Five years ago, a guy with big dreams sat down at an old Pentium 4 desktop and bought an Internet domain called www.mr-stingy.com. 144 articles, 300,000 words and 1.3 million views later, it’s grown to become a pretty well-known niche blog.
Writers are emotional people, and as we pass this fifth anniversary of my blog, looking back has gotten me a little nostalgic. Having put years of my life into this, I just wanted to take some time away from my usual topics, and share some thoughts around blogging. The things I’ve done well, the mistakes I’ve made, and perhaps most importantly — why?
Who Will Find This Article Useful?
- People who want to express themselves online, but aren’t sure it’s worth it, or how to start.
- Fellow writers who want ideas to improve their blogs.
- Longtime readers, followers or fans — if you wanna hear the “backstory,” or are just curious about why I do things a certain way.
Why You Should Listen to Me
I really hate “showing credentials” cause it sounds like I’m bragging. But I’m including this for newer readers, and so you know where I’m coming from. Like if you’re just starting out, I’ll probably be able to give you some good tips. (But if you’re an OG with one million monthly readers, then maybe send me some OG tips of your own?)
Anyway, over the past five years, my articles have been published on some of the most popular websites in the world including places like the Huffington Post, Thought Catalog and Business Insider. I maintain a “column” at two top sites in Malaysia: iMoney and SAYS. It feels nice to have my name out there and pretend I’m maybe a little famous.
I get invited to radio/podcast interviews every once in a while, and sometimes people pay me to speak. I once negotiated a salary increase based on skills I learned building this blog. My current employers (who I have a wonderful job with) first approached me because of an article I wrote.
In my home country of Malaysia, I rank #1 on Google for a couple of keywords. Alexa tells me I’m one of the top million websites in the world — in the 0.5%. Tens of thousands of people visit very month and interact with me online. I’ve met wonderful people on the Internet who’ve become good friends in real life.
But perhaps what I’m proudest of is I’ve done all the above while maintaining my principles. I haven’t paid to buy followers or get attention. I’ve spent almost zero dollars on promotion or outsourcing. I’ve stayed clear of “hacks,” unethical tactics, and things I’d feel “Ewww” about. And I’ve done it while maintaining a full-time job, making two big career changes, not getting into conflicts of interests, and earning multiple promotions.
I’ve stayed true to myself, written whatever I’ve wanted to write about, and had tons of fun. mr-stingy has always been a passion project, a hobby — and it remains a hobby. But wow, even hobbies can change your life.
Why You Should Take What I Say With a Pinch of Salt
- I currently average somewhere between 30,000 – 40,000 views per month. I’m very grateful, but this is tiny compared to the greatest blogs in the world.
- I’m not a social media “influencer” by any stretch. I’ve got about 8,400 followers on Facebook and 4,400 on Twitter (thanks guys, your support means a lot to me!). But by definition, even “micro-influencers” are supposed to have >10,000 followers.
- I haven’t made tons of money from this. If you’re looking for someone to teach you how to make money online, I’m not your guy. Sure, I make some (profit projection for 2019: USD 2,500), and I know how people do it, but this blog has always been more about sharing ideas than making me rich.
If you’re looking for why it’s still worth building a presence on the Internet today and how though, maybe I can help. This is Part One of the “Lessons From 5 Years of Writing” series — focused on starting a blog.
Look out for Part Two and Three in the near future:
- Start: Tips for starting from zero
- Balance: Maintaining an online presence without going crazy
- Thrive: Winning in today’s Internet
Part 1: Tips for Starting From Zero
1. How to Start
The most important thing when you start is to write frequently, and to write well. A lot of people get hung up about things like “which font should I use?”, “what color should I make the menu?” and “how do I include that cute Facebook share button in the bottom right corner?”
Yes, these things kinda matter, but they’re also technical things which can get needlessly complicated. My advice is to get the geeky stuff out of the way quickly: buy your domain, sign up with a host, setup WordPress, choose your theme — then jump straight into writing. Don’t worry, other features can be added on later. As long as your blog loads within a few seconds and is easy to read, we’re good to go.
And I get it — you want a page that looks perfect and will WOW people; something you’re proud of. But even the prettiest website in the world will fail without good content. So focus on content; quality content. Everything else is secondary.
