Blogging

What I Learned From Writing 325,000 Words In 12 Months, Becoming A Professional Blogger & Building A $3,500 Per Month Business

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If this time last year you would have told me that I was going to be a professional blogger, I’d have had two words for you:

Yeah, right!

I'd never been featured on another blog, nobody had ever paid me for my writing and I was still selling shoes in a shop. Because, that’s what travellers do to get by, isn't it?

Fast-forward and here I am, sat in my nice new office chair, sipping some coffee, earning money whilst I type.

It’s amazing what can happen in year, right?

I’ve been able to:

  • Get featured on over 30 blogs
  • Build a $3,500 a month business
  • Write 325,000 words (trust me, I went through and counted every article!)

And, it’s taught me a lot. About how to write and how to market and how to make a business work for the long term. Now, I’d like to share what I’ve learned with you.

Here's What You'll Learn:

  • How to add at least one minute to your on-page time
  • The simple guide to the perfect blog post
  • Easy ways to get at least 2.3x more shares on social media
  • Why the best blogger is the best thief
  • The one question you need to answer for an epic blog
  • You’re also going to learn about the mistakes I made and the hurdles I jumped
  • And some of the most important lessons that – I hope – will make a difference in your business, too.

If you’re ready, come with me as we explore what I’ve learned over the last 325,000 words, and how it can help you:

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#1: Research Is Vital

You can’t just say stuff on the Internet nowadays. Opinions are a dime-a-dozen and they're easily forgotten.

Readers are now looking for proof:

  • Data
  • Studies
  • Links
  • References
  • Quotes

Anything that can back up what you said and give them a reason to believe it. Because, in a world of penis-pills and Get Rich Quick schemes, readers have become a little sceptical.

In fact, through Buffer’s own research into the subject they found research driven content performed 40% more effectively than blog posts without it.

And this study that over one week of reading, data driven content was remembered more than content driven by story.

That doesn’t mean you can’t share your opinions, or tell stories. In fact you definitely should. But if you want your readers to:

  • Remember your posts
  • View you as an authority
  • Believe what you’re saying

You need to use data and research to back it up.

alexturnbull

"Data and research can make your argument stronger, build your credibility with your readers and create more memorable content." - Alex Turnbull, CEO Groove 

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#2: Want To Write? You Need To Live

A lot of bloggers make one big, worrying mistake:

They sit at home and think about what to write.

Which is probably how you picture most bloggers, isn’t it? Stuck behind a desk, furiously trying to drum up their next post.

But in all honesty, the best bloggers go out there and live their subject. They make mistakes, they try new things and they create new stories for themselves.

If you want to create boring, run of the mill content that nobody remembers, feel free to sit at home behind your desk and think about what you can write next.

But if you want epic content, the stuff that people remember, it’s time to get up from behind your desk and start living.

If I’m honest with you, I made this mistake for a good while. But once you step into your topics, not only does your content improve – so does your audience size.

#3: A 2,000 Year Old System For The Perfect Blog Post

When you write a lot of content, you want the systems you use to be short and sweet. Because, it’s already mentally draining enough.

But all of the research out there on how to write blog posts is really long winded and full of hundreds of different variables:

Not this one.

This format for a blog post comes from a 2000 year old presentation technique, written by Aristotle himself. And, it’s used by public speakers around the world.

It comes in three simple steps:

  1. Tell them what you’re going to tell them: Start your blog post with what you’re going to say, and why they should care.
  2. Tell them: Get stuck right into the meat of the post and tell them everything they need to know.
  3. Tell them what you told them: In your conclusion recap everything you’ve written about. And, put a nice little call to action in there to make them engage.

You might be thinking, “That’s just too damn simple!”. But like all things, the simple ideas are the best ones.

For me, it’s resulted in more comments than ever before. Like this 65 comment post for Matt Woodward:

Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 09.55.00

Or this 41 comment post right here on Nichehacks:

Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 09.57.51

By applying this method, you make sure that your readers stay on your page, take value from you post, and remember the key takeaways.

You couldn’t ask for much more!

#4: Keep It Simple (And Boost Your On Page Times)

I get a lot of stick for my writing. As in, some people complain that my writing is a little, well…basic.

But I’m okay with that. Because I do it for a reason.

Firstly, I’m a local lad from Manchester, England. This is how I’d talk to my friends and family, so it’s exactly how I’m going to talk to you too.

