“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”
— Mark Twain
This article won’t give you all of the answers. I learned a long time ago that you can only accomplish so much in a single piece of writing — even a book that takes years to write. But in this article, you’ll learn some crucial aspects of not only making it as a writer, but doing very well.
A little background: Over the past five years, my blogs have been read well over 100 million times. I’ve had over 800,000 people put their email into this single form, without using any paid advertising. I have two traditionally published books (here and here) with a third coming out in October, 2020, and two more coming out in the next 18 months. I have six employees who keep me organized and help me run my small business. I have over 10,000 people actively in my online courses. My business as a writer produces a 7-figure income.
I don’t share any of that to boast. Given what I know, there is enormous room for improvement for me — I plan to be incredibly prolific and successful over the next 12 months and beyond. As Dan Sullivan says, “Always make your future bigger than your past.”
If you want to be highly read and highly paid as a writer, here are some questions you need to answer:
- What type of writer do you want to be?
- How do you want to be known?
- Who do you want to be compared to?
- Do you want to be professional, indie, or self-published?
- Do you care more about page views, money, or credibility?
- Why do you want to write?
- Who do you want to help?
- Why do you want to help those people?
- In what ways do they need to be helped through your work?
- How could you help them achieve their desired results better, more efficiently, or differently than others in that same space?
- Are you willing to become good at marketing and self-promotion?
- Do you want strictly do writing, or are you interesting in expressing your thinking and emotions in other formats — such as teaching, coaching, speaking, consulting, etc?
- Where do you ultimately want to be?
- Where do you want to be in five years?
- Will you still be writing in five years, 10 years, 20 years?
- What will be your purpose for writing then?
- What is your purpose for writing now?
These aren’t easy questions to answer, and the answers will change over time. But it’s important to begin with the end in mind. It’s important to have a vision, because that vision determines your plan of action.
How You Make Money as a Writer
There are multiple ways to make money as a writer. But no money is created equal. Some money is hard money, some money is easy money.
You can make money writing in a few different ways, but very few ways that will directly produce a six, seven, or eight figures income. On Medium, if you can get between 500,000 and 1,000,000 page views monthly with good engagement, you can probably make six figures on your writing alone. But if you’re not building your email list, then you’re essentially forced to bang out blog post after blog post.
Although good for your ego and developing your skill as a writer, you won’t be building something that can make you amazing money over the long-run. You’ll be working paycheck to paycheck. That’s never been interesting to me. If, however, you build an email list, you can eventually get book deals and, if you choose, sell your subscribers other products such as physical products, coaching, online courses, etc.
When I first started writing, I started with the mindset that I would become a traditionally published author. That’s not the right path for everyone, but when I thought of the other authors I personally wanted to be like, they were all in the traditional publishing world.
I had a conversation with Jeff Goins back in 2015 when I was just starting out and anxious to get a book deal. At the time, I had a couple thousand email subscribers. He told me to wait a year or two to get a book deal, until I had somewhere between 50,000 to 100,000 email subscribers. With that many, you’ve got the potential (depending on various factors) to get a six-figure book deal.
I took his advice, waiting until I had 100,000 email subscribers, and by that point I had editors from Hachette and Penguin reaching out to see if I wanted to do a book with them. I hired Ryan Holiday to help me write a book proposal for what became “Willpower Doesn’t Work.” For that first book, I got a $220,000 book deal.
If you want to write books, I recommend you do both blogging and book writing at the same time, although they require totally different writing styles. Books force you to think bigger, go deeper, and refine, refine, refine. Blogs are great because you can just bang them out — and fail, fail, fail. But blogs can feed your books by allowing you to practice and test ideas. Also, while writing blogs, you can feed your growing audience.
Writing blogs also helps you become better at marketing because you get active feedback from real humans about your writing. If your writing isn’t being read much, there are a few reasons: you’re not engaging the reader through either the content, style, or emotions, or you simply need to improve the headline, structure, and flow of the article itself.
Writing books has by far made me a better writer than blogging, but blogging has its place and it’s essential if you want to make money and become a well-read author.
If you don’t want to trade a great deal of your time for money, then an amazing option is creating online courses. This would be a deeper-dive into what you write about in your books and blogs.
