Traction by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares: book notes and comments

Photo of the Traction book coverI read Traction, a classic startup marketing book, at the start of this year. I’d previously seen and loosely embraced some of its ideas, but have happily fully embraced its thinking and marketing philosophy with Ellipsis since. It’s pretty simple, but really good.

There are already a ton of book summaries and notes on the internet, so this isn’t my attempt to do that; instead I want to pick out the parts I found especially interesting, and add my own analysis.

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What I’m Doing Right Now: June 2018

It is actually sunny outside ☕️ 

I’m writing this in the lovely British sunshine (it’s actually sunny, honest ☀️), outside at my favourite coffee shop.

Whenever I sit here, I think about what I wanted to be doing when I decided to work for myself roughly three years ago, whilst on a backpacking trip through the Balkans and Turkey.

This is roughly, I think, the dream: I’m running a remote web-based business and can work whenever, and wherever. I get to shape the business into the job that want, and have the space to explore other passions and projects.

This story was the precis to a couple of conversations I had at WordCamp Europe two weeks ago, and whilst it is accurate, it’s also misleading; running a business is hard, working remote is hard, and creating the space to explore other passions is also hard. There are good days and bad days, as with anything.

I find quarter-based goal setting really helpful: it’s a long enough time frame to be ambitious in scope, but short enough that I can be realistic about commiting fully and confident my thinking won’t have changed dramatically. I tie this in with weekly goals and a weekly review I do – from another coffee shop, obviously – where I can tie the micro and macro pictures together, and pick up on anything amiss.

I’ve felt recently that something has been amiss, and I’ve put my finger on more open-ended thinking and writing as the answer. I’m doing a lot of creative work for Ellipsis, genuinely pushing the boundaries with new approaches for clients, but this is firmly in the digital marketing category. Ellipsis is a digital marketing agency so this is obviously important, but I also need to be thinking sharply and critically to be at my best.

I’m thus keen to write more, and this post aims to serve as an introduction to doing so. I’m anxious about publicly commiting to a timeframe or regularlity, but I’d be very pleased to have a post a week or so. I’d like to explore more of the topics I’m interested in and develop and push my thinking in these areas. Under this banner we’ve got:

  • Running/growing a digital marketing agency.
  • Doing good, creative deep work.
  • Building an ethical business, and issues around this.
  • Reading and sharing/developing new ideas.

I don’t have specifics posts or an SEO strategy in mind; the primary aim of this writing is for me to develop and share ideas. If other people like the content (the Deep Work post above hit the front page of Hacker News #humblebrag) then that’s an added bonus. There should also be space here for non-work bits and sharing photos, which I’mkeen to do ever-more of.

So; this is for me to develop ideas, share ideas, and think more. If you’re reading – thank you – and I look forward to writing to you again soon.

The Future of Work is Scary

This evening I’ve got the pleasure of speaking at WordUp Brighton’s October Meetup, about “The future of work is scary: Deep Work in the WordPress economy”.

This should be a fun talk! It’s a topic I think is really important, and am very interested. Here are some links and resources pulled out from the slides:

  • Deep Work by Cal Newport. The authority on this stuff!
  • Unsubscribe by Jocelyn K Glei. A really practical book about similar ideas to Deep Work.
  • The Organised Mind by Daniel Levitin. A research-based book that explains how you think.
  • Pomodoro Technique (do this in 50 or 75 or 100 minute chunks instead of 25).
  • Focus for Mac, or Timewarp for Chrome for blocking distracting sites.
  • Messenger.com is a great way of getting Facebook chat without the distracting features bolted-on.

And, of course, here are the slides:

A tale of two product launches: WordCamps Brighton and Bucharest

I recently had the great pleasure of speaking at WordCamp Brighton, and tomorrow will be speaking at WordCamp Bucharest. My first time at both, and a real treat!

I wanted to make my slides and useful links easily accessible, which is what this post is. You’ll find both below:

Must reads on online product launches:

These are all good, but read them with your “survivorship bias” goggles on: you’re hearing about the handful of product launches which worked, and not the ones which didn’t. This is hard, and may take you a couple of goes to get right, but that’s really okay.

I really hope you found the talk and these links valuable. We can be friends on Twitter if you like, I’d recommend taking a look at my weekly newsletter for WordPress professionals, and I’m taking on some work at the moment, so do get in touch.

Exploring a purchasing decision: “Double Your Freelancing”

I’ve just purchased Brennan Dunn’s “Double Your Freelancing” course, as it’s a) on sale today (urgency!) and b) solves a problem I’m interested in at the mo. My thought process for making a purchasing decision was very interesting. Couple of notes, which I thought were worth sharing:

1. I’ve been subscribed to Brennan’s list for a long time, but only today considered purchasing. Before, his course hasn’t solved a problem I needed; now it does. A one-day urgency sale, with a single reminder email was enough to prompt me to buy.

2. The sales page was very good, but I skimmed a lot of it. I only read it properly when I was pretty sure I wanted to buy. So, making sure sales pages are skimmable is important.

3. There was so much social proof on the page I didn’t look for independent reviews. Social proof from people whose names I recognised was very powerful.

