7 Powerful Lessons I Learned from Nicholas Cole’s Online Writing Book


Practical Steps to Capture (and Keep) Reader Attention

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I want to be a better writer.

I’m not a bad writer, but I know there is room for improvement. I want to hone my craft and develop new strategies to help me compete more with other online writers.

After several recommendations on podcasts and blog posts, I decided to read The Art of Business and Online Writing by Nicholas Cole, (affiliate link).

It’s a step-by-step guide from one of Medium’s most popular content creators, and it’s aimed at anyone interested in creating engaging online writing.

Here’s what I learned.

1. Blogging is Dead

If you don’t have an established audience, a blog is an inefficient way of getting one. There is too much competition, and the only real ways to drive traffic are through ads, SEO, and social media.

That’s a lot of work for someone like me who only writes part-time.

“When you start a blog, you aren’t really in the business of writing. You’re in the business of ads, products, or services.” (Cole, 2020)

Like many of us, I learned this lesson the hard way.

I had a blog for years. I thought it was the best way to establish an online presence and get my writing seen online. No rules but my own. No editors, just me. Also, no traffic.

After years of writing, I would be lucky to average 150 hits a day.

That’s why I turned to Medium. The audience is already here. If you write compelling content, there is no shortage of people ready to read it.

2. Data is King

I enjoy online writing. I put my best thoughts on a virtual page and send them out into the world to see what people think about them.

However, to understand what truly resonates with your audience, you need to look at the data. The data is key to your success.

“There are two types of writers today: those who use data to inform and improve their writing, and those who fail.” (Cole, 2020)

I do look at my Medium stats. They are a valuable and insightful summary of the work I create, but I know I can make better use of them.

I need to use them more to identify the topics I should double down on and forget about the topics that don’t do as well.


3. Play to Win

Online writing is a game. Like most games, you can play for fun, or you can play to win. The same is true of online writing. If you want to be successful, widely read, and make a good income, you have to play to win.

Cole has a seven-step process that you can use to level up your writing. It includes everything from picking your genre to optimizing your style. However, what stood out for me was writing consciously vs. unconsciously.

“You have to start opening your eyes to the way the game is played, who your competition is, and what they are doing that is capturing (and keeping) people’s attention — so that you can do the same.” (Cole, 2020)

I can do better here. I want to do better here. However, I don’t want to lose my love of writing, so it’s just about finding a balance versus churning out optimized content that I don’t enjoy writing.

dice with letters on a table. in the middle of the table are four dice arranged to spell the word game.
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4. Feed the Beast

The social writing platforms like Medium, Twitter, LinkedIn, or Quora are great proving grounds for writers, but you will only reap the highest rewards if your output is consistent and posted on multiple platforms.

“Consistent output is the secret to every growth metric on the internet: Views, Comments, Likes, Shares, etc.” (Cole, 2020)

As someone who writes when he has time, this is a challenge. Life is busy. Writing is not my full-time job.

However, consistency doesn’t necessarily mean you have to write every day. For instance, Cole says the minimum you should aim for is two pieces of new writing every month.

I think this is doable for me. I want to write more, but I have other commitments that I also need to honor.

5. Be Better Than the Rest

There are five types of online writing. You will recognize them when you see them, and you will likely have your favorites among them. The internet is saturated with examples of these topics. They are:

  1. The Actionable (How-to) Guide
  2. Opinion pieces
  3. Curated Lists
  4. Stories
  5. A Credible Talking Head

The chances of you writing something in one of these spaces that no one else has already written is slim. So, do your research. Find out what the competition wrote about, take notes on how it could be improved, and then do it better.

“The way you “win” the game of online writing is by creating the single best version of whatever form of writing you’re using in your chosen category.” (Cole, 2020)

Sometimes I feel like I should avoid reading what others have already said on a topic for fear of regurgitating the same content.

However, as Cole suggests, if I approach the competition with a more critical eye, I can be more focused on how I can write a better version of what is already out there.

An empty chess board. A hand is being used to knock the black king over with the white queen.
Photo by GR Stocks on Unsplash

6. The Art of the Headline

The headline that I use at the start of my writing process is rarely the headline I have when I publish the final version. As the article starts to take shape, I revisit the headline and refine it to reflect my writing better.

“Before you start writing anything, the very first thing you should do is think deeply about the headline, the frame, and the focal point you are presenting to your reader.” (Cole, 2020)

The headline is the first thing the reader sees when scrolling through a website, so it has to be impactful. You can accomplish this if your headline tells the reader:

  1. What this piece of writing is about
  2. Who this piece of writing is for
  3. The problem that this article will solve

Cole cautions against clickbait headlines but emphasizes that your headline still needs to be good enough to make people want to click a link to read it. The elements above help with that, and there are more good examples of headlines in his book, The Art of Business and Online Writing, (affiliate link).

7. Endless Ideas

Do you ever struggle to think about topics to write about? I do. That’s why I liked Cole’s Endless Idea Generator.

As its name would suggest, it’s a method you can use this method to generate all the article ideas you need. Here’s how it works.

You start by choosing the type of article you want to write. (You can see those listed above in lesson #5).

Then, consider the idea you are trying to communicate. Are you writing an explanation, tips, stories, habits, mistakes, or lessons learned?

Once you have that under your belt, you need to consider your credibility. Why should people invest their time in reading what you have written? Are you a subject expert? Did you talk to or summarize subject experts? Or are you just sharing your opinion in an articulate and engaging manner?

Combining these three ideas makes it a lot easier to generate an idea for your next successful online article.

BONUS TIP: Conclusions are Optional

I hate writing conclusions. Mine always seem so contrived or superfluous.

So, imagine my delight when Cole said that conclusions are optional. If you think about it, they rarely add anything additional to an article, and the reader has almost always got what they came for before reading a conclusion.

“Your last main point is technically the climax of the piece. And if we know anything about digital readers, it’s that as soon as they are “done”, they’re done. They’ve already swiped back to their feed.” (Cole, 2020)

Obviously, it is more nuanced than that. There are good ways to end an article without adding a formal conclusion, and Cole talks about those, but not every article needs one.

Sometimes, you can just say what you need to say and leave it at that.

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