Rhythm — How Often to Write?
Try to write every day for at least an hour.
Without going overboard of course — trying to force too much in a single session leads to bad writing. Personally, I aim for 1 hour of writing on weekdays (still got a job to pay the bills remember?), and 2-3 hours on Sundays. Any more than 2-3 hours/day and my performance drops.
Write daily, yet don’t feel pressured to publish a new article every day. Publish whenever you’re ready, whether it takes 1 day or 5 days to finish. Because in a world full of trash articles, quality >> quantity.
Just don’t take too long — when you’re starting out, you need to establish rhythm. Writing every day establishes rhythm for you. Posting according to a regular schedule — say once a week, or at max once every two weeks — establishes rhythm for your readers.
2. What to Write About?
Write whatever you’re passionate about.
Yeah I know, the writing world is divided about this one: some say write for others, while others say write for yourself. If you write for yourself, the big worry is nobody wants to read your shit. On the other hand, if you write for others, the worry is you don’t care enough about the topic — thus your writing will suck.
How to find a balance? I believe in #1 bestselling author Mark Manson’s approach:
“Write for yourself, edit for others.”
Which means choose topics you’re passionate about, but write it in a way your audience can easily understand. For example, let’s say I’m writing about Bitcoin — something I care deeply about. Bitcoin is an extremely complicated topic, involving multiple disciplines like economics, psychology, computer science and advanced mathematics.
But if I’m covering it on my blog, I have to understand that 99% of my audience doesn’t care about public-private key pairs and Elliptic Curve Algorithms. Instead, I try to explain it using simple examples like friendly island villagers and stones on a beach. Things that anyone would be able to relate to.
Choosing a Niche
“But what if I’m passionate about something no one else cares about?”
Here’s where the epic coolness of the Internet kicks in. The amazing thing about our World Wide Web is it allows strangers from all over the world to get connected, no matter how niche or unique their ideas are. You think no one else is passionate about the same things as you. I say there are billions of people online — if you write and promote well, eventually you’ll find your “people.”
Exception: If you’re blogging to make money, then yeah, choosing a popular niche is important. Going into a topic without enough popularity makes it harder to make money. Then again, understand that it’s already pretty hard to make money writing. Most blogs don’t. There’s plenty of comfortable bankers and accountants and lawyers out there, but how many writers do you see hanging around in Louis Vuitton?
Hence I think it’s better for beginner writers to choose a topic they really enjoy. The “Do it for fun, and if it makes a bit of money — that’s a bonus!” approach.
Another tip: the era of personal-life blogs has come and gone (or maybe it’s evolved to Instagram). If you’re starting a blog today, please don’t do early-2000s-style posts: “Oh, I had this for lunch yesterday, hihi <insert 10 pics>” and expect tons of followers.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write about food, travel or fashion. They’ll always be popular topics. But how do you make your food writing stand out vs the billion other food blogs? Right, make your content super good.
Either that or maybe consider some less-congested topics — niches where there’s a lack of quality content, but people are asking tons of questions. How about personal finance, home fitness, mobile gaming, or cooking?
Once you’ve chosen your niche topic, make it the central theme within your blog. Let’s say your niche is “rock climbing” — cover every possible angle around it. When people visit your website, they should immediately know what it’s about. Make it super obvious. You want them to think: “Oh rockcorner.com? That’s the best, most useful rock climbing website I’ve ever read!”
Admittedly, mr-stingy doesn’t do this well. A lot of people probably know me for my money articles. But I write about whatever I feel like — which sometimes leads to exotic things like “How to be a Better Karaoke Singer” and “I Fall Asleep Inappropriately But BBQ Twisties Saved My Life.” It can get confusing for the reader. Who knows, if I’d focused on just money — maybe I’d have my own TV show by now.
But I can’t help it, I’m a person with many interests. I’ve chosen to live with this “weakness.” It’s just me, and this is how my blog shall be.
3. How to Write Well
Good writing is hard work. Don’t let shitty writers tell you otherwise. It’s the #1 reason why some blogs get shared like crazy, while others remain unknown.