Secondly – and more importantly – it’s because people respond to it. It’s easy to read, easy to understand and it makes reading it a lot more fun. Even great novelists, like George Orwell, used simple language to his advantage.

But, like I said, research is vital, right? So here’s what it’s done for me…

It’s given me the lowest average bounce rate of any of the Nichehacks writers (by almost 4%):

Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 10.02.13

And, it’s given me one of the best average on page times of the team too:

Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 10.01.26

And, a lot of my more recent posts - since I first penned this article - have on page times of 04:30 or higher. (But trying to get a screen cap of that from Stuart is like getting blood from a stone ;) )

This isn’t to say I’m better than any of the other writers, not at all. For example, Jawad absolutely trumps me in social shares. What I am trying to say is that simple language is really effective. And the more accessible your writing is, the better the results you'll have.

Here's a few questions to ask yourself to make sure you have the simplest text possible:

  • Is this what I’d say in real life?
  • Could I use any simpler, shorter words?
  • Can everyone who reads my blog understand this?

When you nail this down you’ll see a big spike in on page time, the comments on your posts and how much information get’s retained.

Note: The above images are screenshots from the writer stats Stuart sent to all the writers. Other contributor’s data has been kept hidden because I respect their privacy.

#5: An Image Is Worth A Thousand Words

Sometimes it’s easy to overlook how powerful images are in your blog posts. Because, as a blogger, you always want to say it with your words.

But there are some amazing benefits to using images in your posts:

If that’s not a compelling argument to use images , well, I don’t really know what it is.

So why does this happen?

Scientifically, images are processed 60,000x faster than any other type of content. And they're 90% of the information your brain processes. Which means that in blogging, seeing really is believing.

That doesn’t mean you should start randomly adding images into your posts though. You should pay close attention to:

  1. Relevancy: Does it fit, or enhance, the content you’ve created?
  2. Quality: Is the image of a high quality that your audience wants to share?

If you’re wondering how many images you should be using for each of your posts, research by BuzzSumo shows that you should have one image for every 75-100 words.

Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 15.14.59

noahkagan

"Having at least one image in your post leads to more Facebook [And Twitter] shares" - Noah Kagan, OK Dork

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#6: Always Have One In The Chamber

This is a lesson I’d wished I learned earlier on in my writing career; and a mistake I don’t want you to make for yourself.

Always be sure you have more content than you actually need.

By that I mean:

  • If you need four posts this month, write five
  • If you need 12 posts this month, write 13

Why should you do this? Well, it’s pretty simple. You never know when you’re going to get sick, be struck by writers block or want to take a vacation. By writing one extra post a week and saving it away, the content you have can soon mount up.

For example, if your posting schedule is one post per week and you were to write one extra a week, over a year you would have 52 extra blog posts.

All spare posts that could be used for:

  • Times you can’t post
  • Guest posting
  • Doubling how much you post per week

Another big benefit here is that if you do this, you end up with enough content that you focus on marketing without having to worry about writing a single post.

Your blog can never have too much quality content; and we all want more free time. Make an investment – like a content saving account – and reap the rewards when you need them most.

#7: There Is No Better Endorsement Than A Guest Post

It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to grow a blog, a freelance writing business or new site in any niche – guest blogging is powerful. I’ve written a lot about the benefits of guest posting here on Nichehacks; both as an Ultimate Guide and a traffic boosting strategy.

But even if I put traffic generation aside, guest posting is a great endorsement for you as a writer and a niche authority:

Because if people see you on a site they trust, they’ll trust you too.

Let’s take a look at my first ever guest post, 5 Steps To Defining Your Own Success, on Addicted2Success:

Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 14.40.20

This post not only brings me in freelance work on a regular basis, but it makes life easier when I’m pitching for work too. Like when I wrote to the owner of a personal development site, and I got this email back:

Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 14.38.55

It took the hard sell right out of pitching to him and got me a straight pathway through onto his site. All from one post!

When you’re trying to grow – whether that’s income, traffic or your personal brand – there is nothing more valuable than a well-placed guest post. Because whilst it might not give you instant return, in the long run, you’ll make a much bigger name for yourself.

#8: Tune Into Radio WIIFM For Epic Content

No, this isn’t some super-secret content writers radio station that you never knew about. Although if that did exist, it might be a little like Fight Club and I can’t talk about it…

Actually, this is a technique I first learned from one of the world’s great copywriters, Andy Maslen. He says that all your readers are transmitting on exactly the same frequency, and you need to tap into that:

“What you reader want’s to know, what every reader wants to know, is the answer to a very simple question:

What’s in it for me?”

