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You're DOING it Wrong! Reflections on 20 Years of Writing Online

Updated on June 24, 2015
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Peter started writing at age 7 when his mother noticed he'd rather put words than drawings on paper. He has been writing online since 1996.

Random Observations from Two Decades of Writing Online

There are probably a million web pages and articles about "How To Make Money Online" and "How To Earn Income Writing on the Web," so you might be wondering why we need one more. And you might be wondering why I'd bother to write an article with such a strange title.

These are good and valid questions. And to be honest, I can only offer my answers, not the answers. Part of the purpose of this article is to remind us that there is not ONE "truth" to success in the online writing field, just lots and lots of possible perspectives.

What inspired me to write this article was the realization that there is a dearth of misinformation and complete hogwash out there, most of it designed not so much to teach people how to be successful writers, but instead to hype how to "game the system" or use some kind of "magic formula" to create articles and pages of dubious value that serve no real purpose... aside from leading to equal doses of disappointment for both writers and readers.

About the Title of this Article

Now you might be wondering WHY on Earth someone would write an article about writing online, and start off by saying they are doing it "wrong."

Am I really doing it "wrong?"

The point of the article is that I have been writing web content since 1995, following pretty much my own common sense approach, and somehow I seem to have done as well as-- if not better than-- a large number of people who follow some "magic formula" they read about, somewhere.

I come across a lot of folks who spend loads of time creating the "right" content, and writing the "right kind" of articles on the "right topics," using the "right keywords" and studying the "right SEO" and all that good stuff. And then I ponder the strange incongruity that "Ed Bob Pencilhead" has posted his 267 "perfect" articles but has somehow gotten fewer page views in total than I have for my 18 "completely wrong" articles on the same site.

Of course, my articles tend to contain something "Ed Bob's" do not: Real information presented as human beings actually read and use it, and that unquantifiable thing known as "passion about your subject matter." You might think the latter doesn't really matter... but a machine can play Beethoven "perfectly," yet experiments have shown that music aficionados can hear the difference when a human with a passion for Beethoven plays the exact same notes.

The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity
The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity
Julia Cameron's "The Artist's Way" is about creativity, and how to unlock creativity. It has a permanent place on my all-time top-5 list of non-fiction books. It really has relatively little to do with writing, although it contains a number of writing exercises... good old-fashioned "writing by hand" exercises. If you are serious about getting creative "from within" I highly recommend this book... regardless of whether your gig IS writing, or acting, or painting, or sculpting or even public speaking.

I even READ the "Wrong" books...

My favorite book for writing inspiration isn't about writing, at all. It's about creativity. ► ►

It has no advice on "making money," and it contains to handy gimmicks that'll help you deceive search engines into believing that your words are what real users are looking for.

I don't really believe in "writing" books to begin with... even though thousands have been written and some are quite good. If you understand the fundamental mechanics of writing, no book can teach you "how to be a writer." That's something that comes from within, as a result of your own personal journey and experiences. Good writing is much like personalities-- every person has one, and we're all different, so no "cookie cutter" approach is ever as helpful as people hope for.

Evening on Washington state's Puget Sound
Evening on Washington state's Puget Sound

What's Your OBJECTIVE, Anyway?

Do you want to be a WRITER, or do you just want to "make MONEY?"

Someone once asked me why I thought there is so much poor quality writing on the web... and my response was: "Because the majority of people writing web content and articles have little or no interest in the craft of writing."

That statement will probably offend a few people... but think about it, for a moment. A lot of people who get into writing online are "only in it for the money." They have no training, as writers. In fact, if they could make more money "making virtual tacos," that's probably what they'd be doing, instead of writing.

If you are one of the ones who'd rather be making "virtual tacos," then I expect this article will make NO sense to you, whatsoever...

On the other hand, if you love writing-- for writing's sake-- then this might make more sense. Why? Because most authentic writers I've met over the years believe that "quality content" (aka "good writing") represents a significant part of what makes a person interested in reading something-- an article, a book, whatever. Quality matters.

Boats in the Port Townsend Marina
Boats in the Port Townsend Marina

My First "Mistake:" Nobody Reads Long Articles!

I get the above statement tossed at me, all the time.

I have always struggled with the incongruity that evidently, the same web user who happily downloads 50-page research papers from scientific web sites is viewed as incapable of reading (and not interested in) a web page that's more than 250 words long...

Things that make you go "hmmmm...."

Let's examine The Length of Articles, for a moment.

Before we used computers for everything, I used to write copy for sales catalogs, as well as sales letters and newsletters. One of the common truisms from writing "sales copy" was that there are TWO effective approaches: "Snapshots" and "Stories." Note, here, the word "effective." There are 100's of approaches to writing sales copy that "look cool" but aren't effective.