When you read something really well written, you’ll likely feel this combination of “Wow,” “I learned something!” and some strong emotion pulling at your heart. How to achieve this magical combination while still having fun?
a. Write Useful Things
People are inherently selfish. When they’re reading your stuff, maybe just 5% of them is admiring your life achievements, while the other 95% is thinking “how can I use this to make my life better?”
Give them something that’ll help solve the problems in their lives. Give them something that solved a problem in your life, but you couldn’t find anywhere else on the Internet.
Then you’ll have a connection.
b. Write With Passion
If people wanted to read boring stuff, academic journals would be bestsellers. But they’re here online, looking to learn something useful, but also be entertained.
That’s why it’s better to write about things you’re passionate about. Without feeling for the subject, there’s no way you can inject so much emotion into the writing.
If you care, you can get your audience to laugh, cry and celebrate with you.
c. Use Stories Well
Remember to share your personal stories. It’s what makes your blog uniquely you. People remember stories more than anything else.
Of course, this doesn’t mean your blog posts have to be 100% about your kick-ass life. If all your stories are about yourself, you’ll run out of material very quickly.
The best blogs have a nice balance of good stories from external sources (e.g. books, talks, other websites) and personal experiences.
d. Rewrite and Edit (a Lot)
The biggest myth I ever believed about writing is that great writers can produce amazing stuff on demand: they just need to write something once and it’s perfect.
What I’ve learned is the best writers in the world obsessively take tons of time to edit and rewrite their material — that’s why their writing is so good.
The image I like to use here is every piece of writing is a sculpture. Start with a rough draft and just put words on the page. Your first draft will always suck — that’s why you need to keep shaping, polishing and editing your sculpture until it’s a work of art.
It’s not fun to grind out revisions — not to mention you have to lower your ego, admit you suck, and be highly critical of your own work. But think about it is as respecting your readers’ time and attention. Put in effort here and you’ll stand out, because most writing out there is lazy.
Nowadays, I spend an average of about 14 hours (or ~2 weeks of focus) to finish each article. I’ve spent more than 25 hours on some. Probably 50% of that time is spent on editing and rewriting.
e. Keep It Brief
Good communication is communication without fluff. People lose interest quickly when they see unnecessary stuff. Hence, keep your writing brief. Every paragraph you include in a blog post should be useful.
(This is the other side of the coin from writing with passion. Often, when you’re passionate about something you tend to ramble on and on. Remember to balance passion with disciplined writing.)
How brief? As one of my favorite authors says:
“Make your point and get out of the way.”– Morgan Housel –
To be a great writer, you have to be a great reader. Preferably books. Immerse yourself in content from the greatest writers in the world, and even if you pick up just 1%, your writing will improve.
For more on writing better, I highly recommend William Zinsser’s classic “On Writing Well.”
4. Getting People to Read Your Stuff
Writing well is king. If you write world-class content, it’s bound to get discovered, shared and read by many.
But of course life isn’t ideal. None of us start off writing at a world-class level. 99.99% of the time, you’ll need to give people a nudge to check out your writing. This is important for two reasons:
First, because there’s nothing like people’s feedback to help you improve.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, having a growing readership motivates you to continue writing. Too many writers have given up because they felt nobody was reading: “What’s the point of me continuing if nobody cares?” And because blogs often need years to gain traction, it’s critical to stay motivated — to keep writing and keep growing.
Here are the most effective, yet ethical ways I know to grow your following:
a. Social Media
Everyone starts with this because it’s easy. Facebook post: “HEY GUYS, I’ve just started a blog — come join me at www.coffeeloverz.com and Like my page!” Which is great — every successful venture starts off with support from family and friends.
What’s hard is maintaining momentum. Because after a while, people tend to slack off. They stop posting regularly, the small flames of interest within their audience never gets fanned, and everything dies — yet another abandoned Facebook page at the graveyard of the Internet.
If I were starting out on social media today, here’s what I would do:
- Post regularly. Remember “Rhythm”? Develop social media rhythm for yourself (and to a certain extent your readers) by posting something at least once a day.