4. I presumed I wanted the most expensive tier – and even added it to my cart – but then looked at what was in the cheap tier. I realised I didn’t actually want or need any of the things in the more expensive tier, and saying “you don’t get free updates” seemed like a technical nightmare. On purchasing, turns out that hunch was right, and there are free updates. Thus – adding real value to a more expensive tier is key.

5. I was surprisingly price-insensitive. With a discount code, I was happy to pay the $200 for the top tier, on the justification I only need to take away a couple of things for it to be worth it. Quite possibly I would have used that logic right up to $400 or $500.

Brennan does around $80k/month in sales, so he obviously has this down. Interesting nonetheless to work out how I decided to buy this course, caveats on what’s weak in the sales process, and how one can avoid them going forwards.

How to read a totally reasonable number of books in 2017

I read twenty eight books in 2016, the most I’ve ever read in a year. I’d aimed for thirty, but given in 2015 I only managed twelve, I’m pleased with the results.

As the new year has come around I’ve seen my social feeds fill up with “I’m going to read more in 2017” and “how to read more in 2017” and, to be perfectly frank, a lot of these articles are total bullshit.

Two headlines showed up recently that illustrate my point:

  • Tim Ferriss’s Guide to Reading 3 Books Every Week, No Matter How Busy You Are
  • Why I read a book a day (and why you should too): the law of 33%

I’ll link these at the bottom for the curious. These are obviously preposterous: if you are busy and don’t read anything you’re not going to read one book in a week, let alone three, and the literally awful TED talk on “a book a day” advocates only reading the first and last pages of a book and calling it quits.

Reading books a lot is seen as an authoritative thing to do, and and a lot of “hey it’s a new year” articles quote Warren Buffet saying “I just sit in my office and read all day” (obviously a gross exaggeration), set unreasonable expectations and offer ridiculous “tactics” and “secrets”.

What should you do if you’d like to read some more books this year, but you also have other things to do and would just like to settle for a reasonable number? Twenty or thirty books this year, perhaps?

Well, I read a totally reasonable number of books in 2016 and I’ll do the same in 2017. I’d like to share the totally reasonable things I did in order to read more.

A good reading list is essential to making this work

A quality reading list is a very good place to start. It’s much easier to read when what you’re reading is interesting.

What should be on your reading list depends on what you want to get out of this; most of my reading is motivated by the lofty aims of wanting to be a better informed citizen and seeking knowledge that will help me in work and life. To this end, I tend to read non-fiction, with a particular interest in political economy, thoughtful business books and psychology.

You may, however, prefer fiction or other genres and that’s totally cool! Read whatever interests you: there’s no right or wrong way of doing this.

Filling your reading lists with quality books is an interesting challenge. I have a number of useful rules:

  • Recommendations from people you respect are the best starting point. Collecting recommendations is a great place to start!
  • Best seller lists aren’t very useful. They’re easily and frequently manipulated, especially on Amazon, and a lot of best selling books just aren’t very good.
  • Don’t spend too long looking at reviews, but if a book has fewer than four stars on Amazon or Goodreads, it’s probably not very good.
  • Don’t purchase right away: come back in a couple of days and decide then if you really want to sink several hours you’ll never get back into reading a title.
  • Spend a bit of time doing some research to see if you’ll like a title: who’s the author; what’s the book about; what are other people saying about this.

I like to keep a big Amazon wishlist that makes up my reading list. I might not buy the book on Amazon, but it’s just a case of deleting the item once you’ve read it. I also like to use Goodreads to keep track of what I’ve actually read: the app makes it easy to add books to your “currently reading” and “completed” list, and you’ll even get a convenient year-total tally of books read.

One final note on choosing what to read: don’t get too stuck on the total book count for the year. If you’re focussed on this too much you’ll find yourself reading lots of short, easy books with massive fonts. Very long books can be very rewarding; last year I read a 1,000 page book on Keynes with Bible-style paper and tiny margins. It counted as one book, but could have been five regular sized books. Delving very deep into one topic was, however, immensely rewarding, and I’m looking forward to doing it again. Don’t avoid these gems.

To read books you need to make time for reading books

This is the secret sauce, the secret life hacks! In order to read books in 2017, you just need to spend time reading books. Indeed, this is something many “life hack” style articles try and compromise on. It’s not possible: you’ve just got to put the time in.

You have plenty of time to read. You simply choose to spend it on other things… You can never find time. You can only allocate time. – Nat Eliason

Most of my reading gets done at the weekend with a nice cup of coffee, or after I’ve finished work. I don’t tend to read just before going to sleep, cause that keeps my brain whirring when I want it to calm down and sleep.

I’d recommend having two distinctly different books on the go at any one time: one that’s easy to read and one that’s hard. The former can be your page turner when you’re tired after work and the latter can be for when you can focus more intensely. I don’t like reading any more than two at the same time, but if it works for you then great.

Initially I struggled to concentrate for prolonged periods on “hard” books. I still do, but I’ve gotten better at it. Various scientific research shows simply practicing concentrating and immersing yourself in a task will allow you to concentrate for longer periods, so this makes sense, but I’ve also learned not to try and read the difficult stuff when fatigued. There are also other benefits to be had: I’ve no idea if it’s related, but I’ve generally got better at deep work and long periods of concentration since starting to read more.