In every piece of content you create, the reader doesn’t care about what you’re interested in; they care about what they are interested in. And, if you don’t give it to them, then they wont pay attention to what you publish.

A great example of a blog doing this well is Canva’s Design School.

They recently ran a 60-day experiment where they overhauled their blog strategy and changed how they create content.

At first they were writing about what they thought their designers wanted:

  • In depth tutorials
  • Font pairing guides
  • Other designer stuff I don’t understand

And while they were getting good traffic – they are a huge platform after all – they knew their rates of shares, comments and traffic could be much better.

So they changed their strategy to focus on going out and finding what their audience actually wanted. They asked them, they researched them and they found the content they were dying to read.

The results? Their traffic grew by 226.47%, and got 70,000 shares on their first viral article.

All by making a simple shift in thinking, and answering the audience’s question, “What’s in it for me?”

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#9: People Will Hate Your Work (And That’s Okay)

I’ve written articles for lots of people, across lots and lots of different audiences. And one harsh truth always pops up:

There is always one person who hates what you’re doing.

Whether that’s writing a blog post, recording a podcast or quitting your job and going out on your own. Someone, somewhere, will have something negative to say about it.

Like this guy:

Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 15.26.27

In fact, I recently cut a group of four or five people out of my life in the last few months; because they thought me becoming a freelance blogger was “weird”.

Do you know what you need to say to people like that, though?

Screw you.

If your content – or life choices – are pushing people’s buttons it’s a sure sign that you’re making the right decisions. That what you’re doing really matters.

Marketing legend, Seth Godin, once spoke about how the worst feedback you could ever get, is indifference. That if someone doesn’t love or hate what you’re doing, you’re not achieving anything.

And he’s right. Don’t guard yourself against what people might say or do or think or feel. Instead write what you know, write what you care about and your audience will grow.

Or, to put it in philosophical words:

RDJ

“Listen, smile, agree, and then do whatever the f#!k you were gonna do anyway” - Robert Downey Jr.

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#10…But Pay Close Attention To Feedback

There will be helpful critics along the way who want to point out things that you’re doing well, or not so well.

Listen to them.

On my first ever blog – sadly, it’s long since been deleted – I wrote an article about fear and becoming a better person. I put a lot of myself into the piece and I was really happy with it.

Then I got a comment that I will never forget:

“James,

This is an excellent post; you’ve addressed my feelings on fear and how to cope with it perfectly.

But I just can’t bring myself to read your damn posts anymore. You have too many typos, grammatical errors and run-on sentences than I can handle. It’s a shame because you’re such a good writer, but you need to put more care into your work.”

Ouch.

It was harsh truth for me but I needed to hear it. I’d become complacent in my writing, and would just finish a blog post and then whack it up on my site. So, I decided to factor editing time into my writing process and instantly saw a massive improvement in my skills.

Later, I even wrote to the guy to thank him.

Not every critic is out there to get you; some of them are just trying to help you in their own way. And if you take this insight on board and use it, you could have a better:

  • Blog
  • Niche Site
  • Email List
  • Engaged audience

Feedback leads to improvement; with improvement comes a better service; and a better service leads to more cash in your back pocket.

#11: The Best Blogger Is The Best Thief

There was a saying when I used to be a soccer coach:

“The best coach is the best thief”.

What it means is that if you see someone – another coach - doing something better than you, use it yourself!

The same applies to blogging.

Now, I’m not saying you should go out and rip off all of your competitors. What I’m saying is, if you find your competitors are doing something take the time to see:

  • Why it works
  • Whether it fits your audience
  • How you can make it even better

Let’s take Brian Dean’s Skyscraper Technique as an example. The one that increased his blog traffic 110% in a matter of days.

All you’re really doing is taking someone else’s content, improving on it, leaving your mark and sending it back out into the blogosphere.

You’re reverse-engineering what works, and making it work for you.

Brian was actually pretty blunt about what the method is in this guest post over at OkDork:

Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 09.46.39

But this is now a staple of creating content on the Internet. Because it gives you, the blogger, the perfect chance to:

  • Add more value to your readers
  • Boost your blog traffic
  • Create more evergreen content
  • Become more of an authority

Now any writing purists might be thinking, “But, that’s not right!”. Because the content isn’t, well…new. And for you, I’d like to point you to this point from Danny Brown:

“There is zero new content on the social web today. Instead, blogs, videos, podcasts, etc., are merely re-imagining everything that has come before. Originality is a long-gone word and recyclability is the “new original”.”

