“No one is born a great writer. We all start at zero.”
Writing is my passion, along with reading, learning, and teaching.
When I was in business school at Indiana University, I realized there are a lot of really boring and unethical ways to build a career and support a family. I wanted a way out of the path to becoming an investment banker on Wall Street, where I’d spend 100 hours a week on work that didn’t make a difference or help other people.
After reading several personal development books, I asked myself, “What if I could earn a full-time income doing what I love?”
Earn a full-time income as a writer? It sounded too good to be true!
But I was committed to following my dreams of becoming a full-time writer and author. I’d rather be a broke, starving writer, doing work I love, than be a wealthy investment banker and hate myself.
Even though I had no idea how to write a book, I sat down at the computer and started typing away. Word by word, sentence by sentence, I wrote my first book.
Six years after I wrote down my goal of becoming a full-time writer, I finally got my first book published.
A year later, I had my first $12,000+ month in royalties from Amazon Kindle alone. I was hooked!
Since then, I’ve written and published 27 books, started a publishing company, and taught over 50,000 students through my online training courses on writing, publishing, and marketing.
Along the way, I have found there are five key writing skills that led to my success. Every time I see a client or student go from earning nothing or very little, to earning a full-time income as an author, these are the 5 writing strategies that made all the difference for them, too.
You don’t need to do a million things to become a successful author. Focus on these 5 fundamental skills as a writer, and you will be way ahead of the curve.
1. Write to Market
Writers who are financially successful write to market. In other words, they write in markets where there is significant demand for their work.
You need to understand your readers to serve them better.
Vincent Van Gogh, hailed as one of the greatest artists who ever existed, was a starving artist. He died broke. Why? Because he didn’t understand his market. Only after he died did his work become famous.
I’m guessing you would like to see some success and acclaim for your work before you go. To do that, you have to do your market research. You must understand who your readers are and what they want, and you must deliver what they want. Some call this “writing to market”.
To me, it’s just common sense. If you want people to read what you write and follow your work, you have to write something people want to read—and that starts with understanding your market and your audience.
You want your readers to understand the value of your work, the beauty and love you put into it, so they’ll care about it, right?
But before you demand the attention and interest of your readers, you have to understand their needs and wants, so you can supply them with a great book they will enjoy.
To accomplish that, you need to research your market as thoroughly as you possibly can.
One of the biggest parts of marketing is packaging. Packaging is about creating a book cover, book title, and creating a brand around your book that resonates with the audience.
I want to show you a quick tutorial of my writing research strategy. This is the exact process we use at TCK Publishing, and I recommend you follow these steps every time you plan to write a new book or series.
How to Research Writing a Book
Start by going to the Amazon Best Sellers list.
(For the sake of clarity, we’ll stick to researching eBooks because the sales numbers are different for print books and audiobooks.)
Let’s say you want to write a book about real estate investing. The first thing you want to do is search for the most relevant, overall category for your book. In this example, you would search for “real estate”, as that will be the general topic of your new book.
One you’ve found Real Estate in the category list, you’ll need to select your “child category” based on the specific topic of your book. So if you want to write about selling a house, you would click on Buying & Selling Homes.
Once you find the page for the bestselling books in your market, you need to study those results and understand why your potential readers like those books so much.
Take a look at the covers, and determine what emotions they convey.
Create a list of the top book covers you like the most in your market with notes of the elements you admire in each of those covers (think about the fonts, imagery, colors, and emotions conveyed in the designs). Give that list to your book cover designer to help them create a unique cover branded for your specific readers and market.
Study Other Authors and Writers
Next, take a look at the listings for all the bestselling books in your market.
Jot down ideas about book titles, subtitles, and book descriptions. Look for specific words and phrases that stand out and captivate you. Consider the layout and formatting of their book descriptions. Is it pleasing to the eyes?
Click “Look Inside” to see inside the book, skip the blurbs, and read the first one to ten pages. Study how these authors are drawing in readers with their writing skills from the very first page. Model how they entice their readers.
You owe it to yourself and to your fans to study the writing strategies and techniques of the best writers in your market, so you can improve your skills.
The next thing you want to do is scroll down to the customer reviews section.
Start reading all the reviews on Amazon in your market. You can actually read exactly what your readers have written about the best books in your field, giving you crystal-clear insight into who your readers are, what they want, and how you can set your writing apart from the competition.
These readers are your audience, too. So write down all the criticism and praise you hear from your audience, so you can model what works, and avoid the common mistakes other writers have made before you.
The wonderful thing about reading reviews is that you’ll discover which of your readers’ needs other authors in your market are not fulfilling.
For instance, on the Amazon page for The Book of Yes, one of the reviewers said the book only provided generic replies to a list of situations. This reviewer is lamenting the lack of depth in the material. If you were writing in this market, you could make your book stand out by providing a more detailed understanding of the key concepts and ideas your readers need to know.
If you see several reviews mentioning the same mistakes or deficiencies in many of the books in your market, then you have likely discovered a significant need that is not being addressed by other writers.