Remembering things from books

This is an interesting one: how do you remember what you’ve learned? This obviously applies primarily to non-fiction, so if fiction is your jam you can safely skip this part.

I tend to just keep a highlighter to hand and mark next to anything I find especially interesting. I’ll also mark the top of the page so my note can be easily found later. From there the intention is to copy notes into Evernote and organise into categories and topics, but in practice this doesn’t happen a lot. I tend to read physical books; if you primarily read on a Kindle this becomes a whole lot easier.

Still, we can all aspire! I like Nat Eliason’s take on this: even just copying out your notes and never looking at them again is going to help you remember your notes in the long term.

Ryan Holiday's notecard system looks really cool but must be a real pain to actually do. http://ryanholiday.net/the-notecard-system-the-key-for-remembering-organizing-and-using-everything-you-read/

Ryan Holiday’s notecard system looks really cool but must be a real pain to actually do. 

I also like the idea of writing notes out on hundreds of notecards (mainly cause it looks cool), but given I struggle with the basic Evernote version of this, I think we can write this off as impractical. Maybe one for the future.

Some sort of system for remembering is important. It does add on to your reading time, but the marginal value of that time is huge. You might spend three hours reading a three hundred page book, but add on an extra half hour to make your notes and you’ll remember what you’ve read much more clearly.

Being moderately good at this is fine

I hope you’ll find these thoughts on reading more actually useful, and if you’re trying to read more you’ll put some of these into practice and see the benefits.

By no means am I an expert in this, but that’s precisely the point. For most people being an “expert reader” is not the goal: being moderately good at reading and trying to read a reasonable number of books a year is a much more useful approach.

If you’re interested, here’s the list of what I read in 2016. Particular highlights were:

You can take those as my recommendations but, as we know, do your own research and don’t just take my word for it.

I am, after all, only moderately good at this – but I’m also very happy with that.

 

P.S. Here’s the a book a day video if you really really want to waste some time. The Tim Ferriss article mentioned is slightly less bad: it’s a serialised write-up of a Quora answer he gave which makes some interesting points, but the title is still ridiculous.

What I’ve done/what have I done 2016: freelancing full time

It’s always a pleasure to present the annual year in review “what I’ve done/what have I done” blog post, now in its fourth year (read 2013, 2014 and 2015). I think we can all agree the moderately amusing title has stood the test of time well.

This has been a big year. A lot has happened and I’m in a very different place compared to twelve months ago (you can also read this literally). At the end of 2015 I was a full time student in my final year at the University of Warwick and I’m now a full time self-employed freelancer, living in my own legit flat and not falling down student housing.

Self employment and the freedoms associated with it are something I’ve been coveting for a long time, so feels good to be starting on that journey.

We’re going to tackle this in terms of “things that went well”, “things that didn’t go well” and “things that went fine”. We’ll jump around a lot and miss other things out to keep it interesting — and make sure there’s a nice mix between learning points for you and self-indulgent nostalgia for me.

Things that went well: I work for myself now

I’ve been freelancing for a number of years now but 2016 was when I took this full time. I’ve had an idea this is what I wanted to do more or less since I found out it was a possible job I could have. I like being able to choose what I work on, when I work, the entrepreneurial freedom and getting to keep 100% of the fruits of my labours.

I started full time in September and it’s been pretty good. Revenue is good. Having an existing network and some clients already was a huge help and I was able to leverage that network to get me started and get to a point where I now have nearly all of me work time allocated.

I am, however, running into some of the challenges of growing a freelance business: when you sell your time for money, what do you do when you run out of time? How do you grow the business in a way that doesn’t just involve working more?

Furthermore, on serious reflection I think it’s generous to say this “went well”. Freelancing is hard. The most difficult thing to deal with has been the need to do the best possible work all the time. If I had a graduate job and I was working at the same level as an average employee I’d be a great success, but when doing client work my work needs to be the best the whole time. That’s tough, and it’s still something I’m working on.

On balance, I think we’ll call it fine.

Things that went well: travel! Japan!

Between graduating and my first day at the home office I spent a month exploring Japan with my girlfriend. This is the third year in a row I’ve taken a month in the Summer to go travelling and I’ve got huge gratitude for the privileged position I’m in that lets me do that.

As always, this was an ultralight backpacking affair. One month, one small backpack (23l), no other luggage.

Japan was beautiful. It took me a week or so to get settled, but once I started understanding the culture better we had a wonderful time. Highlights included climbing Mount Fuji (we climbed overnight to get the sunrise, which was horrible but the view was literally incredible), being the only foreigners in a small town at a rural festival and Myajima, a beautiful tiny island we went to cause I saw a photo on Reddit and liked it.

Here are a couple of photos from the trip:

The downside of travelling light is I only took the camera’s kit lens, which is versatile and very light but not a great piece of gear. The next big trip we have planned in #newzealand2018 where I’ll be taking more camera gear.