Basically, no matter what you come up with, there is already a version of that content out there; even if it’s in the darkest corners of the Internet.

What makes your content stand out is that you wrote it, from your own experience, with your own data from your own perspective.

#12: A Blogger Needs To Be Three Things (But Two Of Them Will Do)

I’m a big fan of the author, Neil Gaiman. His commencement speech at the University of the Arts is something anyone with a creative bone in their body should watch.

In it he says that people looking to be a success should be made up of three different components:

  1. Your work should be on time
  2. It should be great quality
  3. It should always be great to hear from you

Which, I think you’ll agree, should be the baseline for any sort of business venture. But as he points out you can have any combination of two and still be successful:

  1. It doesn’t matter if your work is late, if it’s great quality and always on time
  2. It doesn’t matter if you’re a dick, as long as the work is on time and it’s always great quality
  3. And it doesn’t matter if the work isn’t great quality, as long as it’s on time and it’s great to hear from you

That last point is the one I want to focus on the most because it really applies to bloggers.

Being a successful blogger doesn’t mean you’re a great writer. In fact, a lot of bloggers suck at writing. But it’s not their writing skill that makes them successful.

It’s the fact that they have great relationships with their audience and they share their content at the right times. Which I feel is the approach all of us – great writers or not – should take to our blogs.

If you develop a connection with your audience and have a solid content strategy, the writing side of the job doesn’t really matter.

As long as you know how to spell check and structure a sentence, that is.

#13: You’re Not Finished Once It’s Published

This is a trap I fell into for a long time:

Writing my post, hitting publish, sharing it on Facebook and then doing nothing else with it.

What I neglected to notice – and I’m sure you have done at some point ­– is that blog posts go through four stages:

  1. Planning: Where you’re generating ideas, thinking of content, and making a note of what you want to write about.
  2. Writing: Where you sit down – usually with half a gallon of coffee – and write your post.
  3. Distribution: Where you put your blog post out into the world and try to get as many people as possible to read it.
  4. Recycling: Where you find a new way to spin your content or repurpose it so you can give it an extra lease of life. Like turning your Blog Post into a Podcast episode or Infographic.

Now as a beginner blogger you’re usually pretty good at stages one and two. You have a brain full of content ideas and you have the tools in place to write them down.

It’s usually the third stage, distribution, where it all starts to fall apart. Because after you’ve shared it once on social media, you’re not quite sure what to do with it.

But the distribution phase is the most important phase of all. Because if you’re not putting your blog content in front of anybody, how are you going to help them?

Also, if you want to find out if you’re distributing your blog correctly, you can take this little quiz Stuart created just for you.

#14: If In Doubt, Write A List Post

I’ve written about 325 articles in the last year, which I hope you’ll agree, is no small feat. And those articles have spanned across all the different types of posts:

  • Case studies
  • Opinion pieces
  • How To’s
  • Tutorials
  • List posts
  • Interviews
  • FAQ’s

If you can think of a type of post, I can probably find a client I’ve written one for at one time or another. But there is one type of post that I know will perform well every single time:

List posts.

Every blog in the history of the Internet is looking for the two exact same elements:

  1. Traffic
  2. Social Shares

And this is the only style of post that guarantees you’re going to get both of those in one form or another.

Let’s look at the data:

List posts are the most shared written content on the Internet. In fact when Noah Kagan studied 100 million articles he discovered that, after Infographics, lists were shared almost twice as much as any other post:

Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 13.49.10

And, articles with 10 points were shared four times more than choosing another number too.

As for traffic, Neil Patel used list posts to great effect to increase Crazy Egg’s traffic by 206%:

Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 14.01.54

And if you Google why you should write lists post, you’ll find nothing but pages and pages of authorities telling you how they’ll boost your traffic, and why they’re the best thing since sliced bread:

Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 14.06.59

The results don’t lie, do they?

But this doesn’t mean you should put together a crappy list post just to fill a void. You need to make sure your list post has some real value, or else your audience won’t share it at all.

Ask yourself some of these questions before writing your post:

  • Does it have a clear point?
  • Does this post add value to my readers?
  • Did I go in depth on each of my points?
  • Have I used shareable images?
  • Does my post have a call to action or conclusion?
  • Is it targeted to a part of audience likely to share?

These all might seem a little common sense, but you’d be surprised how often all of these points (such as adding an introduction and conclusion) can be overlooked when putting together a post.