Depending on the subject and your positioning as an expert, you can sell online courses from anywhere between $1 and $20,000, although most courses hover between $27 and $1,997. In order to effectively sell online courses, you probably need to get good at creating webinars, which are 30–90 minute digital training experiences. Essentially, you spend the first 50–75% of the webinar teaching and providing relevant value, and the rest of the time making your offer and encouraging people to buy. Probably 60–70% of my income comes from online courses.
Other ways you can make money as a writer, which are less interesting to me — are speaking, personal coaching, consulting, free-lancing, ghost-writing, affiliate marketing, and advertisements.
Mindsets of 7-Figure Writers
“Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
Start with your desired future self
A lot of writers focus on the process and expect the results to just happen. This isn’t how you create success or income as a writer. Instead, you need to be clear about the result you want. As Michael Jordan’s performance coach, Tim Grover said, “Crave the result so intensely that the work is irrelevant.”
- Who do you want to be three years from now?
- Do you want to be a professional author?
- Do you want to be published on big platforms?
- Do you want to be making six or seven figures?
- How many people are reading your work?
- What is your lifestyle like?
If you can’t answer these questions, then what process can you actually fulfill? The process is always the byproduct of the goal. If you’re not getting the results you want, you need to change your process.
Set one clear goal
“To decide on your mission, simply look over all of your goals and then ask yourself: Which one of these goals would enable me to become the person I need to be to achieve everything else I want in my life. The answer to that question is your mission.”
— Hal Elrod, The Miracle Equation
Once you’ve defined your future self three years into the future, you need to create a tangible, measurable goal. Without a clear goal, you can’t create a process. Without a goal and process, you can’t have hope or motivation.
The more specific the outcome, the better you can find pathways and develop strategies for getting what you want. If you have too many goals, then your process will become muddle and confused. By having one major goal, you can focus your energy. You can try new things and figure out how to get momentum. You can create incredible results.
Far too many writers attempt too much, too soon. Before they make tangible progress in one area, they are already trying a thousand different things. Get really really good at one thing first, then laterally jump once you can leverage your skills and position.
In 2015, during the first year of my PhD program, I decided I was going to become a professional writer. Once I clarified my future self, I set a single, measurable goal. That goal was to get a six-figure book contract with one of the Big Five publishers in New York. With that specific and measurable outcome, I could then reverse-engineer a process. That led me to the conversation with Jeff Goins where I learned I needed to get 50–100K email subscribers.
Once I confirmed that email subscribers were what I needed to achieve my particular goal — getting a six-figure book deal — I then went to work learning how to get email subscribers. If you set one major goal, you can create focus, which creates motivation, momentum, and ultimately results.
The question is, can you commit to a single target? Can you focus on one thing for long enough to create amazing results and get out of the rat race?
Or will you let all the other shiny objects divert your focus, pull you in different directions, and ultimately derail your motivation and momentum?
Expect every piece of writing to succeed
“Assume the feeling of your wish fulfilled.”
— Neville Goddard
Recent research in Positive Psychology shows that hope really matters. In fact, your Hope determines how successful you are here-and-now. Hope isn’t just “hoping it will work out,” it is actually resolving to figure it out.
As Dr. Angela Duckworth has put it, “Grit depends on a different kind of hope. It rests on the expectation that our own efforts can improve our future. ‘I have a feeling tomorrow will be better’ is different from ‘I resolve to make tomorrow better.’”
If you have hope, you not only have a vision for a better future, but you have the sense of agency or confidence that you can learn what needs to be learned and do what needs to be done to achieve your goals.
Another part of hope is what psychologists call pathways-thinking, meaning you can find alternative and sometimes even unconventional paths or strategies to make your goals happen. If you have hope, then you learn from your experiences. You don’t just stick to one way of doing things. If your process or path isn’t getting the results you want, you change what you’re doing. What got you here won’t get you there.
When you have high-hope toward your goals, you expect success. I definitely expect everything I write to get tens of thousands of views. Some things I write I expect to get hundreds of thousands of views. However, another aspect of hope is learning from your experience. You take the feedback you get (i.e., your results) and you adjust your process based on what you’re learning.