- Be helpful. “But what on earth am I going to post about every day?” Definitely not just your own material. Imagine social media to be an extension of your real-world personality. Would you talk about yourself 100% of the time when you’re meeting people? Guess not. Instead, share articles/videos/tweets/infographics/pictures/quotes from other sources that your potential audience will find useful. This is a great way to bring value to your followers while supporting other content creators.
Almost 70% of my social media posts are Shares of the best material I’ve found from other creators.
- Experiment. Every social media channel has its own style and audience. Give yourself time to experiment with different strategies and platforms. Understand that different groups of people hang out differently online: Motivational life quotes may do well on Facebook, but probably won’t get you anywhere on TikTok. I’m okay on Twitter, but will probably never understand Snapchat.
Experiment till you find a social media strategy that works for you.
- Imitate. Look at how the top personalities in your niche work their social media magic. 50% of what I learned about social media is from trying to follow the style of my blogging heroes. Never steal material though. And always give credit if you’re quoting someone.
- Focus. It’s rare for someone to conquer multiple forms of social media. I’ve been at it for five years, and think I’m barely competent at just Twitter and Facebook. Hence once you’ve run your experiments, and figured out which social media platform you like — focus your efforts there.
Once you’ve established yourself, you can extend your influence to other channels.
- Interact. Social media is meant for two-way communication. Don’t treat it like a static billboard to advertise your articles. Instead, be active. Follow people within your niche and talk to them. (Internet karma: if you never like, share and support other people, why would you expect others to support you?) It may be tough to get the attention of superstars, but you can always make Internet friends with others who’re starting out like you.
Join groups where your audience hangs out. Be helpful and answer questions. Be a supportive community member. Volunteer to do extra work that helps others. Ask good questions yourself. In a world where most people take, those who give gain real influence.
Lastly, don’t worry too much about virality. If one of your posts is gonna go viral, it’ll go viral. But a once-off viral post isn’t gonna get you 50,000 followers and make you a millionaire. Instead, worry about bringing the most value to your followers consistently. With time, success will come.
For more on mastering social media, I highly recommend Buffer’s blog.
b. Guest Posting
Guest posting is where another website publishes your writing, while giving a link/credit back to you. For example, you’ll find: “Aaron is the founder of mr-stingy.com where he writes about optimizing time, money and relationships.” at the bottom of my guest articles.
It’s a powerful way to introduce your material to many more people, while helping answer an important question: “Why should I listen to this random person on the Internet?”
Social proof: “Because he’s published on www.<insert famous website here>.com, he’s gotta have some quality right?”
Here’s my tips for guest posting:
- Be bold. Confession: I’m terrified of rejection. I can still remember the churning in my stomach the first time I pitched an article to an editor. I spent the next few hours compulsively checking my email for a response, only to receive a “perhaps next time” the next day.
Five years and 50 guest articles later, I still get nervous when I send my writing out. IMHO, the biggest barrier to people getting published is internal fear: “But I’m not good enough.”
Yes, none of us are perfect. But if you never try, you’ll never know.
- Be good. I’ve mentioned “high quality” so many times you’re probably sick of it now. But as I mentioned earlier, in this world full of trash articles, quality stands out. Being bold is knocking at the door of opportunity. Being good is what opens the door.
At a minimum, your blog posts should be 100% free of typos and grammar mistakes. They should also be factually correct. Once you’ve got these covered, your writing will be judged on content and style.
I know — at the start, it can be very hard to tell if your work is good enough to be published. But can you honestly say you’ve put your everything into an article? Are you proud of what you’ve written?
If so, then it’s time to show your work to some influential people, and ask them what they think.
- Pitch. It simply starts with an email. “How do I find out the editor’s email?” you might ask. No, you don’t need to have prior connections or influence. I started from zero too. Most websites already list editors’ email addresses or social media profiles. Some even have a “Submissions” page, where you can directly upload your material. At the very minimum, there’s always “Contact Us” or “About Us” pages.
Put those Internet stalking skills you’ve honed over the years to some good use (seriously, time to move on from your ex). With some effort, I’m sure you’ll be able to send a message to almost any editor you’re looking for. That’s the easy part. The harder one: demonstrate why you can bring value to the editor’s life, and why your article is suitable.