Things that didn’t go well: personal projects

A year ago I was taking writing BlogBettr seriously and writing a decent article every week. Unfortunately, it wasn’t really gaining any traction and I was running out of things to say when blogging about blogging.

In March I put the blog on hiatus and eventually called time on my third attempt at launching the site. I do still think blogs about blogging don’t tend to be very good and there’s space for someone to come in and do it a lot better, but the content needs to be really really good and, to be perfectly honest, there’s only so much you can say about it.

The good thing to come out of this was I pivoted BlogBettr onto this blog, bringing the email list and most of the same WordPress theme over. Since I started writing every week and publishing Digital Essentials in September, growth here has been very good. Still lots to work on, but all the metrics are headed in the right direction.

Another personal project I worked on this year was MasterWP. I’ve co-authored this with Ben Gillbanks and it’s gone okay but not great. We launched a free WordPress user → WordPress power user course in September and got a great amount of interest, but failed to follow that up with a decent sales pitch for a fully-featured premium version. We’ve now pivoted towards a monthly subscription model, which has been going okay but needs a lot of work. This is a work in progress that needs improvement next year.

Things that went well: productivity

My thinking on productivity has also changed markedly in the last year, and as it’s been a recurring theme in previous years, I’d like to touch on it again. I don’t like “habits” or “hacks” for productivity any more: instead I’ve become a convert to Deep Work and time blocking. I’ll now schedule on my calendar x hours of work on a single task and get to work. I also schedule ample breaks to try and ensure all the time scheduled can be used productively.

The shift away from something like the Pomodoro Technique, which I previously swore by, I think is indicative of the nature of the work I’m now doing: when there were dozens of book chapters and journal articles to read and analyse for weekly seminars the Pomodoro Technique works a charm.

I’ve enjoyed Nat Eliason’s writing on this recently.

Things that didn’t go well: what is work/life balance?

My work/life balance is a work in progress and was something I wanted to fix but haven’t.

One of the great freedoms of working for yourself is you get to choose when you work and what you work on. At least, allegedly. This was something I was warned about: the freedom to work whenever you like often leads to pressure to work the whole time.

The struggle here is there’s great precarity about work. You are not guaranteed any given paycheque (and indeed, don’t really have a paycheque). Here’s the key bit: the precarity around freelance work incentivises taking on more work. After all, when you don’t know how much you’re going to make next month, it makes a lot of sense to try and make as much as possible this month just in case.

I think (and hope) this is a problem exacerbated by having only just started out: I’m working with new clients and don’t know which projects will become repeat work. As I establish better client relationships the precarity should fade and I’ll be able to have a much better idea of what work I’ll have for months at a time.

As a student I worked incredibly long hours, in my first month of freelancing I rediscovered The Joy of Weekends, but two months later I’m working evenings and weekends again. This is something to fix for 2017.

Assorted and miscellaneous things that went well

There are a couple of things that happened this year that are worth a mention but not worth dwelling on:

  • Graduated 🎓
  • Moved out of student accommodation (boo) and into my first Proper Flat (hooray!).
  • Got one of my friends elected to Warwick SU.
  • Spoke at WordCamp London 2016.
  • Met some incredible new people.
  • Run more than ever.
  • Read the most books I’ve ever read in a year (more on this soon).
  • Grown up a lot.

I also want to briefly say hi to 2016 as the year in which literally all my political predictions were wrong and the unspeakably unfathomable happened.

Out getting out the vote in Leamington Spa on polling day.

I’m pleased I at least tried to do my bit for the EU referendum, but like many young people (including a lot of my friends), I’m concerned about what the future holds both in terms of Brexit and the rightward shift in political feeling across the Western world. The situation in Syria currently is also deeply distressing The only prediction I’m prepared to make these days is 2016 was bad but things could plausibly get a lot worse in 2017.

What’s in store for next year?

Alright, so what’s in store for next year? There are couple of things I want to specifically target:

  • Grow my freelance business, including product revenue. Not wholly sure what this looks like, but keen to work it out.
  • Switch off from work more and reinstate the weekend.
  • Attend more conferences.
  • Spend more time with family and friends.
  • Learn more! Get back in the reading habit.
  • Generally improve quality of life and happiness.

I always love reading other people’s year-in-review posts, so if this inspires you to do the same let me know on Twitter

2016 was fine if not good. Here’s to a better 2017.

Coupon codes are a terrible idea! It’s time to re-evaluate your marketing.

Whether you celebrate Thanksgiving or not, it’s impossible to miss the massive frenzy of “black friday” and “cyber monday” discounts and deals that first started appearing a week ago and are disappearing as this post goes out.

Here’s something to ponder if you’re running a business: coupon codes are a terrible idea.

I mean this in two ways:

  1. Seasonal discounts are a terrible idea.
  2. Coupon codes are the worst way of doing discounts.

If you’ve just run a Thanksgiving sale, it may be time to rethink this for the New Year. I appreciate this probably isn’t what you want to hear, but whilst there are some exceptions (and we’ll come to them later), hear me out on this.

