Writer’s block is a dirty little secret.
Most writers never admit it. I’ve encountered it a few times in the last few months. When I analyze what has happened it comes down to the following:
- Feeling like any ideas I have are terrible.
- Overthinking everything.
- Not enough research.
Out of three, the third cause is the one I least expected to be a problem. Then a chat with fellow writer Todd Brison explained everything.
What most writers do
I am what Todd calls a cowboy writer. I write on the fly and don’t pre-prepare anything. I wear my cowboy pants proudly and rely on instinct.
Here’s what it looks like: I sit down to write for two full days per with nothing but a few badly written headlines in my ideas folder. Then I madly scramble around google like an out of control crash test dummy, looking for ideas to complement the headline, find evidence to back up the main points, source decent stories, and discover legitimate research to add in.
It’s a nightmare. All this research and googling kills my writing time.
Let me give you a clear example of why this is bad. If I watch a movie tonight about the life of Aretha Franklin, I’ll write down 2-3 sentences, mention it once in the next 7 days in an article, and then never think of or talk about that movie ever again. I’ve repeated that process for the last seven years.
Don’t you think that is bloody ridiculous, mate?
Of course it is. It’s insanity. I’m not alone. I’ve spoken to many writers in the communities I’m a part of that all do the same.
The huge problem
When you live life like a cowboy or cowgirl writer, all of your consumption becomes individual pieces of nothing.
You miss out on joining the dots between ideas.
To be able to join the dots you need a solid place to store ideas, jot down notes wherever you are, and synthesize what you’ve consumed.
Most of us use something like Apple Notes. It’s a disaster. Apple notes organises things the same way society does: with a hierarchy. When I search for notes via a keyword I get a word soup back as a result. It feels like I’ve been out on the piss the whole night and forgot where I put my keys when I open my notes app. As a result my notes get inputed and forgotten, instantly.
There’s a new way for writers to join the dots.
This app changed my life
It’s called Roam Research. It’s a note-taking app that us writers can use without any hierarchy. The structure is the same as the internet. There are links and backlinks on every note that you create. These act as the glue between ideas.
The real magic is the “unlinked references.” These are the suggestions made by Roam’s AI that put forward ideas to you that might be linked to the one you’re looking for.
No more decision fatigue
Traditional note-taking apps cause decision fatigue. You have to decide how to organize your notes and what folders things belong in. Some things belong in multiple folders so you have conflicts.
No more duplication
There is a huge amount of duplication in my notes. If the same quote applies to multiple notes then I end up with it copy and pasted in multiple places. Not with Roam. Roam has reference blocks. Essentially you can write the quote down once in Roam and then reference it on many different notes.
You get a handy number counter next to the original quote that tells you how many times you’ve used it and where. Because I can see the original note, I can see the context of what happened when that note was taken. This adds little details that make the quote more interesting when I share it. Why?
It’s the little details as writers that our readers care about. Imagine having the context for every note you’ve ever taken?
I hate journals. Now I love them.
I’ve always hated journalling. I’ve trashed it like a badass many times. Then Roam entered my life and moved into the spare bedroom. The context of a note, that I mentioned before, comes from the “daily notes function.”
The Roam apps automatically creates a brand new note every day with the day’s date. You can’t switch it off. I use this daily note to write down anything I observe or consume. There’s no organization. It’s all random.
Everything is linked, though, in Roam. So these random notes surround the more permanent notes that I want to use in my writing. The result is powerful context rather than an ordinary note taken in obscurity.
The magic of Roam Research isn’t obvious at first
Roam is your personal database. It takes time for it to work, though. Roam is only as good as what you put in it. In the first week it’s pretty pointless. The longer you use Roam the bigger the database becomes, therefore, the more potential there is for ideas to fall in love, have idea babies, and connect to each other in a rage of lust.
I have become obsessed. I can’t stop recording thoughts that I have.
You link your thoughts in Roam with hashtags. A hashtag is a topic. When you put loose topics around every thought, you arm yourself with a weapon you can deploy on your writing days. If I want to write a self-help article then I simply bring up Roam and look under the self-help hashtag. BAM!