You’ll probably get rejected/ignored a lot. I still get that too. Don’t take it personally. In recent years, many websites have moved away from accepting contributions. And editors always have too much work to handle. The good news is, the Internet is a big place — you can always try somewhere else.
(For a step-by-step guide on pitching, check out this article from Writer’s Digest.)
- Start somewhere. In your first year, you probably won’t make the front page of Time magazine. (Maybe not even in your first ten years. I certainly haven’t.) But you can always start at smaller websites who don’t have 10,000 aspiring writers knocking down their door. You can even ask blogs similar to yours if they’re willing to accept guest posts. Build confidence by starting small.
For almost two years before I started my own blog, I was writing relationship articles for an online women’s magazine. Random eh? That never really took off, but I’m still building on the confidence I gained by getting accepted there all those years ago.
Your writing journey is a lifelong marathon — we’re just getting started.
c. Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
Do you remember how you first landed on some of your favorite websites? If it wasn’t via social media, odds are you searched for something on Google, and clicked on one of the first few results.
“How to get more visitors from search engines?” In short, that’s what SEO is. There’s a lot of science and art behind it — and you might be surprised to learn that people can build entire companies and careers around SEO. Even a beginner’s guide like this one is already super long.
I’m oversimplifying — but for someone who’s just starting out, the most important thing to know about SEO is this:
Find out what your audience is searching for, and write quality content around it.
For example, let’s say your blog is about playing guitar left-handed, and you discover (using an SEO tool called Google Keyword Planner) that 20,000 people are searching for “How to play Taylor Swift songs using your left hand?” If nobody is answering the question, guess what becomes inspiration for your next article?
Remember the first principle of writing well: write useful things.
Write it well and organize it well so search engines can start finding you. Then you’ll have your own steady stream of traffic — people really interested in the things you write about.
d. Build Relationships
Make friends online.
Not because you wanna use your Internet friends to share your articles. But because you’re now part of the Internet writing community. There’s a lot you can learn and gain from the community. There’s also a lot you can give.
Who should you be talking to online? Everybody and anybody who’s related to the things you write about:
- Your readers. Especially people who comment, like and share your stuff.
- People who ask questions at places like Quora, Reddit, forums and Facebook groups.
- Other content creators in your niche.
- Other content creators not directly in your niche, but have common areas of interest. For example, a home-cooking blogger and a music blogger might write about different things, but can share social media tips with each other.
- Editors and social media people at websites.
Business Insider has a great story about how Kobe Bryant — one of the greatest basketball players of all time — often cold emails successful people from other fields. To build relationships and learn from them. Sure, you probably don’t have celebrities’ phone numbers like Kobe, but you can similarly approach people you admire.
I understand, maybe you’re shy. I was too — “who am I that somebody influential would reply me?” So to get you started, here are some simple ideas on how you can spark conversations.
- A fellow “newbie”: Send them an email, introducing yourself and telling them about your blog. Let them know you’re open for collaborating on projects, happy to help if they need support, or just available to chat as a friend.
- A social media person from a website: Provide useful answers when they ask questions. Social media is all about engagement, and websites are dying for supporters with intelligent comments.
- An influential content creator: Share something they created on social media and tag them, telling the world exactly why you loved it. Don’t flatter, but be genuine!
Just to set expectations — the more famous the person you approach, the harder it’ll be to get a response. It’s not that they’re mean — they just have too many people contacting them all the time. It’s always easier to develop friendships with people who are more similar to you. Grow and learn together — it’ll be amazing to look back in five years’ time and see how far you’ve come.
Once you’ve made some online friends, why not take it to real life? Organize a small gathering of Internet writers. Buy someone lunch. Online friends can become offline friends too.
Most importantly, as in real life — building relationships is all about helping each other, not trying to use each other. If you’re not sincere, it’ll show and people will get turned off. I’ve found the best mindset in life for making friends is this: “Is there something I can help you with?”
e. Master the Feedback Loop
Your readers are your customers. Delight them — and not only will they come back for more, they’ll bring their friends.
Hence you should always be looking for feedback from your readers. Speak to them often — whether it’s through email or social media. Some useful things you can ask:
- Who they are and where they’re from
- What they liked about your article
- What they didn’t like
- Why they shared your article
- The challenges they’re currently facing
- Suggestions for improvements to your blog
- What they’re interested to read about next
Use what you learn to keep improving and finding your blog’s Ikigai: what you love, what you’re good at, and what the world needs. Bonus if you get paid.
