Giving away most of what you know for free is one of the best ways to make money as a writer.
I’ve spoken of this strategy before. Nicolas Cole is a writer that discovered the same trick as me. I found Cole’s work on Quora and read his first book titled “Confessions of a Teenage Gamer.” I, too, was addicted to computer games such as Warcraft and Counter-Strike as a young punk high on bubble tea.
I recently read Cole’s latest book “The Art and Business of Online Writing.” In it, he says the magic line that got my attention: “Give away 99% of your best writing for free.” I couldn’t agree more.
Writing for free is a powerful technique many writers underestimate.
Get good at writing free content first.
I wrote online for a blog called “Addicted2Success” for free. People said I was nuts. But it taught me a lot. I then joined this platform when it contained nothing but free content, with no way to earn money.
The only reason I’m still writing is because I learned to write for free.
Most of my content is still free and can be found all over the internet — on LinkedIn, publications, my personal blog, etc.
Cole argues that many writers are trapped in the fantasy that you have to write paid content to be a writer or to be worthy of the label.
This arrogance stops them from unlocking the opportunity of writing free content. But if you can’t write content for free and get people to read it and build a small audience of your own 1000 true fans, how the heck are you going to do that by holding people to ransom with their credit card and expecting them to pay you?
Writing content good enough to earn money is an art.
You learn the art of writing content by doing it free. Why? Because good content is helpful. Writing for free allows you to engage with more people and learn what they want and how you can use your skills, experiences, and stories to help them.
People pay for content that solves an urgent problem, says Cole. You find those urgent problems by writing and gaining feedback through comments and direct messages from readers.
Every good blogger starts with free. You can too.
This is why you can give away all your content for free.
An idea I struggled with as a writer for years was that if I gave away all my content for free then there would be nothing left to charge for.
It’s why I didn’t put my posts on my website first, and then on other platforms afterwards, and gain access to the authority it would have given my personal website. Cole busted this myth with one line:
People buy content for convenience.
Nobody has time to scan thousands of free blog posts. So you can put all your stuff online for free and, if you want, charge for that exact same content later — or tomorrow even. People won’t know. And the one genius that does work it out will still love you for it because you’re saving them time.
What’s even better is that knowledge isn’t a superpower; knowledge is a potential superpower.
There are a lot of people who will consume all your free content and still not have the time or expertise to implement what you teach. Therefore, you can always charge money to help people take action on your content. So you will never be poor as a good writer who produces free content.
Throwing up a paywall to a stranger is a bad way to build a relationship.
How do you feel when you meet someone at a networking event and they shove a business card in your face? You feel like you’ve just been emotionally abused without being asked.
You will turn away a lot of readers if you put your financial needs ahead of building relationships with readers first. Readers want to get to know you before they’ll give you their hard-earned money. That’s fair.
How dare your Lambo dreams get in the way of a beautiful relationship with a reader that could get them out of a dark place.
Relationships built through free content feel natural like relationships in real life. And when a relationship feels natural, and perhaps awesome, you say “I do.” The Berlin Wall came crashing down and changed the world. What would happen if you took down your paywall and changed your reader’s world?
Stuffing your blog posts full of keywords is a great way to die inside.
I worked for an SEO (Search Engine Optimization) agency. It made me die inside. Writing content stuffed full of keywords to please the Google gods who control what shows up in a Google Search is soul-crushing.
Good content gets ruined by SEO.
SEO is a cheap date the reader didn’t know they were going on.
All the time you spend trying to write SEO content that attracts and audience you can beat over the face with a popup isn’t worth it. Channel that time into learning to write free content that resides in places where readers go to read.
A platform that has an audience is far better than starting a blog with no audience and selling your dignity to a google devil in a cheap rainbow-colored suit.
Conversations lead to opportunities, not credit cards.