Another take-away from customer reviews are key phrases or keywords people are using in their comments.
If you are looking to write weight loss books and decide to do market research, you might find customers repeating key phrases like “getting ripped”, “get shredded”, or “fat melted off”. Because these words or phrases are the same words your customers are thinking about when describing their situation, then you know that by using these words in your title, subtitle, or book description, you can immediately connect with your audience.
When you start including the keywords and phrases your readers are thinking about already, you create an instant connection and rapport that makes them feel good and want to keep reading.
You can apply all these same writing strategies, whether you write fiction or nonfiction.
If you want to learn more about market research, watch the free training on How to Crack the Code to Becoming a #1 Bestselling Author on Amazon.
Study the Top Bloggers in Your Market
Amazon isn’t the only place for you to do market research. You can also study the top blogs, forums, and online articles in your market to learn more about who your readers are and what they want.
Make sure you study the writing as well as the comments from readers to get a better picture of what’s really going on in your market and what your readers are looking for.
Emails From Readers or Comments on Social Media
Once you start selling books and building your fan base, your readers will be your greatest source of feedback. Emails, reviews, comments, and social media posts from your readers are chock full of knowledge and insight into who your readers are and how you can better serve them.
Take note of what they are saying because this will give you ideas on what you should stop doing and what you should continue doing to better serve your readers in the future.
2. Creative Writing
The next writing skill you must improve to increase your income is to learn to be a more productive and efficient writer. Creative writing is a foundational skill that must be mastered, and most folks go about it all wrong.
There’s controversy in the writing blogosphere going on right now about being a “pantser” or a plotter. A “pantser” is someone who doesn’t plan ahead. They just sit down and start writing without a plan. Plotters are those who meticulously plan every scene and every chapter of their books ahead of time.
Are you a pantser or a plotter?
I think it’s most helpful to break down the writing process into two parts: creative writing and self-editing.
Creative writing requires the use of the right side of your brain…your creative brain, and editing requires you to use the analytical, left side of your brain.
If you focus only on the creative process when you first start writing a book or blog post, it will allow you to let your creative juices flow more easily. You don’t have to stop in the middle of the sentence to fix small errors, insert hyperlinks, check facts, or do research. By not stopping to analyze your words or sentence construction, you won’t lose your train of thought. This allows you to gain momentum, and write a lot more words in a lot less time.
Your goal as a writer should be to maximize your output. Only by producing more writing will you ultimately produce better writing.
If you really want to improve your writing skills, you must improve your productivity. A writer who writes 2,000 words each day will improve at least twice as much as a writer who writers 1,000 words each day, all else being equal.
Creative writing is just like brainstorming; you let the ideas come to you, and write them all down without criticism. Only after you have written down all your ideas do you analyze your work to decide which ideas to keep and which ones to discard.
The problem with trying to write the first draft of your book while simultaneously editing your work is that you stop the flow of new ideas. It’s like having one foot on the brakes and one foot on the gas—you’re not going to get anywhere anytime soon.
Outlining and Plotting
Outlining and plotting are skills. If you think you can be a wildly successful writer or author without working on these basic writing skills, you are sorely mistaken.
Can you imagine a basketball player intentionally not learning how to shoot free throws? No competitive athlete can afford to ignore such fundamental skills if they want to perform in a professional league. The same is true for writers.
Separating your creative writing sessions from self-editing does not mean you are a “pantser”. You must create a clear plan for your book before you write. By creating an outline for a nonfiction book or by plotting your novel, you can gain a clear vision of the structure for every chapter and every scene in the book.
This structure is like the foundation of your story. You cannot build a mansion with a weak foundation. And that’s the biggest mistake writers make. They don’t create an outline, and then they quit in the middle of the book because all they see are roadblocks and dead ends.
If you create an outline and you get writer’s block, you can easily go to your outline to figure out what happens next. If you have to stop in the middle of writing to create an outline so you can figure out what happens next, you’re wasting valuable writing time and creativity. This stop-and-go writing style is exhausting, and it’s also why so many good writers give up before they ever finish their first draft.
Most first-time authors can plot or outline their book in an afternoon if he or she sits down with no distractions and sets his or her mind to the task. For every hour you spend planning your book, you are going to save dozens or even hundreds of hours because you won’t have to waste time starting and stopping. You’ll also avoid the horror of having to cut out entire chapters and scenes that don’t fit the book, or worse, having to scrap your entire manuscript and start over from scratch.
Not having a plan for your writing is planning to fail.
The best book I’ve ever read on plotting and outlining is 2K to 10K by Rachel Aaron.
This book offers practical advice for anyone who longs to increase his or her daily writing output. It also contains information about writing efficiency, plotting, and planning that I have never seen explained so thoroughly and clearly before.
For 99 cents, it’s the best deal you’ll find to help you become a more efficient writer.