All the thoughts I need are there. Then I can filter them down further based on additional hashtags I may have added. As I look at my notes the web starts to untangle. Other notes start to weave their way in — because that’s how Roam works.
Roam gives you connected thoughts. This is only spell-binding once you’ve experienced it.
How Roam Research nukes writer’s block
Good research and stories make writing easier. Roam creates a proactive library of everything you need when you sit down to write.
What I do is come up with headlines on days when I’m not writing. Then I add a few references to the headline from my Roam database that act as potential points or subheadings in the article. On my writing days all I need to do is write the intro, write the conclusion, and flesh out the pre-chosen points.
If you write down what you consume in your own words beforehand, you can simply copy and paste entire notes into the body of your article. This saves a lot of time.
It’s all about timing and energy
Before Roam I had zero confidence in my notes. So I wouldn’t use them and would try to wing it on my two writing days per week. Disaster.
It all changed when I found that the best time to write about something is when or straight after it has happened. That’s when the idea has the most energy. Roam gives me the confidence that if I spend the time to take a detailed note in the moment, then I’ll be able to:
- Find the note again.
- Ensure that note has value.
- Understand the context.
- Relive the high energy of the thought.
Remove hierarchy from your thoughts. Let the sorting of your writing ideas become automatic and intuitive with Roam’s design. Roam is so simple to use a 5th grader can figure it out in an hour.
Once you’re able to join the dots together of what you consume, your writing life undergoes an enormous overhaul. You become like a new writer.
Connected thoughts destroy procrastination forever. How? Roam.
I’ve always hated Quora.
Then my brain struggled for a few weeks to come up with writing ideas. I fired up my good ol’ Quora account again. That’s where I found a bunch of awesome questions that triggered some of my most successful writing.
Quora is notoriously hard to use. The layout isn’t pleasing to the eye. And, well, the users, I’ll tell you about them shortly.
What put Quora back into the spotlight
Quora has gained attention again after they decided to turn on multiple ways for writers to earn money.
Many writers I admire started to publish on there again recently. They offer paid memberships to Spaces (publications) and answers, and a share of the revenue from ads on the platform. It’s not a lot but for writers who are desperate to quit their jobs and do it full-time, Quora provides yet another income source.
My Experience with Quora
200-word content is so refreshing
On Quora the word count of a blog post can be a lot lower. I typically see between 200–500 words as the norm. It’s nice to write short-form again. Writer Michael Thompson gave me some critical feedback about my writing when I asked him for it.
“You try to say way too much in your articles.”
Now I aim to say one thing clearly in every Quora answer. It’s made my work a lot more focused. Instead of ranking ideas and trying to choose my darlings, I simply choose one idea.
No headlines to write
Headlines are crucial to online writing. Quora doesn’t have them.
The question asked by a Quora user acts as the headline. This is a lot of fun for me. I’ve noticed that I spend more effort on the subheadings now because of it. Fellow writer Ayodeji Awosika regularly preaches about the importance of subheadings. (This is the resource Ayo recommends here.)
Ask your own questions
I never knew you could do this. Quora writer Sean Kernan is cheeky and asks his own questions and then answers them. Through the process of asking your own question, you can come up with some wild content. Questions are the source of some of the best tweets of all time. Questions make us think. Questions help us look at both sides of an argument.
Give headlines a rest. Try asking phenomenal questions on Quora.
Answer a question with a story
The most popular answers to questions are stories. The most popular stories on Quora are personal stories. This is great for us writers. We’ve all got tonnes of personal stories.
The problem is we often don’t think our stories are valuable or we don’t know how to frame them properly as a written article that people want to read. That’s different on Quora.
In a way, Quora has lowered the barrier of entry for writers by allowing personal stories to be seen more than any other type of content. This excites me. I have hundreds of personal stories. The trouble is many of them don’t require a full-length blog post, and a tweet doesn’t allow enough space to share them. Now I have another option.