You might think you only have a small handful of readers and you’re not gonna get much information. But even the greatest things start small.
Some of my best articles were written because of a single question that someone asked me. I didn’t even bother checking if it was popular on search engines. It was just a question that I felt strongly about.
It’s super difficult to reach the heights of a blog with millions of followers. But to write something that can help change the life of just one person, or a small group of people? Anyone can do that.
It’s hell of a rewarding thing too. During all those times when I’ve felt down or like giving up, I’ve asked myself this: “Have I at least made a difference in one person’s life?”
5. How to Persist
A lot of people tell me they want to write. A few actually start posting articles. But most give up after a while.
Not that there’s any shame in moving on. Some people are more passionate about baking cupcakes or making bottle cap challenge videos. I believe everyone should explore their creative side, wherever it leads to.
If you still wanna write though, let’s talk. Remember, it can take years for a blog to get popular. Sharpening your writing skills needs time and persistence. Here’s some thoughts on how to persist:
a. Build a Routine
Right at the start, we spoke about writing for at least an hour every day. But I bet in your busy schedule, even an hour is incredibly hard to find. My suggestion is to set a location and time for this, away from all distractions: protect yourself from being hijacked.
Early in the morning is a common recommendation. For example, a good routine might be: “I will write every day from 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. in my living room before anyone else wakes up.”
Over the years, I’ve experimented with different routines. I’ve tried writing at night after dinner (didn’t work — too tired). I’ve tried cramming seven to eight hours of writing on Sundays (didn’t feel good, and the output wasn’t great). It’s only when I built my current morning routine that I found a good balance: writing consistently, enjoying it, and producing good quality.
For more on building strong routines, I highly recommend James Clear’s blog and bestselling book: Atomic Habits.
b. Lean on Your Community
Writing can be lonely. It might seem like heaven for introverts, but all of us need support and encouragement sometimes. When you’re feeling stuck or discouraged, make sure to speak to other people within your community.
Think about all the times when you’ve managed to persist in some voluntary project. More likely than not, you had friends who made the journey much more meaningful.
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”– African proverb –
c. Work Your Own Feedback Loop
Every once in a while, it’s worth looking back and thinking about how writing is making you feel. (What I’m also doing while writing this one.) If you’re gonna be doing this for the long term, focus on the aspects you enjoy.
For example, maybe you realize that writing listicles filled with GIFs makes you feel shitty. (So uhm, maybe do it less?) On the other hand, you might find that drawing stick cartoons to illustrate your points makes you and your audience really happy. Keep doing the stuff that makes you feel good.
Over time, your writing strategy will evolve. Who knows — maybe you’ll end up with a YouTube channel instead. But that’s a good thing.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about persistence, it’s that if you don’t enjoy the process, you’ll eventually give up. This is true in writing and every other aspect of life.
Maybe I’m making this sound a little scarier than it needs to be. But I’m trying to paint a realistic picture of how much persistence a blog needs to survive. A lot. I encourage you to find simple ways to make the process more enjoyable. Has it been tough for me to keep my blog going? Yes.
Has it been worth it? Absolutely.
– – –
I started this thing five years ago. My routine is to wake up early in the morning and write. But many times I fail and just stay in bed — because I’m afraid to stare at the blank page and squeeze my brain for the right words. Sometimes I feel like giving up.
But somehow, I’ve always come back to this. I’m still logging into WordPress and grinding out articles. Even when I feel like shit and my writing is shittier. Even when I feel the world doesn’t give a damn anymore.
What makes a writer isn’t talent, wisdom, or having a way with words. What makes someone a writer is that they keep coming back — despite every objection in their minds and weariness in their bodies — and grind out another hour of writing. It’s that something deep inside that needs to be expressed; that somehow gives even the least among us enough courage to overcome our darkest insecurities, and show ourselves to the world by hitting “Publish.” That’s it. That’s enough.
I’m a writer. I hope you’ll be one too.
– – –
Pic from Pexels.