Seasonal discounts are a terrible idea

“Discounts punish your pre-existing customers and train future customers not to by until you have a discount.”Sean McCabe

I’m not a fan of discounts. They tell people who’ve already bought from you “you should have waited for a discount” and potential customers “don’t bother buying until we have a discount”.

Thinking of it like this shows discounts to be disincentivising purchases, the very opposite of what they’re supposed to be doing.

Here’s a quick case study: last week I purchased a bunch of Mac software. I thought it was a bit expensive at full price and the purchase was desirable but not urgent, so I just waited until the Black Friday sales I could see from Googling happen every year.

There is space for doing discounts within this framework, and this is more or less the only space I think they’re worth doing: launch discounts to reward early customers that are never repeated.

Launch discounts are an effective way of creating urgency and driving early sales, but for these to work the launch discount price needs to be the best price you ever offer. Those early adopters need to be rewarded by having the best possible price, not mocked/punished by seeing a lower price in six months when you run out of marketing ideas.

You could argue launch discounts are just a temporary lower price and there’s no discount at all, but the semantics are mostly irrelevant. The important point is when you do discounts you’re telling current customers if they’d waited they could have had a lower price and future customers to wait for a discount before purchasing. You’re disincentivising purchases.

Coupon codes are the worst way of doing discounts

The second line of my argument is coupon codes are the worst way of doing discounts.

Here’s why:

  1. I’m buying something from your shop.
  2. I decide what I want and add it to my basket.
  3. I go to pay. I’m ready to buy.
  4. I see a box for a coupon code. I don’t have one!
  5. I search for a discount and click an affiliate link to reveal a discount.
  6. I add the coupon code and purchase, with a 20% saving made.

You should never offer discounts once a customer has made a purchasing decision. Discounts should be used to ensure a purchasing decision is made, but offering them after that decision is just throwing money away.

By showing a coupon code box at the checkout, you’re telling customers who have already decided to buy that they can get a discount when they were literally about to purchase at full price. It’s not just me saying this btw.

When you offer the option to enter coupon codes at checkout, a decent proportion of your customers will now proceed to Google your site + discount and pocket whatever discount they can find.

What’s more, most sites collating coupons will then demand you click an affiliate link to reveal the discount – so you suddenly lose the x% on the coupon code and x% in affiliate payout. This could quite easily be 50%+ of the original price, lost totally unnecessarily.

You see what I mean when I say coupon codes are a terrible idea?

The solution here, if you are going to do discounts, is to do discounts without coupon codes. Append a query to your site’s URL instead, so the discount is only available to customers specifically coming from the place the discount was intended for. SellwithWP has details on how to do this with EDD and here’s how to do it with WooCommerce.

Other mooted solutions include conditionally displaying a coupon box, but the URL method is easier to implement. How you do this doesn’t really matter, what’s more important is you are doing something to hide the coupon box.

There are exceptions to this

And I’m not just saying this so friends reading this won’t think I’m being too much of a dick about it. There are some scenarios where discounts make sense and some ways of doing discounts better if you really want to do them.

The type of product is important. Are you selling a commoditised product or a luxury one? You can probably make a strong argument that commoditised products – where price is one of the main competition points – need discounts to keep sales up and customers expect to see occasional discounts. I’m not going to make such an argument, but I can see it could make sense. You cannot, however, make such an argument for luxury products.

You can avoid problems by keeping discounts quiet. Discounts disincentivise purchases as future customers can see lower prices are available and they should wait. If there’s no way of future customers finding your discounts, there’s no §disincentive. In practice this might mean offering exclusive discounts to your email list or perhaps to current customers on an additional purchase.

Note this rules out running big promotional discounts and posting to your blog or social media; I still maintain these are a bad idea.

Truly seasonal discounts are probably okay. I get I’m British and don’t really understand Thanksgiving. If you really want to do a Thanksgiving sale and be part of the community and all that, you can do, but make sure they’re truly seasonal sales and not run with the regularity that future customers can just wait for the next sale before purchasing.

You can mitigate some of the problems with coupon codes. If you really want to keep your coupon codes available to everyone, there are some things you can do to mitigate the problem:

  1. Keep tight control over what codes are available. Make sure “finished” codes expire and sites can’t collate dozens of possibly working coupons.
  2. Only offer codes to new customers, or for SaSS products for the first x months. This makes sure coupons work as lead generation.
  3. Dominate the search results for your own coupons. This is my favourite! Avoid paying out affiliate fees by making sure customers come to your site when they search for coupon codes. This is as simple as making a page on your site with a list of available coupon codes. Namecheap does this really well, as do WPZOOM.

Of course, the easiest way to avoid problems with coupon codes is simply not to use them 😉

I maintain coupon codes are rubbish

My thesis here is strong. Coupons tell potential customers “wait until we do a sale” and current customers “you should have waited for a sale”. Furthermore, the coupon box at checkout throws away a huge chunk of revenue in discounts and affiliate fees to customers who were just about to buy at full price.

If you really want to do discounts, there are ways of doing them better, but for most products I just don’t see the value.

So, in sum: coupon codes are a terrible idea.

P.S. If you’re reading this, nodding along and thinking you should change your marketing strategy but don’t know how… drop me an email.