Every piece of writing is an opportunity
Every time you create something, a book, blog, webinar, etc, it’s an opportunity to do something you’ve never done before. One of my friends and mentors, Richard Paul Evans (who has written 40 NYT bestsellers!) told me that every time he writes a book, he’s trying to write the best book he’s ever written.
Ryan Holiday told me that every time he launches a book, he tries to use that launch to achieve things he’s never done before — to get more publicity, get onto certain publications, reach new audiences, or to grow in some other way as a writer and marketer.
For me, every time I sit down to write something, I want to go beyond what I’ve done in the past. I want to see how far I can push myself, push the idea, push the result. A few years back, I saw an article on Thought Catalog that got shared nearly a million times. I studied that article like crazy and attempted to write an article that got shared a million times. I failed but wrote an article that got read several million times. With books, I always want to make it enormously better than my last — in all ways. Storytelling, research, structure, relevance.
Use every piece of writing or creativity to push yourself and grow — otherwise, what are you doing?
Always be creating (and finishing) something
“A painting is never finished — it simply stops in interesting places.” — Paul Gardner
“Art is never finished, only abandoned.” — Leonardo da Vinci
“Done is better than perfect.” — Sheryl Sandberg
“Better prolific than perfect.” — Joe Polish
If you’re not actively creating something, then your brain isn’t working as hard as it could be. Your brain thrives when you give it something to work on. This is why writing is so fun. You give yourself a goal and a topic and then let your brain start obsessing, researching, processing, and connecting new dots.
If you don’t actively create (and finish) projects, it’s like leaving tabs open on your computer — it slows the processor down.
Blog posts and books are never finished, they just end in an interesting place. They are abandoned at some point. Done is better than perfect.
The British philosopher Alain de Botton said, “Anyone who isn’t embarrassed of who they were last year probably isn’t learning enough.” Part of the beauty of continuously “finishing” imperfect projects is that, over time, you can look back at your old work and see how far you’ve come. I regularly have the experience of reading old stuff I’ve written and cringing. Even so, I’m glad I wrote it, or I wouldn’t be where I am today.
But the same will be true of my future self. A few years from now, I’ll have different and better perspectives than I have now. My future self will likely disagree or even cringe at some of my current writing — that’s part of the growth process. You won’t get better if you’re not continually creating new and better content.
- Are the projects you’re working on now beyond what you were working on 12–24 months ago?
- Is the work you’re doing deeper, richer, and more impactful?
- Has your career developed?
Always be investing in yourself
During my PhD program in organization psychology, I studied the difference between wannabe entrepreneurs and successful ones. One of the major differences is that wannabe entrepreneurs haven’t created a “point of no return” experience for themselves. They haven’t fully committed to their goal. They haven’t put sufficient skin in the game. They haven’t put themselves in a position where extreme consequences could happen. They still don’t see themselves as entrepreneurs — thus, they haven’t shifted their identity.
Many of the wannabe entrepreneurs I interviewed said they hoped to one day have such a point of no return, but hadn’t created that experience for themselves yet. From my perspective, these “wannabe’s” don’t really have hope, because if they did, they would be actively creating the outcomes they want. True hope isn’t passive, it’s active and adaptive. It’s outcome-oriented and outcome-producing.
One of the core “point of no return” experiences the successful entrepreneurs cited was investing money into their business or projects. You don’t always need to “invest” to grow and develop, but it certainly does create motivation. It further instills in your identity that you’re serious about this, and that this is who you’re becoming.
“Investing in yourself” could mean different things at different stages. When I first started writing, I made a few initial investments that freaked me out! Paying $800 for my website domain and $197 for an online course teaching me how to write headlines. Once I got my book deal for what became Willpower Doesn’t Work, I immediately invested most of it into book coaching with Brass Check, and also into the mastermind and coaching groups Genius Network and Strategic Coach. Those groups exposed me to mindsets and collaborators that allowed me to go from blogger to entrepreneur — where I could turn my blogs and subscribers into a 7-figure business.