Personal experience matters
Quora has credentials. But they don’t have to be traditional credentials. You can customize the credential featured on every piece of content. For example, I answered a question about vaccinations and put my credential as “took the Pfizer vaccine last week.” The answer doesn’t offer medical advice. It offers advice on what the experience is like for those who haven’t done it yet.
By redefining credentials, you start to believe as a writer that you’re qualified to write about more topics. Credentials give readers perspective on where your writing comes from. That gives the reader the option to choose the angle of the perspective they want to read, rather than a decision about which headline or byline they like.
The secret to Quora
There’s one skill you need on Quora that you don’t need anywhere else: you have to get good at finding what questions to answer. Here are the factors you must consider to have your writing seen:
- How old is the question? Questions that are more than two years old often get no traction.
- Has a top writer already got the first spot on the question? Below every question is all the answers. They’re ranked based on views. If Sean Kernan has answered the question and got a million views already, you’re probably not going to beat his answer. Quora works the same as Google. Do you want the first search result in Google or the 8th? If you want the first result then choose questions without superstar answers.
- How many followers does the question have? This isn’t an exact science. You can answer a question with one follower and do okay. I’ve had better success when I find a question that has 5–10 followers. Followers tell me people care about the question. One follower tells me nobody cares.
- Does the question appeal to you? The smartest questions to answer that do the best are the ones that instantly speak to you. I saw a question about Game of Thrones and straight away thought of my fiancé who forced me to watch it on our second date. Questions that speak to you will produce better writing.
The Dark Side of Quora
Not everything about Quora is champagne, horderves, and high-fives. Let’s explore.
There’s a lot of garbage content on Quora. The worst type is memes. The platform is drowning in them. People who are not content creators post them because they get a lot of upvotes (likes). They drive me nuts. Quora would be significantly better if moderators removed a lot of the spam.
Many top writers have disappeared
An Aussie friend of mine has been on Quora for years and amassed a sizeable audience. I got him to put together a list for me of the best writers on the platform. The list was incredible, but as I went through each person I noticed more than 50% of them had dropped off.
Content creator retention is something many social media apps overlook.
They simply think new creators will keep popping up so it doesn’t matter if they destroy the veterans. What they fail to understand is the veteran writers motivate the beginner and intermediate writers.
When top creators disappear the content on the platform starts to go downhill. From there, paying subscriber numbers start to fall off a cliff because their favorite creators are elsewhere. Before they know it, they’re adding loads of features nobody wants in an effort to regain dominance.
I’ve noticed this phenomenon (slightly) through my Quora experiment. It’s nobody’s fault. The only way to overcome it is to have a few content creators on the platform as employees or consultants. Us content creators are a weird bunch. Platforms like Quora think we’re solely after money. When you dig deeper you realize that’s not a high priority.
We want to write and build an audience. Whoever helps us do that is our high priest that we worship.
There are some really smart users on Quora. The platform seems to attract the intellectual type. I don’t find that a lot of the content has links to research and evidence, though, which sometimes detracts from the credibility.
There is a NewsBreak vibe too. Anyone who has written on NewsBreak will tell you the sheer terror of the comments section. The racism, harassment, and bullying is wild. You literally can’t read a single comment on NewsBreak if you like yourself even one bit.
Quora comments can be pretty crazy too. There is less moderation these days on the platform since they laid off a large number of staff a while back (probably to cut costs and refocus). Treat every person you encounter on Quora with an open mind and respect, and you can’t go wrong.
What you don’t want to hear about writing on Quora
Can you handle two ‘likes’ (upvotes) on Quora for a year? That’s the real question that slaps writers in the face. You’ll likely get very few views and upvotes when you write on Quora. (My best post is like six upvotes…haha.)
Quora — like most platforms — rewards time in the game, the number of answers, and the engagement you get on your content.
You won’t simply be able to post answers and get 10,000 upvotes tomorrow. That occurrence is rare based on my research. So it comes down, as always, to whether you’re willing to put in the work and be patient. I am. Look at writers like Mark Manson on different apps — he is.
