It used to be that the only way to be a real writer was to have your writing in print. Newspaper, magazine, novel, anthology—it didn’t really matter what format your writing took, only that it made it to print. The internet has flipped this assumption on its head. There are incredibly successful writers, and people who make their living from writing, who have never had their words printed. Their work survives, thrives, and engages readers across the online world.
Writing online is attainable for writers of all shapes and sizes. This incredible democratization provides opportunities, but also comes with its own set of challenges. Where do you start writing online? Which platforms should you use? How do you develop new ideas? How do you fight the feeling that everything has already been written—and shared somewhere online?
Here are five steps to guide you as you start writing online.
1. Define your goal.
The best projects start with a purpose. Why do you want to write online? Do you want to share your work? Connect with other writers? Build a platform to launch a business, book, or freelance career? Knowing your goal will give you something to work towards and guide your online writing decisions. Check out this post for three steps to define why you write.
2. Decide on your platform.
Once you’ve outlined your goal, you need to choose your platform. There are countless places to write online and some of them will be more effective for certain goals. If you want to build a platform to launch a freelance career, promote your own books, gather email subscribers, or sell products, you’ll probably want to create your own blog. There are a ton of platforms to use, but I recommend WordPress or Squarespace. They’re popular, easy to use, and well supported.
If you want a type-and-go platform that allows you to share your writing, connect with other writers and readers, and that provides examples for applying to writing gigs, Medium is a great option. It will take you five minutes to set up and includes a built-in community of writers and readers to tap into. (I’m also sharing stuff over on Medium!)
There are also more niche options like publishing on LinkedIn, writing caption stories on Instagram, or sharing lengthy posts on Facebook. (Check out these examples of people who are doing it well: Ryan Holmes on LinkedIn, Jenny Bravo on Instagram, Humans of NY on Instagram, Elizabeth Gilbert on Facebook.)
3. Develop an editorial calendar.
Writing online is easy; staying consistent is hard. Life gets busy, things happen, distractions creep in, and you forget to write online. I’m convinced that 80% of what makes creatives successful online is just showing up, day after day, and putting stuff out there. I want you to be one of those successful creatives. Set yourself up with an editorial calendar. Plan out what you’ll be writing and sharing—leaving room for spontaneity, of course—and stick to it. Check out how I use Trello to organize my editorial calendar.
4. Start writing.
You’ve established your goal, chosen your platform, and developed an editorial calendar. Now it’s time to start writing. Set time aside in your schedule for writing. Write whenever you have a minute. Carry a notebook or notes app with you and write down every stray idea. Check out this post for more tips on how to make time for writing. If you feel like what you’re writing is crap, write it down anyways. Then go back and revise until it turns into gold. Remember that most of what you read online has been through multiple rounds of drafting and revision. It rarely comes straight from a writer’s brain all shiny and amazing.
5. Share it.
Now that you’ve gone through all that effort of writing online, don’t forget to share it. Post it on social, tell your friends, and spread the love by engaging with what others are writing.
Now that you’ve got these five steps to kickstart your writing online, check out these tips for making your writing work for the web.
Tips For Effective Writing Online
Keep it short (or long).
There’s an assumption floating around the interwebs that no one reads anymore and online readers can only digest listicles and gifs. But the success of longform platforms like Medium tell another side of the story. Online writing doesn’t need to be short—many sources have actually shown that longer blog posts are shared more. However it’s important to consider the platform that you’re posting on. What kind of content are users accustomed to seeing on that platform? Do your research and make sure that the length of your content fits. (There are exceptions to this—like lengthy Instagram captions—but knowing the standard for your platform will help you understand whether your content is a fit for going against the grain.) Your word count will also vary according to your goals; The Write Practice dives into this (and provides three ideal lengths) in this post.
Organize the content.
When you’re writing online, it’s helpful to set up clear post organization. This can include main headlines, subheads, bullets, and numbered lists. These provide relief for the reader’s eye and allow people to quickly gauge the outline of your piece. Not all articles will work this way, but it’s a good principle to aim for.
Write engaging headlines.
This advice is easy to give, but confusing to implement. What makes a headline engaging? This is still a work in progress for me, but here are a few things I’ve learned so far.
- Avoid the vague. It’s always tempting to give your posts or articles artistic and clever titles. While this may work for print, it’s not a great online strategy. For many readers, your headline will be the only thing they’ll read. Make it clear, concise, and compelling. Tell readers what they’re in for and why reading your post will be worth their time.
- Scope out the competition. Check out what kind of headlines are popular on the platform you’re sharing your writing on. For example, Medium headlines are often sentences or questions written in the first person.
- Just run with it. Most online writing experts agree that writing headlines is part art and part science, so if you’re torn between a few options just follow your instincts. Then watch for audience response and engagement. If the headline flops, you can always change it.
Writing online is like a massive playground where admission is free. You can set up your platform and start writing in a day. You can reach readers all over the world and connect with other writers. You can publish without waiting for someone else’s approval or jumping through hoops to get the ear of an editor. You can go from aspiring to established writer—all without printing a word. So what are you waiting for?
P.S. I still love print.