More recently, I’ve invested quite a bit into Scribe Media, Tucker Max’s book coaching and publishing company. Tucker personally edited my last two books, Personality Isn’t Permanent and Who Not How. Not only has investing in my writing allowed me to become a better writer, but without doing it, I wouldn’t have gotten the deal for Who Not How. So investing intelligently should, in the end, make you more money.
- Are you investing in yourself?
- Are you putting yourself around motivated and interesting people you can learn from?
- Are you working in a silo, or are you becoming more of a collaborator? The longer you work in a silo, the less effective you’ll be.
Piggy-backing off the last paragraph, you’re highly unlikely to make real money without hiring assistants and getting other support. Most people think of hiring as a cost, but it’s actually an investment in yourself.
Rather than doing all the hows by yourself, which creates decision fatigue and kills your willpower, you can and should hire awesome people to help you. Even hiring one person part-time to take care of various logistical stuff saves you time and mental energy that you can direct towards writing, researching, connecting with other people, pitching your work to various places, doing podcasts, and so on.
The more people helping you with your goals, the bigger your vision will be. You’ll stop being constrained by what you can do on your own. You’ll start to value your time more, because your time will be spent on activities you’re passionate about and that create an impact.
- Are you still doing too much by yourself?
- Are you draining your willpower by doing all the “How’s” yourself?
What would happen if you started investing in help, so you could free yourself up to think, create, strategize, and connect?
How would your future grow if you were more prolific and creative, rather than trying to do everything in isolation?
Always be marketing and selling
A huge hurdle for many writers is making powerful offers for their readers to buy something — even their own book. Recently, I launched “Personality Isn’t Permanent”. For the first half of the launch week, I was doing my best to encourage readers to buy the book and it was going pretty well. But once the week was coming to a close and I really wanted a shot at the bestseller lists, I decided to be far more direct:
“Will you please buy my book right now? Here’s the link! I need a few more thousand sales to hit the bestseller list. I’m confident this book will change your life.”
Immediately I started getting thousands and thousands of sales.
Once launch week was over, I felt hesitant to keep pushing the book. But I took the courageous step and continued to encourage people to get the book. With each email I sent encouraging people to make the investment and get the book, I got more and more book sales.
You can’t be afraid to sell. You can’t be afraid to be in business. If you want money, you need to sell something. If you believe in what you’re selling, and that it will honestly help those you’re offering your products or services to, what do you have to worry about?
If you really believe in what you’re doing, then it’s your obligation to get that sale. If you genuinely believe in what you’re doing, then be a missionary for your cause. Pound the pavement. Be relentless. And never stop giving, giving, giving. Go above-and-beyond in providing value — over-deliver. Do the work you love and become a craftsman. As Cal Newport said in So Good They Can’t Ignore You:
“If you want to love what you do, abandon the passion mindset (“what can the world offer me?”) and instead adopt the craftsman mindset (“what can I offer the world?”).” “Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love — is the sum of what you focus on.”
What got you here won’t get you there:
“The moment you arrive is the perfect time to start out again.” — Dan Sullivan
The goal always determines the process. When the goal changes, the process must change too. It does no good to continue doing something just because it worked in the past.
James Clear talks a lot about why the process matters a lot. But you can see in James that his process has changed over time. He has written extensively about the fact that for several years, he wrote and published new articles every Monday and Thursday. That was his process which helped him 1) become a better writer, 2) grow an audience and email list, 3) position himself as an expert on habits, and 4) become an expert on habits.
However, once he got deep into writing “Atomic Habits” (which has now gone on to sell over two million copies!) you can see that his “process” changed quite a bit. He was very public about tracking and measuring his “process” when it came to how much he blogged.
- In 2012, James published 14 articles on his blog (note: those 14 articles started in November and ended in December of that year).
- In 2013, James published around 100 articles on his blog.
- In 2014, James published 88 new articles on his blog.
- In 2015, James published 74 new articles on his blog. That year he also got the massive book deal for what became “Atomic Habits”.
- In 2016, James published 28 new articles on his blog. At this point, his focus (and process) shifted. He now had some serious cash from the book deal. He started focusing on “growing the business,” which meant getting lots of email subscribers (he added 210,623 that year, taking him near 400,000 altogether at that time).
