If you’ve written online for a while then you’ve most likely experienced the online writing plateau.
Yes, it’s real ladies and gentlemen, according to science (joking). I’ve danced with this devil. I’ve had those hard days where you find yourself checking stats instead of writing your goals into reality.
Here are the mistakes I made that led me to plateau as a writer.
Mistake #1 — Trying to be too smart with headlines
Headlines can become a circus. It’s easy to overthink them or pretend like they will save humanity from hunger. They’re important but you can overdo it.
The best headline creates a small curiosity gap and explains what the audience is about to read and can expect to get from your writing. The moment you start getting cute, like a writer for the New York Times and playing with puns, expect a plateau.
Readers hate gimmicks.
Mistake #2 — Writing about stuff I know jack sh*t about
My writing plateaus often happen when I veer too far from what I’ve studied and experienced in my life. If you don’t know anything about finance then don’t write about it. If you don’t own a single Bitcoin then please shut up about why Bitcoin will die.
I’m am 100% guilty of this.
Not knowing what you’re talking about is excruciating for a reader. Honesty with yourself gets you back on track.
Mistake #3 — Too much potty mouth
Writer Niklas Goke said something to me I’ll never forget:
“Using too many swear words makes you sound deeply angry.”
I don’t mind the odd F-bomb. I’m a wannabe rebellious millennial, too, you know. Too many swear words can affect your writing. Dial the use of swear words back if you start to sound like a drunk on a Saturday night hailing an Uber he ordered with his phone.
Mistake #4 — “50% of succeeding on Twitter is how you format your tweets”
Writer Nicolas Cole wrote this. When I’m plateauing I notice my attention for detail with formatting goes out the door.
Your content has to look like it’s appealing to read. Your content has to subtly signal “this will be easy to read.”
It’s easy to use too many pictures.
It’s easy to have giant blocks of text.
It’s easy to have a paragraph in between every sentence.
It’s easy to have too many subheadings, or not enough.
It’s easy to use far too many block quotes.
It’s easy to saturate content with links to sources.
It’s easy to cite every damn thing when it’s not required.
Don’t forget your formatting game if you find yourself plateauing. Ease of reading is a huge deal.
Mistake #5 — Too long. CBF reading.
Okay, so when I looked back on my plateaus there was a huge problem. I went from 4–7 minute reads, to 8–10 minute reads. My long pieces put readers to sleep. My ability to waffle the way my grandpa did before he died had taken over my writing. I simply tried to say too much.
Readers are time-poor.
A tweet requires a 30-second investment of time.
An article requires a 4+ minute investment of time.
If you think of reading like investing it’s easy. Would you invest loads of money in a writer you barely know or are still getting to know? Heck no.
A reader’s attention is the currency/money of the writing world. People are careful how they spend their money.
Mistake #6 — Too many metaphors
Drunk as a skunk.
High as a kite.
Metaphors remind readers of university. Who wants to go back there and do exams all over again? Not me.
Mistake #7 — Too many cliches
“Take a walk in the park and do five minutes of meditation.” This cliche advice kills a reader’s brain. They’ve heard it all before. The solution I found is to repackage cliches. You can still use them, but find a way to say them differently or for them to pack more energy.
Mistake #8 — Trying to be too funny
I’m not Jerry Seinfeld. If I get a mild laugh in the comments then I’ve done well. We’re not all born funny. The worst thing is trying too hard to be funny. Humor should naturally come out in your writing.
Mistake #9 — Not enough quality editing
Whatever article you write, cut out 20%.
For example, if your final draft is 1000 words, go through it one more time and find a way to delete 200 words. It’ll be difficult at first, but I promise this step will revitalize your writing instantly.
– Anthony Yeung
I’d forgotten to edit ruthlessly. I was too romantic about certain sections that clearly should have been chopped. It was easier to just publish and pray, and hope the lack of editing would be okay. It wasn’t. My writing became too long and wordy.
Mistake #10 — Not enough of me
I stopped adding myself into articles at certain points. This rubbed off the personal touch that built bonds with readers. Personal stories make readers go “I felt like that too.” That beautiful moment happens when it’s your story.
Mistake #11 — Too much of me
I went the other route too. I started at one point talking too much about myself. My silly little Aussie face ended up on one-too-many articles. My social media channels contained far too much “I”.
Mistake #12 — Painful subheadings (labels)
My subheadings became boring. They turned into labels. Readers that skim saw the labels and went “yep, heard it all before mate.” As writers it’s easy to spend lots of time on the headline and completely forget about the subheadings. Interesting subheadings can transform a dull piece of writing. Look at Sean Kernan’s work to get subheading inspiration.
Mistake #13 — Too many cryptic sentences
Acronyms. Industry speak. Again, trying to sound too smart. There was one point where I mistakenly took up the job of a writer working for an ad agency. I started using puns and getting words to rhyme.
Readers don’t want semantics. They simply want us to get to the point without all the Indiana Jones cryptic clues.
Mistake #14 — Too much celeb name-dropping in the headline
At another point I started thinking I lived in Hollywood next to Billie Eilish. Celeb names started to appear way too much. Quotes from celebs became my obsession, and the audience’s reason to click on another writer. Celebs are everywhere. Other writers are playing the same game that leads to nowhere and makes you look same-same. Readers love an escape.
Do a Michael Thompson. Take everyday people from your life and turn them into unconventional celebs readers can fall in love with. Writers share stories. Who says you can’t find your own characters to change things up?
Mistake #15 — Not enough twists and turns
At one stage I had the ability to take readers on a wild journey. You had no idea where you were going to end up. (Look at this story about money that’s not about money for a clear idea.)
Unpredictability is a superpower in writing.
Mistake #16 — No stories at the start
I used to often begin with short stories in my articles. Somewhere along the line I began to sound like a journalist reporting the predictable Australian weather. Stories are a differentiator.
Stories are a great way to introduce a topic. My writing came alive again when I added short stories back in. I sourced stories from books I was reading and events that happened in my life.
Killer tip: Topics that stop you from sleeping make great stories.
Once you’ve been writing for a while you’ll experience a plateau. Writers rarely talk about this phenomenon. Like social media, we want to pretend we’re always fine and going viral every day. The truth is we’re not.
Being a writer is a long journey to a faraway place that has no coordinates. Plateaus happen for writers. Only when I went back and analyzed my work did I see the problem: I’d become the writers I was reading every day instead of being myself.
Writing online is about going from plateau to plateau and not giving up.
Keep writing. Learn. Iterate. Write because you love it.