through an email list or subscriber base.
Unless you’re Tim Tebow reading this book (Hi, Tim!), you need to understand your audience, what they’re looking for, and what kind of credibility they’re looking for in writers that they loyally read.
Know who you want to reach. Ask yourself critical questions that help you get a better sense of who they are so that you can more persuasively write to them. For example, answer the following questions to hone your audience:
How old are they?
How are they consuming your content—computer or mobile?
How are they finding you?
Why would they keep reading you?
Are they Christians—if so, how long have they been Christians?
What kind of church do they go to? What are their spiritual habits like?
Why are they reading your blog?
If you have multiple answers to each of these questions, then create multiple audience avatars to better inform your writing strategy long-term (65 year-old Baptist Betty, 20-year old Charismatic Frank, etc.).
6. Set Your Goals
Arnold Schwarzenegger famously said: “If you’re training for nothing, you’re wasting your time.” He was training to be the youngest ever Mr. Olympia—and he did it. Later in his life, his goals became project-specific as he trained for certain roles—Terminator, Commando, Batman & Robin (…let’s forget that one).
That’s what success looks like. What does failure look like? It’s easy to see. Just look around you. Look at every failed writer, blogger, book-proposer, podcaster, and YouTuber. Every single obscure content creator you know is proof that failure to set goals gives way to failure to realize your dreams.
Set specific, measurable goals that enable you to track whether your writing efforts are giving you what you want. It’s important to remember that. You aren’t a slave to your writing. Writing is a tool to realize what you want. Call it a vocation. Call it a calling. The real truth is that writing is just a tool, and you’re either using it to build a new reality for yourself, or you’re not.
Marketers call these measurable goals “key performance indicators” (KPIs). Common KPIs are:
Email list size
Book contract acquisition
Growth rate across multiple KPIs (X over time)
Pick the KPIs that are most directly related to your core purpose for writing, and track those KPIs diligently. It’s critical to your success as a writer that every quantitative goal you have (numbers, sales, subscriptions) also has a chronological goal (measured over time). X views by August. X subscribers by next week. Book contract by July 1.
If X is your quantitative goal and Y is your chronological goal, then you can track whether your efforts are succeeding or failing. Every X needs a Y. Every goal needs a deadline. Every worthwhile KPI should give you a sense of urgency. If it doesn’t, it’s ineffectively small. And if you aren’t willing to set up this business model, you will fail.
On the other hand, if your goal is too big, then you’re just sowing the seeds of your own discouragement. Don’t set yourself up for an emotional crash by building a wall that you can’t smash through. Don’t be the karate guy who tries to kick through 10 bricks and ends up breaking his hand. Set a goal that is high enough that it makes you nervous, but small enough that you could realistically attain it.
7. Learn from Your Competitors
In the Christian writing space, we don’t like to think of “competition.” In a sense, there’s not. In another sense, people only have so much time to read—and if they have to choose between reading someone else and reading you, you want them to read you.
More importantly, you need to get a sense of what’s working for similar writers, brands, books, blogs, and podcasts so that you can avoid their errors and set yourself apart. Ask yourself important diagnostic questions that will help you to avoid their mistakes and capitalize on their lessons learned:
What do I want to borrow from them? Vocabulary? Ideas? Marketing strategies? Common calls to action?
How do I want to be different than them?
How does our shared audience respond to X? Politics. Theological ideas. Bible verses. Devotional literature. Instructive posts. Book reviews. Historical reflection. Sermons. In other words—what forms of content work, and what don’t?
What mistakes have they made while building their brand?
What strengths do they exhibit that I can translate to my own writing?
The purpose here isn’t to do a takedown of other brands. You simply want to take a marketshare the audience they’ve already built so that you can offer that audience a fresh take on the world in exchange for their readership.
Once you’ve seriously considered these realities, you are ready to start building a strategy to launch your venture as a writer. If you fail to do these things, then you’ll fail to write anything important for anyone in particular. The unavoidable end of unaware writers is generic content—and there is nothing people avoid more than generic content.
People don’t read content for fun. They read content to learn. They read content to be inspired. High-impact writing that attracts an audience gives readers a new way of looking at the world that benefits them. You won’t be able to accomplish this unless you know why you’re writing, why your readers are reading you, who you’re writing to, what your goals are, or how your competitors have failed and succeeded.