“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.