Secrets from writing, editing and publishing 1,000+ blog posts

I write a lot of blog posts. In the last eight or nine years I’ve written over one thousand posts on WPShout, the old incarnation of this site, a video game review site I used to run with friends and assorted places like the Miniclip Blog.

These days I write here every week, I’m constantly writing for MasterWP and writing is an integral part of my freelance work.

In this time I’ve tried out more or less every writing trick and “hack” in the book. I’m always looking for ways to improve, but at this stage I’m pretty happy I’ve gotten the writing process well optimised.

If you’re writing anything — regularly, occasionally, or less than you want — then there’s likely something here that can help. This is what my writing process looks like, a thousand posts later.

Coming up with good ideas is the most important step

A lot of writing advice is “write more” or “just start writing 1,000 words per day”. This is only partially helpful. It’s misleading to suggest you can just sit down and write 1,000 words before breakfast; you first need to know what to write about.

In my experience, coming up with ideas is the most difficult part and once you’ve got a good idea the rest is pretty straightforward. Once you have a good idea, the rest is straightforward – but start with a bad or unoriginal post idea and you’re probably wasting your time.

I have two ways of coming up with ideas:

  1. Brainstorming: set aside an hour, sit down with a blank piece of paper and come up with ten blog post ideas and an outline for each. You’ll probably get to four or five fairly easily, but the rest will be tough: spend long enough sat there and you’ll eventually come up with the ideas.
  2. Randomly: the best post ideas come randomly. In the shower, on a run, doing some other work – for these stop right away and note down a title and outline. Any note-taking method will do, but I like Simplenote for its fast multi-platform tools.

The best post ideas come from experience. This is absolutely vital to understand. If you’re struggling to come up with ideas, think of things you’ve struggled with or solved in your own work. What new approach did you take that was helpful? How did you solve the problem? Write this up and you’ll have a great post.

On the other side of the coin, mediocre blog posts come from leveraging other people’s experiences.

I’ve been guilty of this in the past: if you’re heavily quoting other public work (i.e. other posts, books, talks etc) then you’re not contributing anything new, you’re just collating other opinions. The vast majority of posts that rely on block quotes for authority and to advance argument just aren’t that great. Where these quotes are original interviews we can make an exception, but these are a minority of cases.

The best posts are straight-up new ideas or old ideas done better. Write something new, write something interesting. Don’t just regurgitate what other people have said already.

 Writing faster by using a dedicated writing app

I publish everything in WordPress but do all my writing elsewhere.

I’ve tried a lot of unreasonably expensive writing apps and the best I’ve used is Ulysses. If you’re on Mac this is almost certainly the best option (see The Sweet Setup for more).

Ulysses’ distraction-free UI is useful for deep work when writing – it leaves you with your writing as the only thing on the screen and no space for distraction. I use the Yosemite theme for a nice dark background.

The word count goal is also useful: I’ll typically write posts in a couple of sittings, so I can aim for 1,000 words each time I sit down to write.

Ulysses for Mac is the best writing app. Display of the writing interface in Ulysses.

The hybrid markdown writing process is another strength. You get all the benefits of markdown but in a slightly more user-friendly way. Ulysses also has really good autocorrect that will fix even the most egregious typos and spelling mistakes. This is a huge time saver and lets you “keep the flow” when writing, instead of backspacing to fix errors.

Once I’m done writing in Ulysses I’ll copy the post as HTML and paste into WordPress. This retains all the formatting and links. From there you can optimise and add images. We’ll cover those later.

Quick note: if you’re using PC, sadly there’s not the same range of writing apps available. I used MarkdownPad for a long time and think that’s still the best available.

Editing

I’ve written about the importance of the editing process before. If you usually don’t edit your blog posts, read that first.

A lot of what I talk about in the editing process post is making writing web-ready. This involves using styling and paragraph breaks to highlight key points and generally being concise. After you’ve been doing this for a while it becomes something you do as you’re writing, so typically I don’t need to spend a lot of time editing.

That said, there are two types of post:

  1. Posts that are good and just need checking over. For these I’ll run After the Deadline (part of Jetpack) and read through the post in preview mode. This usually catches everything.
  2. Posts that need to be improved. These generally require improving arguments and reworking structure. Just gotta put the time in with these.

It’s much more preferable to get to editing and have a post which fits the first description. The best way to do this is to plan properly and read what you’ve written as you go through (effectively self-edit posts as you’re writing). I spoke about planning posts properly at WordCamp London.

I’ve also started working with a professional editor on larger freelance projects. I’m hoping this will further tighten my arguments and writing, but only started doing this very recently so the jury is out on recommending this. For regular blog posts self-editing as described above is perfectly adequate.

For bonus points on this, building a custom layout for your post can make it really engaging. Karol does a great job with this on codeinwp, and with a page builder (or Gutenberg!) this is pretty easy to do. WPShout reviewed Beaver Builder and highly recommends it, and I’m inclined to agree.

 Writing good titles

Once a post is finished I’ll look again at the title. I used to follow formulaic guidelines on writing titles, but I’ve found very little merit in doing this; you just get the same kinds of shitty clickbait titles everyone else has. These are no good.