- In 2017, James published 10 new articles on his blog, although he stopped tracking that in his annual review. At this point, his goal was no longer to write more articles, even though he found a brilliant way to grow his email list using the large stack of articles he’d written over the previous years. During this year, undoubtedly, his main focus was crafting “Atomic Habits”.
- In 2018, James published 9 new articles on his blog. The main thing for James this year was the launch of “Atomic Habits”, which happened in October of 2018. As he mentions in his annual review, he finished the final edits in February of 2018 and did everything he could to ensure a successful launch, which definitely happened. He’s done so well.
- In 2019, James published 5 new articles on his blog. His major noted success for 2019 was selling 1.3 million copies of “Atomic Habits”. He mentions in his annual review that writing was not a strong suit of his during 2019. Thanks to the success of “Atomic Habits”, his primary focus was book promotion (which not only paid off, but was incredibly smart of him).
- In 2020, James is doing his new newsletter and seems to be continuing to focus on book promotion (and I’m sure other projects, like a podcast) that we’ll be hearing about in his 2020 annual review.
James Clear is big on the idea that process matters more than goals. Clearly, he’s brilliant at creating systems and processes. But it’s also clear that he adapts his process to match his goals.
In 2016, it stopped making sense for him to blog at the same pace he was the previous three years. His focus shifted to writing the best book he could. Since then, his focus has been promoting and selling this book far and wide. He’s been successful at adjusting his process each step of the way to achieve his goals.
In philosophy, there is a concept called teleology, which says that all behavior is outcome or goal-driven. When you go to the bathroom, you’re being driven by an outcome. When you unconsciously reach for your cell phone, you’re being driven by an outcome. All behavior is outcome-driven.
A lot of writers and creators say that process matters more than anything, even though their process is entirely driven by outcomes. Even if those outcomes are purely emotional.
The main point is this: What got you here won’t get you there. As your goal changes, you must adjust your process. Don’t get stuck in any single stage for too long, just because you love the process. Be willing to evolve, as James has done, to reach higher levels of success. Far too many writers and entrepreneurs get stuck in a single stage of their development because they get stuck doing things a certain way.
If you want to have your work reach millions of people and if you want to make millions of dollars, there are certain skills you need to develop.
“Read a thousand books, and your words will flow like a river.”
— Lisa See
You need to be obsessed with learning. You have to be curious and excited about specific topics — so much so that you’re willing to go deeper than other people have gone, to make connections that other people have yet to make.
The more you learn, the better your work will be. But you’ve got to learn with a purpose. If you have a specific project you’re working on, then your learning will have a purpose. You won’t just be consuming information to distract yourself. You’ll be researching. You’ll be digging. You’ll genuinely be looking for answers to your own questions and to the questions of your readers.
Journaling, sketching, mind-mapping
“Private victories precede public victories. You can’t invert that process any more than you can harvest a crop before you plant it.”
— Stephen R. Covey
Learning is an active process. It’s not just about consuming information. Real learning is imaginative and creative. You’ve got to actively think about your ideas and play with them.
This is why journaling, drawing pictures, or creating mind-maps is so important. My journaling is very sketchy.
Journaling or mind-mapping is like a musician jamming. You need a safe creative environment to play with, tweak, mix, and test your ideas. If you make a regular habit of private practice, then your public work will start looking really good.
Journaling is also a great place to imagine and affirm not only your desired future self but also to affirm and build confidence in your writing. Affirmations are powerful. They train you to believe, hope for, anticipate, expect, and act from your desired circumstances.
If you want to rise above the noise, affirmations definitely help. Write about where you want to be in three years. Write about the type of writer you want to be, and where you want to be in your career. Before starting a writing session, meditate, pray, journal, and affirm what’s going to happen in that writing session.
I’ve had to delete several of my biggest articles on Medium due to rule changes on the platform over the years, but the above image has some of my top blog posts on this platform.
One thing you’ll notice is that, almost always, the best-performing articles have titles with numbers in them. They are outcome-focused and strategic.
For example, “This” morning routine… Not just a morning routine, but THIS specific morning routine will save you 20+ hours per week.
If you’re too busy for “These”5 things… Not just 5 things, but THESE 5 things, then you’re life is more off-course than you think.