With the "Snapshot" approach, you need a "pitch" to get people's attention, and then you get about 5 seconds or 50 words to make the sale. After that, you lose people. They've already chosen. Don't confuse them with more information. If this is you, get yourself to twitter... not a "writing site."

With the "Stories" approach, you still need a "pitch" to get people's attention, but then you provide them LOTS of information, thereby establishing yourself as "the expert." The objective is to project being a "credible authority," by showing that you know more about the product/service/idea than anyone else. You make the "sale" as a result of portraying yourself-- or "the product"-- from the perspective of being a "trusted authority."

Interestingly enough, "authority" is a concept extensively tossed around in building success on the web. Yet most people seem to overlook the fact that it takes quite a bit of work to build authority. You can't build real or lasting authority by tossing 15-word soundbytes at people.

Apple blossoms in spring
Apple blossoms in spring

People DO Read Long Articles... Examining the length of an article "in context"

Looking back at data from some 5000+ blog posts, articles, web pages and other content (active and defunct) I've personally published between 1995 and the present time, my "most read" pages are consistently the ones that either provide some quick "hit and run facts" or something akin to a "research paper." There's very little in between.

When I limit my scope to only articles and pages that have been viewed more than 10,000 times since being published, their average length is some 2700 words!

Now, you might be asking yourself why so many pundits say 300-500 words is the "ideal" length for a web page... and now I'm claiming long articles are better.

Well, we have to look at the nature of the content. Specifically at whether you are writing "evergreen" content, or a "news update." The shorter format is definitely better for news-- if your story is that Justin Bieber was sighted with a shaved head at the Hard Rock Cafe last Tuesday, that's a short piece. But it also has a short "shelf life." If that's what appeals to you, go be a journalist for a tabloid.

For comparison, writing something significant on the health benefits of Vitamin B12 may be "evergreen" to some degree... let's face it, B12 will probably still have nutritional importance in 2050... but a "short snippet" has nothing going for it to distinguish itself from an ocean of other "short snippets" on the same topic. On the other hand, creating "the most thorough and authoritative report" on Vitamin B12 will have a LOT of staying power because it "stands out," in the ocean of mediocrity.

And if it's good enough, it gains "reputation" and could end up as "recommended reading" among 3rd parties, thereby earning you that elusive and desirable "residual income," resulting from ongoing traffic. It could even end up as a "resource for further reading" in all those colorless "short snippets," other people are publishing.

More pretty flowers. These are fuchsias in my yard.
More pretty flowers. These are fuchsias in my yard.

My Second "Mistake:" You MUST Have the Right Keywords!

This is another popular web myth that frequently crosses my path.

And I read lots of articles about people who spend lots of time and effort doing "keyword research" so they can find just the right keywords "write content to."

I'd like to take a few moments to "deconstruct" this whole debate a little bit.

I love metaphors, so let me start by explaining "the importance of keywords" as a metaphor. It's a bit like saying it is "important" to drive a Porsche because it "goes really fast" when you live in a city where the streets are always clogged with traffic and the speed limit is usually 30 mph, or you live on a farm where a tractor is the most functional vehicle to own. Your statement about the car being fast is 100% correct, but it's "functionally irrelevant" because you can't actually GO fast in the city, nor can you plough a field in a Porsche.

Don't get me wrong, I am NOT against keeping so called keywords and search phrases in mind. In fact, it can help quite a bit. BUT... and this is a big "but"... starting with keywords and then creating content around them is akin to putting the cart before the horse.

Generally Ignored Facts about "hot" and "popular" keywords

First thing to understand about "hot" keywords is that the "hotter" they are, the more "cyclical" they are likely to be. And the more "faddish" your content is likely to be, meaning you might get a lot of traffic in the very short run... but pretty soon, those keywords will have gone "stale."

The second thing to understand about "popular" keywords is that they tend to be highly competitive.

"Yeah, but right now, the Google analysis tool shows that there are two million daily blah, blah, blah...."

Absolutely right! However, if we apply a little industrial psychology to the mix, you're making the false assumption that-- by some "miracle(?)"-- YOU are going to remain without competition. Really??? Not likely.

Bottom line, if you're going to chase "hot" keywords, you are always going to be swimming in a pond with lots of other fish. Which brings us back to one of the core issues of "quality content," that unless you have truly stellar content there's nothing to distinguish you from a bunch of other people writing about the same thing.

In the end, a simple question: Would you rather have almost all the traffic from an esoteric specialty topic that reliably gets 300 hits a month month after month, or a tiny fraction of the traffic from a "hot" keyword that gets 3 MILLION hits a month... spread across 300,000 competing pages?

"Yeah, but mine will be better!"

Really? I have my doubts. The one that will be "better" (aka: gets more traffic) will most likely be the one put there by SONY or WalMart or some other conglomerate that employs a full-time staff of people in $1000 Armani suits to do nothing but tweak pages for SEO optimization. You're just NOT that good... (unless that's what you do for a living... in which case, WHY are you here, reading this article???)

