How can I improve my writing skills?

Nelson Wang

My first book that I wrote was a huge failure.

It sold less than 50 copies. I’m pretty sure my mom bought one of them.

She never read it.

Thanks Mom. Your heart was in the right place.

It was an ebook with a bright red and baby blue cover that I made in Microsoft Powerpoint. Some of my friends laughed when they saw it. Recently I looked at it and laughed too. It sucked. There’s no other way to describe it.

I never gave up though. I kept writing. A lot.

I spent 2 years trying to write as much as I could while working a full time job. I’d be at a cafe or in my kitchen hacking away on the computer late into the night. My second book took me an entire year to write.

It paid off. That book generated over 40,000 Kindle downloads and hit #1 in the paid “Resumes” category. When I ran a free promotion it also hit the top 100 free Kindle books in the world. I remember waking up and seeing the downloads spike. It was like a dream.

That’s when I knew I could write.

Since then, I ended up writing 6 books, 18 Quora posts, countless blog posts and 30 editorial pitches.

And then finally, after all that writing, I got picked up by a major publication: Business Insider. I did a fist pump and did a high five with friends. I texted my Mom.

And then something crazy happened. Another publication picked it up. And another. And another.

Now my writing has been picked up by Inc., Time, Fortune, Forbes, Huffington Post, Lifehack and Thought Catalog.

So what’s the secret to being a great writer? There isn’t one. There are lessons though. And I thought it would help a ton if I shared my top 10 lessons that I’ve learned along the way.

1. Write a killer title – My first book was focused on career advice and was called “Push.” The theme was that we should continually push ourselves everyday in our career to be successful.

It was a terrible title.

Remember, you usually have only a few seconds to grab someone’s attention. The title is meant to draw them in so that they click to learn more.

Be bold. Be brave. Be controversial. Be exciting.

Don’t play it safe.

For example, my second book was focused on using out of the box ideas and social media to land your dream job.

Would “Land Your Dream Job with Social Media” be a good book title? No way. I’m pretty sure I’d only sell one copy. (Thanks Mom!)

So what did I do? I went for a title that would snatch people’s attention. I named that book “The Resume is Dead.”

For the cover art, I had a professional artist from Disney draw a bunch of little zombies dressed up in work clothes.

Don’t believe me? Check out the book cover here.

2. Be authenticWrite with your own unique voice. Don’t try to be someone else. You are not Stephen King. You are not JK Rowling. You are not Nicholas Sparks. You are you. And that’s awesome. Find your own style.

If you haven’t found it, start by creating more life experiences. When you have more life experiences, you’ll find your voice.

If people wanted to read an article that sounded like a college textbook, they would read a textbook. But guess what, that’s not what the majority of people want to read!

People don’t want normal. People don’t want the same old stuff. People want fresh. People want new. Give them that voice.

Let me give you a quick example that was illustrated by Seth Godin in his book “The Purple Cow.”

Let’s say you’re driving down the highway and you see a bunch of brown cows. Would you do anything? Probably just drive by. And hold your nose.

But what if you saw a purple cow? I’d bet you stop. Or at least take a picture. #Instagramworthy

Be the purple cow.

3. Have more life experiences – Speaking of being authentic and unique, one of the best ways to improve your writing is to have more life experiences.

Sure, you could write fiction mainly from your imagination and it might be a huge hit. It’s possible.

But just think for a second how life experiences can help take your writing to the next level:

*Characters: You can get inspiration for your characters from the real world. Like that free spirited, witty, fun and beautiful media planner you just met at the Twitter party.

*Stories: Now you’ve got real stories to share. That’s credibility. That’s raw. I write all the time about how it took me 10 tries before I built a top 100 iPhone entertainment app. It’s much easier to write when you’re writing from memory.

*It helps you keep it real: Seriously, you want to write a love story, but you’ve never fallen in love? Or your want to write about working out, but have never lifted weights in your life and don’t plan on doing so? Tough sell. Good luck.

4. Write with emotion – If you’re writing an inspirational piece, your article should  be beaming with passionate rainbows. If you’re writing a dramatic piece, your article should fill people’s eyes with tears. If you’re writing a humorous piece, your article should make them laugh until they’re crying.

I once wrote an article about one of my best friends who passed away from cancer. I literally felt an overwhelming sense of pain and sadness when I wrote it. Especially when I had to relive the moment of finding about his death.

It was one of the most raw pieces of writing I’ve ever done.

And it was one of my best articles. He would be proud of it.

Write like it matters.

5. Tell a story worth retelling – People love stories. But does your story pass the “retelling” test?

For example – is your story so good, that people will tell other people about that?

Before you write your article or book, talk about the idea with your friends or target audience. If it stirs up a strong conversation and gets people excited, chances are it’ll past the test.

6. Test it out – “What do you mean?” That’s the typical response I get when I bring up this subject.

Yes, you could write a 300 page novel for your first book. And maybe it’ll be a huge hit.

But maybe it won’t be.

So why invest that amount of energy and time if you’re still trying to hone your craft?

Here’s a great way to improve your writing – write short form consistently and test out different writing styles.

Don’t make assumptions. Let your audience tell you what’s worthy of their time.

You can write a short form article and then post is on platforms like Medium, Quora, Facebook, Amazon’s Kindle publishing platform, your own blog (here’s mine) and many more. That’s exactly what I did and it got me published in over 7 major online publications.

7. Keep it simple – Fancy vocabulary is overrated. Write the way people talk. Most people talk simply.

Don’t complicate things. Keep it short and sweet.

8. Understand you won’t make everyone happy – You’re going to have haters. You can’t make everyone happy. That’s okay! Write for the audience that will care.

When I wrote “The Resume is Dead,” I had a ton of people tell me my ideas were crazy and wouldn’t work in the real world. I also had a ton of people tell me that the book was brilliant because it gave them fresh ideas for their job search.

Some people even said it’s the reason they got their next job.

So do I have some bad reviews on Amazon? Yeah, of course. But I have a ton more positive ones.

You won’t make everyone happy. That’s okay.

9. Relentlessly cut – Do you really need that extra word in a sentence? If not, toss it.

Cut out all the fluff.

10. Learn to persevere – When I first started writing Quora, one of my early answers got 272 views.

Another one got 576 views.

Another got 704 views.

People weren’t reading my answers. They weren’t upvoting. They weren’t leaving comments. My writing sucked.

But I never gave up.

I kept writing. I kept reading other great authors. I kept coming up with ideas.

I kept moving forward because I knew one thing: perseverance leads to mastery.

And today, months later, I have 3,800 followers on Quora and 1.7 million views on my posts.

Never give up.

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