No social media platform will work for you as a writer unless you stick at it for more than a year. Writers hate hearing this but it’s the brutal truth.
Should you write on Quora tomorrow?
After my experiment with Quora, here’s my conclusion.
- Use Quora to get questions you can utilize for writing ideas.
- Publish a 200-word answer on Quora here and there if you have time.
- The Quora+ memberships that earn writers money have just started. Look at the results first from other writers before seeing Quora as a way to earn money from writing.
Quora is an old platform. It’s had lots of issues over the years. Their employees are trying lots of new things, but nobody knows if any of them will work.
At the same time blockchain is fixing the problems of centralized social media apps that run on ad models. Apps like Bitclout are questioning the follower model, where writers have no email addresses of their readers. It’s an interesting time to write online.
I’ll leave you with this: there has never been more opportunities to make money from writing and not work a normal job if you choose. Stay open-minded. Experiment with where you write. Focus on writing for the long-term and the quality of your work. You’ll succeed wherever you write when you do.
“Son of Quora.”
The tagline was bizarre. I first found Sean Kernan on Quora about five years ago. Every good question on Quora had a witty answer from him.
On some days it looked like he literally ate, bathed, and slept in front of a computer screen with voice-to-text software he used to answer questions on Quora. Since then Sean has diversified onto many other platforms.
I like to study prolific writers to see if I can uncover a few nuggets of wisdom from them. In case you’re wondering, this isn’t a bro hug. I don’t care whether Sean reads this or whether you like him. The point is to get better as writers and we do that with an open mind and through analysis.
Here’s what I learned by studying Sean (without him knowing).
Many writers are lazy at curation, including me. We add every story and every dot point about a topic into the finished article. We hope the reader will filter out the crap parts so they can find the gold. This is a myth.
If you leave in half-baked thoughts or poor-quality stories, the reader will simply click away.
I read a comment by Sean on one of his posts. He said to a reader “yeah sorry, that dot point didn’t make the final cut.” There isn’t an ounce of wasted content in Sean’s articles. If a sentence isn’t strong or a paragraph doesn’t wow us, he removes it without attachment.
Cut out lukewarm content so what’s left can shine.
Self-edit. Then recruit a fanboy to edit.
Sean has said many times that he edits a lot. I estimate he spends more time editing than writing. Recently, Sean admitted that writer Michael Thompson, who also loves his work, helps him edit. Michael is a secret fanboy of Sean, although I don’t think he knows it.
It’s easy when we edit our own work to think everything is awesome. Feedback from another writer can help you overcome the “I’m the best” bias. I’ve recently taken inspiration from Sean and got a fellow writer to do the same for me. We read each other’s work. We aren’t afraid to be brutal. The coolest part is we play with each other’s structure.
Stream of consciousness writing, sometimes, can simply screw up the order of points. I do this all the time.
Seek help from writers who are on the same level as you. We rise up through the writing world by lifting others up. Also, get out of your head. The biggest liar about the quality of your writing is yourself.
Get to the point j-j-junior
Sean’s intros are shorter than a one-night stand. The guy gets to the point. He sets up the article with one thought and then gets to the meat.
Too many writers fluff around and destroy the little energy and attention the reader has right at the start. There’s no recovery from this. Online readers are brutal. They simply don’t give a f*ck. If you get to the point too slowly, they click away and forget about your story, never returning to it again for eternity.
Halve the length of your intro.
Adopt the habit of an archaeology professor
There are two Sean Kernans: pre-archeology girlfriend, and post-archeology girlfriend. The first version is the one I read on Quora. There’s some research in his stories but nowhere near as much as now. It’s no wonder. Sean’s (current) girlfriend is an archeology professor. No doubt her habit of researching a topic to uncover the finer details has rubbed off on Sean.
Look through his stories and you’ll find carefully sprinkled statistics and facts that back up his points. There are nice underlines that link to research so you can go down the rabbit hole if you choose. The challenge I see with this approach is people link to every damn thing. They accidentally believe it’s an intelligence test and every word has to be backed up.