My Third "Mistake:" Your Photos are all Wrong!

I use all my own photography in my articles.

I've been repeatedly told that's "wrong," but mostly I've been told I am doing it wrong because my photos generally are not "about" the subject matter of the article.

OK, that argument makes absolutely perfect sense within the context that if you are writing about Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga you'd be well advised to show a picture of them, properly attributed to the public domain from whence you borrowed said picture. If you are writing instructions for assembling a BBQ grill, show the bits and pieces of that grill.

However, when you are writing about something like "the meaning of life" or psychology, or philosophy (which tends to be most of my work) the function of photos is little more than "pretty decoration," used primarily to break up large blocks of text for easier readability. That being the case, make it pretty, and forget about using some stock photo of a dude scratching his head. "Neutral" is better than "clever," because the latter can be distracting... and you'll lose readers.

I happen to be into nature photography, so I'm going to use many of those images for my articles. Because I think they look nice. I have almost 20 years of scanned images in my personal "stock photo" archives, and because they are all mine I can use them wherever and whenever I want, and modify them as much as I want and never worry about copyright issues. Makes life very easy!

A red poppy, outside my house...
A red poppy, outside my house...

"But I Just Want To Get Paid To Write!" Revisiting your motivations

In my consulting practice, whenever someone comes to me and wants to talk about "getting paid for their writing," I always ask them if it's more important for them to "get paid" or "to write." Of course, the immediate (and flip) answer tends to be "both," but let's take a second look.

The thing is, there's actually a huge difference between "WRITING, and getting paid for it" and "getting PAID to write." In the former, "writing" is the primary motivation, in the latter, "getting paid" is the primary motivation.

If your sincere answer is that you want to "get paid" to write, then-- quite honestly-- your best bet is to go somewhere and become a technical writer; somewhere they give you a "fixed" assignment, and you simply get paid to create writing to a predefined "prompt" of what a client needs. Technical writers actually can earn quite a decent living. So can people who create corporate brochures and newsletters.

Why do I say this? Because if you're not into and passionate about "the writing" you will most likely have a difficult time writing and getting read in a highly competitive field-- writing online-- that's filled with highly talented writers who are "passionate about prose."

The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life (Artist's Way)
The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life (Artist's Way)
Yes, I basically feel that Julia Cameron is the shiznit, when it comes to writing. This book of hers has long been one of my favorites. It's really more philosophical than "connect A to B" and invites you to adopt "the writing life" from which your writing creativity will grow.

One of my Favorite Writing books

OK, so I lied a little bit, earlier on. I do have a few books about writing that I like. But they generally have everything to do with "developing creativity" and very little to do with "making money." ► ►

They also have little to do with "how" to write, but a lot to do with creating the environment and mindset needed to express yourself in writing, and not get stuck in the dreaded world of "writer's block."

More proof that I am basically "doing it wrong." I don't read "how to" books...

But What About the People who make a Living Blogging and Writing?

What about them?

Yes, there absolutely are people who make a good living from blogging, or from their web sites, or from their YouTube channel or even from writing articles... but let's pause for a reality check.

I'm not trying to be "smarmy" here, but "making it" as a writer online is rather like making it in professional sports. There are MILLIONS who dream of making it in the big leagues, but only a few hundred (or maybe a few thousand?) who have the talent, work ethic, skills, time, perseverance and luck to become one of those top contributors.

The vast majority end up disillusioned and disappointed when they discover just how difficult it is. By all means "go for it," but don't get your expectations up too high! And don't forget to ENJOY what you're doing!

Cultivating Niche Authority and Following Your Passions

This article originally appeared on the now defunct revenue sharing site Squidoo, where it was quite "popular," all things considered. Long before I started writing on Squidoo-- and before I even knew he was involved-- I was a fan of Seth Godin, one of Squidoo's founders.

From him, I learned to truly understand the value of "niche expertise." Or rather, I was "reminded," because developing niche expertise is basically a variation on what I was taught in creative writing courses in college, in the early 1980s: "Write What You Know."

The point being that there is relatively little room for "generalists" to become successful, in the writing field. Think about it.

As a READER, are you really likely to be looking for the 872,973rd version of "why a smartphone is useful?" Probably not. So why would you waste your time WRITING such a thing?

Instead, pick an interest (or two), or a passion, or a hobby, or a field of expertize and build your writing around it. Make yourself into the "go to" person within your field of expertise. Even if you don't end up "making a fortune," at least you will be enjoying yourself with something that really interests you, in the meantime!

Thank you!

If you actually made it to here, thank you for reading!

If you enjoyed the article, it would be groovy if you used the nifty social media buttons at left to share with others!
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You're also more than welcome to leave a comment!

If not, that's OK, too.

I am now going to resume my daily business of "doing it wrong..."

© 2015 Peter Messerschmidt


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