Free content helps you find opportunities. Here’s what free content did for me:
- I got job opportunities
- I got the chance to invest in startups
- I got 1–1 coaching clients
- I got consulting gigs from several tech companies
- I met a few of my biggest idols
- I found my business partner
- I got invited to a group chat where I made many close friends
Asking for a credit card as a writer before you know a reader is the worst way to get started making money. You miss all the opportunities when you become obsessed with the 16-digits on the front of someone’s bank-issued debt card.
Use free content to talk with readers. Get to know them and watch where it leads. Your writer’s life, changed. Forever.
Spin the roulette wheel of social media algorithms.
Think of social media algorithms as a roulette wheel. The more times you spin the wheel, the more chances you have of winning.
You can’t get free spins of the roulette wheel with a paywall in front of a reader’s face. Posting lots of free content gives you the chance to have a few articles become wildly shareable.
You’ll never work out which ones and it doesn’t matter. Those highly shareable articles probably won’t make you rich.
What viral content does is show you what’s possible.
And more importantly it shows you just how damn helpful your writing can be when you focus on it. That’s why writing for free on social media is a great strategy to use from day one. You can then validate your helpfulness with real data, not fantasies about what you think readers want.
You’ll find your voice
Writing for free helps you find your writer’s voice. Maybe it’s informative, data-backed, slightly sarcastic, funny, serious or highly personal. When you write for free you discover different voices you didn’t know you had.
You’ll find flow
Flow states build momentum for writers. You have to get good at flow and that requires writing a lot. Free content is the best way to experiment with churning out plenty of content.
You’ll attract people to your work
Free content brings readers to you faster. You’ll block many readers from ever finding your work if you start by charging. Use free content to build an audience.
Once Readers Are Hooked on Your Free Content You Do This.
— Monetize 1% of your audience
Cole says in his book that “you should only monetize the last 1%. And in that last 1% should be just as much, if not even more value than the other 99%.” This is an excellent strategy.
You don’t need to be heard by millions to make money
The reason why the 1% model is a viable solution is because the way writers make money is changing. The exclusivity economy is booming with platforms like Patreon. You can charge a small fraction of your audience a subscription. This segment of your audience are what I call your “superfans.”
They love everything you do and are fearlessly loyal. They will beat a troll over the head with a baseball bat in the comments section for you without you having to say a word.
All you need is a small audience of readers to make a full-time income as a writer.
It’s becoming the norm for so many writers who are quitting the old ways — journalism, major publications — and going out on their own. Flawless Instagram influencers with millions of followers have been lying to you.
Don’t underestimate the almighty power of a small audience.
You can take free blog posts and put them together in an eBook
Group articles together and publish them as eBooks on Wattpad and Amazon [and charge money for them].
This insight from Cole wasn’t one I’d ever heard of — sheer brilliance. Articles that you write can be chapters of a book. Many great books are nothing more than a writer assembling their best blog posts and putting lipstick on a pig to make it look worthy of being a book sold on Amazon.
Mark Manson’s book “The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck” is a great example. Jordan Peterson’s book “12 Rules For Life” started out as an answer to a question on the social media platform Quora.
Save up your blog posts and turn them into a book.
Release chapters of a book rather than release a whole book in one hit.
Publish a book chapter by chapter as a paid newsletter
You could take your book-in-progress and publish it chapter by chapter as a weekly paid newsletter [using Substack] instead of publishing it the conventional way — and probably make more money.
I have talked about Substack before. This is one of the greatest new ways writers are making money.
Substack got the attention of the well-known Silicon Valley Venture Capital firm, Andreessen Horowitz. They led a $15.3M investment round for Substack. Andreessen Horowitz rarely get it wrong when it comes to spotting good tech companies.
Start a paid newsletter for your superfans.
Cole opened my eyes further to how powerful free content can be. Free content can take your writing to places you could never imagine.
Have the guts to write for free first. Build your writing skill. Find your audience. Then dare to charge 1% of your audience for your content using paid newsletters, free eBooks, and superfan platforms like Patreon.
The best online writers start with free. “Free” gives you unlimited readers and ways to be helpful from day one.
Once you’ve found your own unique way to be helpful, then you can make serious amounts of money as a writer.