This article is called, “This 10-Minute Routine Will Increase Your Clarity and Creativity.” Again… not any 10-minute routine, but THISone. This title is specific, includes numbers, and is outcome-focused.
When it comes to headlines, the bolder the better. I once heard Ryan Holiday say that you should basically be daring someone to click and find out what’s inside. If you don’t get good at headlines, you’re not going to succeed as a writer.
Call to action
At the end of your article, you need a call to action (CTA). Over the years, Medium has changed its rules on this. For the first three years I wrote, you could have a bold CTA at the end of your article. With my CTA, for over two yearsstraight,I was getting over 20,000 new email subscribers monthly.
Then, CTAs were disallowed, and the algorithms changed quite a bit. For over a year (during 2019 and 2020), you couldn’t really include a CTA at the bottom of your article if you wanted to be distributed on the platform. They’ve since changed the rule to some extent, but there are now stricter rules as far as what makes a kosher CTA.
In any case, have a CTA at the bottom of your article with a link to a landing page. The CTA, like the headline, should be outcome-focused and offer a free gift that is relevant to the people you’re wanting to serve through your writing and other products.
For years, I gave away a “peak state” morning routine checklist. That checklist was downloaded, as I said earlier, over 800,000 times. Here’s what the landing page looks like:
Nowadays, I’m focused on giving away a “future self” checklist to help people imagine and become their desired future self. My actual website is a landing page. Here’s what my current website looks like:
In addition to giving away a free “checklist,” the next page also provides a 23-minute webinar where I provide some amazing content that my reader will love. At the end of that 23-minute webinar, I offer a $147 “30 Day Future Self Program” which currently has over 3,300 members.
Pitching yourself to big publications
Getting onto big publications matters. All you have to do is look up editors on whatever publications you’re interested in. You may find those editors on the publication’s website, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. Just search how to submit articles to wherever you want to be published.
You need to make it easy for editors. Tell them your credentials (if you have any), send them a word doc of around 800 words (or whatever the publication prefers). Study the articles on the publication, their headlines, structure, style, length, etc. Do your homework.
Which publications would be amazing to get onto? Study the heck out of them and get yourself onto them. You miss every shot you don’t take. If you’re persistent and really studying what’s working on that platform, and if you pitch yourself in a smart way (keep it short and sweet), you’ve got a good chance.
“Hey (editor’s name)! I’ve been writing a bit on Medium and my work has been published on x, y, and z. Attached is an 800 word article entitled, “x.” I think it’s right up your alley. Let me know if you like it or if you have any suggestions on making it a better fit!”
Pitching yourself to agents
If you want to get a literary agent and book deal, you’ll have to do a lot of Googling. There are thousands of agents. One strategy is trying to find the agents of the authors you like or want to be connected to.
- Here is the literary agentof Tim Ferriss, Ryan Holiday, Jeff Goins, and several other notables.
- Here is the literary agentof James Clear, Seth Godin, Ramit Sethi, Reid Hoffman and others.
- Here is the literary agentof Brendon Burchard and other business authors like him.
I only list those because those are relevant to me as a writer of self-help/business. You may be in a totally different topic. Find the agents that are looking for books like yours.
One more thing. You may not actually need a famous agent who does the books of all your favorite authors. There are literally thousands out there who do brilliant jobs. As long as they are with a legitimate agency and represent solid authors, having an agent is pretty essential if you want a book contract with a reputable publisher.
Making seven figures as a writer is do-able, but that may not be your goal. The goal always shapes the process. If making money isn’t part of your goal, then doing much of what I’ve discussed in this article is irrelevant to you.
Content marketing is becoming one of the most powerful tools in business right now. Every company is becoming a content machine, sharing ideas and values to build their brand, improve people’s lives, and ultimately to sell something.
Becoming a brilliant writer and a smart marketer and business owner will take youfar in today’s information-driven world.
You have to choose your own journey as a writer
Will you remain a starving artist? Will you remain a blogger? Do you really want to go pro, get book deals, and play in the bigger leagues of trying to write and sell books? Do you want to make more money by speaking, consulting, doing online courses? Do you want to be a writer and entrepreneur?
Only you can decide. But now is the time.