The best technique I’ve found for coming up with good titles is to just come up with three of four different versions of the title. With each iteration, the title gets better. Here’s what I had for this post:

  • Tools I use to write, edit and publish blog posts
  • Tools I use to write, edit and publish blog posts quickly
  • How I write, edit and publish blog posts efficiently
  • How I wrote, edited and published 1000+ blog posts
  • Secrets from writing, editing and publishing 1,000+ blog posts

The first title is what the first draft of this post was written as. It accurately describes the content in the post, but isn’t very exciting. I kept on revising until I had something which adds intrigue (the “secrets”) and authority (I’ve written a lot of blog posts). The resulting title is a lot more exciting than the original.

Optimising images

Image optimisation is an important part of the editing process. If you’re writing in WordPress it makes sense to add your images as you go, but I prefer to do them all in bulk at once at the end.

This is not just a case of throwing some images into your post. I highly recommend using images to illustrate examples, but not just for the sake of it. You’ll note posts on this blog are virtually image-free – in part as an aesthetic choice and in part cause they’re only necessary in very few cases.

Alright, so once you have good images you can add them in. I run images through ImageOptim (Mac only but lists PC alternatives) to cut down files sizes. This little app does a great job (I’ve even started using it to compress my photo archive – you can preserve EXIF data and image quality) and can hugely cut file sizes. I generally don’t worry about resizing images as Jetpack handles this.

This isn’t hard: just make sure you’re doing it.

There’s more to publishing than pressing publish

Publishing is obviously just a case of hitting Publish in WordPress, but if you just do that chances are nobody will read your post. Promoting a post really doesn’t take long, but you do need to actually do it.

I have a set promotion plan for blog posts. I’d strongly recommend formulating one of your own and just repeating it every time you publish: this makes it a much faster process. Here’s what I do:

  • Automatically tweet the post. I use Jetpack for this.
  • Post on a minimum of two social sharing sites. Typically find an appropriate subreddit, ManageWP if it’s WordPress-related, Hacker News for tech/productivity stuff and GrowthHackers or Inbound for marketing content.
  • Contact anyone I’ve mentioned in the article and give them a link. I don’t do this a lot, but if I’ve heavily relied on a source or given someone a nice mention I’ll drop them an email or tweet with a link. I don’t ask for anything – just provide a link. They’ll share if they like it. Hunter is great for finding email addresses.
  • Outreach to relevant weekly link roundup emails or posts is great. Find these by Googling industry + weekly roundup but set the results to only show in the last month.

None of this is difficult, but because it feels like your post is “done” once you hit publish, seldom is enough time spent on promotion. Not every post will be a social hit, but don’t worry about; keep producing really good content and keep sharing it and eventually people will take notice.

Content promotion also isn’t an open-ended task: see above for what I do, but make a list of what’s best for the kind of content you produce and stick to it every time you publish a post.

Finally, I have a bunch of statistics I track which I enter every Monday morning. This lets me see how last week’s post did, how the site is growing (or not) and how changes in the last week fit in with the bigger picture.

A couple of tools I use here that are useful:

  • Jetpack (again) for site stats. I also have Google Analytics installed, by Jetpack is fine.
  • Serplab for checking keyword rankings. I enter the keyword for that week’s post and note any changes to other posts.
  • Majestic for checking backlinks. I just make a note of the total number and see how it’s changed from last week.

Other than this, I don’t check stats; scheduling it for once a week stops it being a procrastination task but makes sure you’re on top of what’s happening. I wrote more about my targets a couple of weeks ago.

Write more, write faster and keep publishing

You don’t have to write a thousand words before breakfast, but writing regularly is useful. Publishing regularly is even better. I’ve found when I get out of the habit of publishing putting any work out there becomes more difficult.

Not everything you write is going to be earth-shattering, but publish once a week and you’ll become a much better writer for it – and maybe then you’ll write something earth-shattering.

It’s also important not to overcomplicate this. Don’t feel you need the perfect writing app or the perfect post idea or the perfect title before you start. The “secrets” here are the things I’ve gotten better at in the last eight or so years, they’re not essential prerequisites for starting out now.

There’s a lot in this post. Don’t treat it as a must-follow blueprint, but take advantage of the things I’ve learned and use the ones which suit you to become a better writer. And, if you write a post that changes the world, do let me know 🙂

Here’s what you should do to escape the social media echo chamber

Nobody expected Donald Trump to become President-Elect Trump, not even his own team. The polls were wrong, the pundits were wrong but one of the most incredible things is 55 percent of Democrats and 58 percent of Republicans have very unfavourable views of the other party. Over half of both parties are “fearful” or “afraid” of the opposite party.

This last statistic is almost as incredible as Mr Trump winning the election: most voters on each side regard the other as something to be feared.

This is certainly a sentiment I’m familiar with: in May 2015 I found it inconceivable anyone could vote for David Cameron’s Conservatives (they won a majority) and in June this year I found it very difficult to see Brexit as an appealing option (that won as well).

The 2015 General Election election, Brexit and now President Trump has left me in no doubt the failure to understand the effect of the social media “echo chamber” is a serious cause of our collective failure to understand the opposition’s point of view.