It’s okay to use your life experience or explain your view of the world without the requirement to link to Science Daily.
Trust yourself to be an authority on a topic.
Turn into a giant weirdo
Many of us wonder what weird shit Sean reads. He finds the stories none of us have ever heard. I guess that’s Sean’s little secret. Here are three killer examples:
- Nazi IQ Tests
- An Elderly Mathematician Hacked the Lottery for $26 Million
- Pepsi’s $32 Billion Typo Caused Deadly Riots
Some speculate Sean spends a lot of time on Quora reading. There’s a lot of weird stuff on there, so maybe that’s his source of secret inspiration. One day the mystery will be revealed. Until then, let it remain a mystery.
You can find your own weird stories. Go to uncharted territories of the internet. Dare to read stories that aren’t popular. Search through old history books to find weird battles, or people who would remain dead if you didn’t bring their story back to life again through your writing.
I sometimes wonder about my own life story. Yesterday I filled in the government census which is mandatory in Australia. There was a tiny tick box at the end that read something along the lines of “Do you consent to your information being released to the public in 90 years?” Kind of a weird question, right?
“Why not? I’m not going to be alive by then. Maybe someone can benefit from the data collected about my life,” I thought quietly to myself. So I ticked yes.
Stories shouldn’t die with people.
Diversify across multiple platforms
Sean doesn’t write on one platform. Around the time Quora took a u-turn into death’s valley, Sean started writing on other platforms. Now you can find him, well, everywhere.
This is a smart strategy used by many of the top writers I’ve encountered. You never know what a social media app can do. Social media apps prioritize making money over your content. They don’t care about your feelings or whether you like their rules. Look at NewsBreak now: dumpster fire.
When you write in a few places you de-risk your writing career.
A sense of humor is a gift
Too many writers take themselves way too seriously. Some go too far in the other direction and end up publishing story after story that reads like satire.
Sean’s gift in his writing is balance. Take this line: “The startup collapsed within nine months. It was like a reverse pregnancy.” It’s subtle humor that makes a story interesting without going overboard.
Be a little witty in your story. Make us laugh once in a while. We need it after the virus that shut down the world.
This destroys writer’s dreams
This lesson from Sean gets me in trouble. Every. Time.
Here goes: Sean consistently publishes every week. He’s not a once in a blue moon while the algorithm is red hot kind of writer. He doesn’t come for the bonuses, or the contests, or to win the writer lottery over at Vocal Media.
Every month he publishes around 25 stories. That’s why he is one of the most successful writers on the internet. Consistency separates the real writers from the pretenders. Read that again.
If you haven’t made a career out of writing, it’s because you’re not consistent. Or you started writing yesterday. Time in the game beats complaining.
Make a bold statement
A lot of writing makes me sleepy. It’s full of cliches and Instagram quotes we’ve been drowning in for years, like “Be busy being awesome.” Yuck.
Sean makes bold statements when he writes. They make you uncomfortable. Here’s the best one:
Do a little life math. If you are the common denominator in a series of repeating problems — it’s probably you.
See what I mean? Sean makes a stand. Bold statements make us think — and in a world where so many don’t think and can’t understand basic science, this skill is crucial to good writing.
I often say in my writing that I don’t care whether the reader agrees or disagrees, I simply want to make people think. That’s what the power of inserting bold statements in your writing can do.
Forget trying to please everybody. You’ll please nobody.
I’ll be careful offering any critiques of Sean. His dad was a navy seal, after all, that would happily beat my skinny Aussie ass into mash potato. Just joking, Sean 🙂 *Escapes the country forever*
While Sean is a great writer — according to the data and his enormous online audience that spans across multiple platforms — I don’t agree with everything he says. That’s how I like it. Living in an echo chamber of people who all believe the same as me feels like a slow walk off a cliff of misinformation. I’ll leave you with this line a mentor once told me:
The sign of a brilliant writer is one you don’t always agree with.