In any case, list posts are the ultimate failsafe for your content creation needs.

nP

"The whole purpose of a list post is for someone to digest the information quickly. This means if your post isn’t scannable, you’re doing something wrong." - Neil Patel, QuickSprout

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#15: Focus On The First 50 Words

Let me make this super simple and clear:

Your first 50 words decide if someone reads the rest of your article or not.

So if your introduction – including your headline – doesn’t grab your reader’s attention and give them a reason to keep going, you may as well have not written a single damn thing.

It’s harsh, but it’s true. Welcome to the Internet, folks!

Think of it this way:

Your reader’s most valuable currency is time. And, with your article, you’re asking them to invest that currency in your article. If it doesn’t look like they’ll get a return on the investment, they’re going to stop reading before they lose any more of it.

So you have to prove to them that your content is worth that investment.

If you want to learn how to write headlines, I suggest you take a trip over to this post I wrote, filled with over 40 copy and paste formulas.

But before you do:

You also need to know how to write a killer introduction that will keep people on your page. This is a simple method from Brian Dean that he used to boost his on page time to over 4 minutes:

Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 14.42.23

The APP method is a great formula if you’re really not sure how to start an article, and it almost guarantees a drop in your bounce rate. Especially if people are coming across from Google.

It’s made up of three components:

  1. Agree: Give your audience a point to agree within your opening statement, such as:“I’m sure you’ll agree, writing introductions is hard”
  2. Promise: Make them a promise that you’ve got the answer to all of their problems:“But with the APP Method, you’re going to learn how to boost your on-page time by at least two minutes”
  3. Preview: Tell them what you’re going to tell them:In this post, I’m going to show you just how to implement that method in three simple steps”

Bingo! You’ve got a well-written introduction that – in the shortest amount of time possible – tells your reader that if they invest the time you, they wont be disappointed.

#16: Don't Ask Too Much Of Your Content

I once had a client who was a well-to-do personal development coach. He'd decided to move his business online and wanted to build a content marketing strategy to help him get more clients.

He contacted me about writing for him, I quoted him a price and he gave me a topic to write a test article about.

I wanted to be sure of what I was getting so I asked, "How are you going to know if the test piece has performed well?", to which he replied, "I think it needs to bring at least 4,000 new people to my site, get me one $500 a month client and help me acquire a columnist spot on the Huffington Post".

I was in shock. The guy had no following, nobody knew he was online, there was no mailing list in place and he had no real channels to distribute it through.

That was a lot to ask from your first ever blog post; so it's safe to say I didn't take the piece.

You'd be surprised how common it is to ask too much of your content, though. You expect each piece to be a:

  • Viral hit
  • Powerful lead magnet
  • Backlink generator
  • Mailing list converter

And you create your content with this in mind. But, the truth is, your content suffers because of it.

Look:

Content that's not built around adding value or building trust with your reader is an absolute waste of time. At the core of everything you create needs to be your audience and what they want. Once you have that in place you can begin to optimise it for Google, figure out how to help it get shared or find ways to help get people on your mailing list.

Stuart is a shining example of doing this to success.

Take a look at the this snapshot from the one year progress report:

Screen Shot 2015-05-22 at 08.40.10

Stuart pays over $1000 a month to have writers like me on the blog. And, if you look at the rate of shares on the blog, it's not anything to write home about:

Screen Shot 2015-05-22 at 08.43.12

What he put all of his focus on is creating valuable content that helps his readers, and that's what he reiterates every time we're planning the next article. That's why this site is still alive a year on, in such a crowded niche, and it's why his mailing list is growing and growing.

When it comes to your own blog - whether you're writing for someone else, or building your own empire - put the focus on value, build a relationship, and then optimize for sharing. Any other process simply just won't work.

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Wrapping It All Up...

Still with me? Great!

This is going on for nearly 5000 words, and there is a lot more that I would have liked to say. But I hope you've taken away from this article lessons - and stupid mistakes - that you can apply to your own pursuits, whatever they may be, and use them to your advantage.

If nothing else, remember:

  • To research all of your posts
  • Use images to make your posts epic
  • Keep your language simple
  • Tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them
  • Always answer the question, "What's in it for me?"
  • Nail your headlines and introduction
  • Put all your focus on value (then optimize it for sharing)

So, did I just make your day? Or has what I said just ruined everything you ever thought about blogging? Let me know in the comments...

James Johnson