There’s been collective outpouring in the media in recent days navel-gazing about how we got into this mess, but the more important question here is how do we get out of this mess?

Enter the echo chamber

Whilst I just gently mocked media navel-gazing about how we go to this state of affairs, to understand how to get out the echo chamber we need to understand how we got in the thing in the first place.

The idea of the echo chamber has been around for a long time (this paper was published in 1966), but social media has amplified its prevalence. An echo chamber is:

A phenomen whereby groups of people in possession of homogenous ideas exist in isolation to those who think differently from them.

This becomes a problem when:

  1. People have Facebook friends who agree with them on political issues.
  2. Facebook becomes people’s number one news source.

If you get your news from Facebook and everyone on Facebook agrees with you, you can see how easily you could think the opposing party are outright dangerous.

The problem is heightened by Facebook’s news feed algorithm, which prioritises the most outrageous and click-friendly stories, rather than the “best” or most accurate.

Facebook’s news feed algorithm prioritises clickbait (if other users respond well to a post you’re more likely to see – so clickbait does best). Publishers quickly realised the best performing clickbait is the most outrageous articles.

Traditional publishers push this as far as they can: Vox and Daily Mail feel their feeds with fairly low quality stuff. This is annoying at best and mildly negative at worst, but at least content published in mainstream media outlets is true most of the time (mind the Mail is hardly a bastion of the truth).

False stories are the best clickbait

All links show the same on Facebook, and similarly all news sources all show up the same way, regardless of their credibility, so new pages and sources have sprung up, unrestrained by inconveniences such as “the truth” and happy to post the most outrageous clickbait possible.

Turns out the most outrageous clickbait possible is stories which are made up.

Buzzfeed found three large right and left wing Facebook pages published false stories 38 and 20% of the time respectively.

When Facebook is your primary news source, every third story you see being false becomes a problem. Buzzfeed cites these pages as one of the leading causes of Mr Trump’s rise:

The right-wing pages [and their false stories] are among the forces — perhaps as potent as the cable news shows that have gotten far more attention — that helped fuel the rise of Donald Trump.

Another Buzzfeed story epitomises the mess we’re in as entrepreneurial teenagers from Macedonia launched over 140 political blogs where they publish false Trump stories “for a easy way to make money” through ad revenue. One group of teens reported their sites launched this year have been averaging a million views a month.

When your news consumption has evolved to clickbait that’s evolved to stories trying so hard to be outrageous they make up the most outrageous thing possible, we have a problem.

Facebook produces homogenous thinking

Is Facebook to blame here? It probably needs to take some responsibility for offering partisans on both sides:

A limitless, on-demand narrative fix, occasionally punctuated by articles grounded in actual world events, when those suit their preferences.

Facebook has been roundly criticised, but it seems unwilling to change. Mark Zuckerberg said last week “the idea that fake news on Facebook… influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea”.

I’d argue it’s utterly implausible that fake stories on people’s primary news source doesn’t influence their thinking. Facebook must be treated not solely as a technology company, as it would like, but as a technology/news distribution hybrid. It’s got to start taking some responsibility for what people share on their platform and can’t keep rewarding false reporting.

Apparently Facebook was concerned about this but declined to change anything, for fear of a backlash. News this morning has surfaced of movement towards action, but blocking the worst offenders still doesn’t fix the underlying echo chamber problem.

So – if Facebook isn’t going to help, how can you and I get out of this mess?

How do we get out of this mess?

Escaping the echo chamber requires recognising its existence and actively fighting it. It’s actually pretty straightforward from there. Here are some things you can do:

Stop using Facebook as a news source. Seriously, this mostly solves the problem in one stroke. Go back to seeing pictures of babies, parties and cats instead. I’d even argue you should just outright turn off your news feed. Use News Feed Eradicator and messenger.com.

Don’t use Twitter as your only news source. Twitter is still good for breaking news and doesn’t feature the same popularity algorithm, but it can still be bad if you’re only following people you agree with.

Actively look for people you disagree wth. Replace your Facebook news consumption with a range of quality news from a range of reputable outlets. This is harder in that it’s less convenient than just loading up Facebook, but bookmarking two or three sites isn’t especially burdensome. Podcasts are a convenient way of getting news, too.

Here are some sources I’d recommend:

Liberal

Conservative

  • The Economist (classical liberal rather than conservative; the magazine is very good and worth considering).
  • National Review (seen this recommended a lot recently).
  • Manhattan Institute (again, only recently picked this up; describes itself as a free market think tank).

Others

(You may be able to tell: I’m not a conservative. I’ve been trying to find who the really good Conservative commentators are. Still on the look out, but added a bunch of people to my reading list using this Quora question. Let me know if you have recommendations).

This is definitely a fixable problem

So, things are pretty bad.

Fortunately, whilst this is a serious problem it’s also easy to fix. Diversify your news consumption away from Facebook and you go a long way to fixing this.

Hopefully the options here can continue the Facebook conversation and start a movement in the right direction. Until then, we’re left with President Trump and an incomprehensible political opposition.

Enjoy.