Seven Foundational Skills You Need to Become a Modestly Paid Writer

Tim Denning

Writing online is Level 1. Doing deep research before writing is Level 100.

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Mistakes were made — God (via twitter)

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Getting modestly paid as a writer has happened to me because I’ve been willing to make mistakes.

I heard somewhere the other day that many people take jobs because they never have to fail in their role. Making money as a writer is the opposite.

These are the skills I would cultivate if you have a goal to make a modest amount of money as a writer.

The ability to put yourself out there

You put yourself out there so others can relate to you. It’s why hiding your real name as a writer behind a pen name rarely works. You can’t relate to a plastic pen. It’s too hard.

Readers want to be able to look up writers they read. They want to see snippets of their life story. They hope to find a LinkedIn page of a writer to see what their career looks like, so they might compare it to their own (I, unfortunately, have done this in the past).

Putting yourself out there is telling the whole story, not only the parts of the story that make you look good or help you feel better about yourself.

The ability to be rejected by publications

I still get rejected by publications regularly. It can really hurt your ego. A rejection on a bad day or right after a family member has died can make you have evil thoughts. Your pride can be put through a blender.

But the better you get at being rejected by publications, the more you will learn. The secret is to find out why you’re getting rejected. If the publication doesn’t tell you why then get creative. Offer to pay the editor for a coaching session based on your writing. Take the editor out to lunch. Find a way to give something to the editor that is of value to them.

The why behind rejection is better than getting upset. The why tells you ya not superman or wonder woman — you’re human. The more you get rejected the more data you have about where you can improve.

Keep this in mind: rejection is just an opinion.

I’ve had publications tell me a story is terrible. Then I’ve published it elsewhere and had it get 50,000 views. In fact many of my best stories were rejected by multiple publications. In the interest of transparency, here is a story that was rejected a lot: The Winklevoss Twins Are Gods Compared to Mark Zuckerberg

Get rejected and keep going. Publications are centered around categories. Your story may be great but it may not fit the category. And your interpretation of a category could be different to an editor’s view.

The ability to put in an hour per day before work

The cliche advice for writers is work hard or write daily. This advice is an idea rather than a strategy.

I recommend writing for one hour before or after work each day. 7 AM works well in the morning, and 8 PM works well for the evening.

The point of writing before and after work is you feel like you’re building something of your own that you have ownership of. The feeling leads you to think and work differently. 9–5 becomes building someone else’s business. Before and after work becomes building your business. The subtle shift in thinking is, oddly, deeply motivating.

The ability to curate stories

Stories are the core technique we use to reach readers. But the superpower isn’t telling stories though. The superpower is getting better at curating which stories to tell — from other people and from your life.

To get better at curating stories I ask myself these questions:

  • What do readers want from me?
  • What topics do I write about?
  • Is this story cliche and overtold already?
  • Can I put a twist on this story?
  • Does the story inspire a reader?

Once you know what you intend to give readers, you can find stories to match.

The ability to do deep research

Some of my worst stories contain no research. Writer Sean Kernan has an entire column on his to-do list for research. It’s no wonder millions of readers find his work addictive.

Research ensures you know what you’re talking about. For example I have seen plenty of writers write about bitcoin. I read one story today that said “don’t buy bitcoin and get ethereum instead because then you don’t need to buy an entire coin for $50,000.” This is poor research. You don’t need to buy an entire bitcoin to own bitcoin. A quick google search would have revealed this truth.

What this lack of research does is destroy a writer’s credibility. Once your credibility is shot no amount of viral hacks, clickbait headlines, or volume of online courses can save you. All you can do is go to the births and deaths office and ask them to change your birth name to another one. I wouldn’t want you to do that to your mommy and daddy.

Protect your credibility with research.

Writing online is Level 1.
Doing deep research before writing is Level 100.

Finding topics to research

Doing research can be a brain drain. Having the motivation to do it is tough. I have a hack you can use.

Pick topics to research that you’re curious about.

I recently did research on Substack. I’m curious about the platform so getting over the resistance to go deep and research the topic was easy. I tried to do the same research on Prince Harry. After 30 minutes I found myself tired and exhausted. Why? I don’t give a shit about royal life deep down.

Curiosity is an excellent compass for what to research.

The ability to teach offline

Non-fiction writing is teaching.

Many writers forget this. “Teacher” is a fancy word. Yet we do it every day in our businesses and day jobs. When a new employee starts you are likely to show them a thing or two. When a person asks you a question in an email, you may give them an answer. All of this is teaching.

You don’t need a degree to teach anymore.

I think of it this way: Books and blog posts are entry-level teaching. Online courses on a topic are in-depth teaching. You can start with entry-level, develop some skill, and then level up to teach a course. A course is just a fancy word for more content.

The foundational skill you need as a writer is to teach, and dare to charge a little money for it. Don’t be ashamed to monetize. You can help people through teaching which feels better than the money.

The ability to promote other writers

This one might seem odd.

Promoting other writers shows humility, generosity and self-awareness. These are the traits of writers who make a lot of money later on. Nobody wants to read the work of an a-hole because it’s a huge turnoff. Promoting other writers reminds you that you’re not the best writer. We all need that reminder every now and then so we don’t get lost in a world of selfishness and “my views are down” … whinge, whinge, whinge.

Strange paradox: When you promote other writers they may promote you too. Even if they don’t, perhaps, they will at least notice your writing.

Opportunities to make money from writing come from strange places. Other writers are one of the best sources. When other writers help you they reinforce their own work as a writer. Community is everything. Be good to other writers and you’ll do well financially.

A modest writing income has one huge downside

A fellow writer publicly accused me of stealing their business model recently. I admired their business and it hurt when I read what they said about me. I was angry for about 15 minutes.

This is what happens when you make money as a writer. You can accidentally upset others who seek to do the same, or who are already doing the same. What do you do about it when it happens to you?

  1. Don’t make enemies.
  2. Forgive them and realize people vent their grievances.
  3. Offer second chances.
  4. Turn a negative into a positive. Misunderstandings turn into some of the best secret opportunities you would never find without them.

Being prepared to be challenged is part of being a paid writer. Thick skin is built by taking what you read, lightly. If you make any amount of money as a writer — especially 6-figures — you are bound to piss a few people off. Let it go. Keep writing. You’re doing the best you can.

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Aussie Blogger with 100M+ views — Writer for CNBC & Business Insider. Inspiring the world through Personal Development and Entrepreneurship www.timdenning.com

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