How to write a popular piece that spreads around in five easy steps -
1. Write a lot.
2. When you stumble into writing something that's somewhat interesting, go to step 3.
3. Spend a lot of time brainstorming titles that would entice people to want to click on it and read it.
4. Spend a lot of time writing and re-writing the first paragraph to grab people and take them on a whirlwind adventure tour right away.
5. (optional) Spend a lot of time on the last paragraph or sentence to end the piece in a satisfying way.
Now, honestly, I wish it weren't like that - I wish good, calm, stable content just won because it was good, calm, stable.
But that doesn't work as well if you want the maximum likelihood your pieces spread to new readers online.
If you write a piece called "A few thoughts on getting more things done," that's not as likely to spread as, "Kill your schedule."
"Pros and Cons of X" will tend to underperform a more outrageous, less balanced title. "Reflections on the Last Decade" is a lot less likely to spread than "Reflections on the Worstest Silliest Most Backward Decade of All Time"...
Not that they have to be negative topics, you could style things up in a positive way too. Though, negative topics do seem more conducive to spreading - for some reason it's more socially acceptable and appealing to write a filthy nasty rant than to just express appreciation for something you think works well.
I really do wish things were a little different. And maybe they will be someday, but I doubt it. Human nature being what it is, people click on absurd titles more often than respectable titles. Hell, people even do this if they expect to be offended - I think a lot of people secretly like to get outraged. Ultra-progressive people listen to hard line conservative radio to be outraged, and hyper-socially-conservative people dive into Howard Stern...
That's how things work, unfortunately - the underlying content does matter, but a little panache in title + first paragraph + conclusion makes things more likely to spread and spread faster.
If you really didn't like that it's this way, you could make a dent in the problem by spending some time promoting solid, unambitiously-titled content. I'd respect that, I'd actually love to live in a world where things won purely on some sort of objective merit, if such a world were possible.
But hey, things are how they are. You could fight it by promoting better content that's under-promoted. You could maybe transcend it with a highly curated reading list. You could decide you can't beat 'em, so you'll join 'em. Or you could pour gas on the fire by getting publicly outraged, ideally sparking a back and forth controversy of some sort, and playing right into the hand of the generator-of-outrage.
Anyways, you'll have to excuse me because we've got a Risk game to play in Beijing. I'm going for Australia.
I certainly enjoyed the way you explore your experience and knowledge of the subject! Will be following for new updates. Thanks for sharing the information.
Don't forget to pair it with a slow-played, self deprecating, wow I can't believe I've already lost attitude. Once the land war starts in Asia, you're golden.
That's how things work in Risk. :)
Hizook has achieved its initial goals -- it has been a great tool for personal development, generated plenty of professional recognition, and seen its fair share of internet fame (eg. numerous frontpage appearances on Slashdot, Reddit, HN, etc). The question is: where does it go from here? I'm currently finishing up my PhD dissertation (hence the drop-off in posting regularity), and it's not clear what my goals for the site will be going forward -- I will have to think about that a bit more.
As for titles, you are spot-on. I should invest some time to explore the craft of catchy titles. Amortized over all future title-creation activities, it would be time well spent. I'll be sure to let you know re:questions/brainstorming when I get back on the blog writing horse (a welcome change from dissertation writing!).
Wow, that really resonates with me. My blog definitely edges toward unambitious and unambiguous titles, in addition to overly-academic content and writing style (Hizook.com for those curious).
To date, I feel like I've achieved my goal -- I've gained a very niche audience (academic and professional roboticists), but the site lacks general appeal. Interesting conundrum: be happy with concise and curt language or adjust style to be "popular"?
Question from a reader -
You have maintained your commitment to being prolific which is made even more exceptional by the fact you are travelling around the world at the same time.
I realise your article on being prolific is about this, but accepting that I'm going to release a lot of crap before I realise something good is a tough wall to knock down. My biggest issue writing anything seems to be that it feel insufficent. Naturally no post I write has the length of Steve Yegge, the persuasiveness of Paul Graham, the content of Unqualified Reservations etc. etc. and while I can consciously accept this, there seems to be some mental block. How do you go "that's sufficient" and release it into the wild?
There's two basic approaches to being successful as a writer. The first, we could call the "Paul Graham / Derek Sivers" approach. This is where you explore a lot of ideas privately, go forward with the best ideas you have, and edit and polish the hell out of everything before you release it into the world. If you do this, and you've got talent as a writer, and you've got important ideas - then you're going to consistently only release masterpieces.
The second way is to just write a hell of a lot and know that a number of the things you write will turn out quite well, but your average quality level will be much lower. We could call this the "write every day no matter what" approach.
As I've mentioned, I'm not an authority on making money in general, but I do make a livable income through my two books, Make Her Chase You and Life Nomadic. I won't claim to be an expert on writing books, but I definitely have enough experience that I can probably offer a good starting point for anyone interested in doing the same. In this article I'm going to focus on how to actually write the thing, as I've come up with a pretty cool system, and then in the next I'll talk about how to actually publish it and make money.
After leaving Smiley Media, the only real job I've ever had, a friend of mine asked me why I'd never written a book about pickup. I didn't have a good answer, so I went home and decided I'd write the thing. Forty eight hours later the rough draft was completed, and a month later I was selling copies of it. Point is-- writing a book is actually a lot easier than you might expect. If you take my advice, you could easily have most of the hard work done in the next couple days, week, or month. So here's the system:
Step One: Chaotic Outline