3. Editing Your Writing
Self-editing is an activity you do before sending your manuscript to editors and beta readers. If you follow my creative writing process, get your outline done, and then simply focus on creative writing each day, you will find you just turned your book idea into a first draft.
Now it’s time to work on self-editing your first draft.
Because you did not stop to analyze or edit your work during the creative writing process, you’ll find there are all kinds of mistakes in your first draft. You may feel as if you’re a terrible writer, and your book is mostly garbage. That’s normal, and every experienced writer has been there and felt that before.
By going through the painstaking process of editing your manuscript several times, you will make sure you understand what’s actually going on in your book. If there’s a major problem with the structure or story arc, it’s better to figure it out yourself. If you send out a first draft manuscript to an editor, you might end up paying thousands of dollars just to learn there’s a big hole in your book—which you would have learned yourself had you invested the time to self-edit first.
Self-editing saves you money. It makes you a better writer. It allows you to play with your creativity, and mold your manuscript into a book that is unique to you.
Only after you have gone through the hard work of editing your work should you bring on a professional editor to help take your book to the next level and prepare it for publishing.
I interviewed Steve Berry, one of the most successful authors in the world with more than 19 million books sold. He said he edits each new manuscript about 60-75 times before sending it to beta readers and editors. That level of commitment is what separates him from so many wannabe authors who aren’t willing to put in the effort to revise and improve their work.
Editing is a fundamental writing skill, a skill you must learn through practice if you want to be a success.
If you’re not willing to edit your book at least five times, then you’re not seriously committed to becoming successful. Being committed is a trait, and I can’t teach you that.
What I can teach is an editing process that will help you become more efficient and effective. It’s up to you to find the inner drive to go through this editing process, so you can write the best book possible.
How To Edit Your First Draft
What we want is to start by working on the big themes and issues of your manuscript. I call this starting at the book level. You want to do this first because you need to know if the book actually works or if it needs huge, sweeping changes before you hunt down every typo, grammatical error, and usage error. You want to make sure you have a complete book with introduction, plot, conflict, and resolution. You don’t want to focus on the details, such as grammatical error and typos, only to find out later that you’ll need to remove half your book and rewrite the other half in order for it to make sense.That’s a waste of your time.
This is where you are going to go through each chapter to find out if the chapters are in order and if they are relevant. For nonfiction, you want to ensure that your ideas are developed in a logical, easy-to-follow way. For fiction, you want to make certain each scene is written in such a way that information is revealed at just the right time and in a way that moves the story forward. You’ll also want to take a look at your fiction book’s pacing to make certain you have a good mix of tension and “down time”, using dialogue, action, and narrative.
Make sure each chapter flows well and is easy to read. Make certain the paragraphs are organized properly, each one in its proper place, and that they all serve a purpose. You might want to move big chunks of words or paragraphs around to improve the flow inside each chapter.
Make sure there’s a good flow from sentence to sentence. Each sentence must communicate a clear idea. Spice things up by interlacing short, sweet sentences with longer ones. Don’t let the reader get bored with monotony.
This is where you are going to fix all the grammatical error, typos, and usage errors. On this level of editing, your job is to ensure that your thoughts and ideas are properly communicated with each and every word you use. You’ll want to make good use of a dictionary to look up any words you can’t define with 100% certainly. Use a thesaurus to find synonyms in order to find the clearest and simplest (and sometimes most entertaining) word for the job. Watch for clichés, overused words, and redundancy (example: “she nodded”, not “she nodded her head”.)
The Traditional Editing Process
Below are the four steps to editing your book traditionally. As you will see, these are very similar, from a structural standpoint, to the 5 steps of self-editing.
Developmental editing is where you take a rough story and turn it into a book. So if you have an idea and wrote a first draft of 70,000 words, but the book needs a lot of work, you’ll likely want a developmental editor to cut out content that doesn’t fit, rewrite scenes or chapters, and clarify the overall structure of the book. This type of editing is similar to the “book level” self-editing described above. When you hire a developmental editor, you’re basically hiring a ghostwriter, but instead of them writing the book from scratch, they’ll use the foundation you have already created.
Line editing is making sure the words, sentences, and paragraphs clearly communicate the ideas you intend to communicate. Line editors may also help rewrite and revise sections of your manuscript, but if they have to rewrite whole chapters or restructure your book, they’re basically doing the job of developmental editing.
Copyediting is the most fundamental editing on the word and sentence level. A copyeditor focuses on spelling, grammar, punctuation, syntax, consistency, fonts, capitalization, fact checking and ambiguity.
The final stage of editing is proofreading. A proofreader fixes all the tedious, minor errors in spelling, punctuation, spacing, and layout just before a book is ready to go to print or be published.
Two Editing Tips
Edit By Hand
Print out your manuscript, and edit by hand at least twice. This activates a different part of the brain, and you will have a different perspective. You will see all kinds of errors you did not see while editing your work on the computer.
Edit Out Loud
Speak your manuscript out loud twice to make edits. This also activates a different part of your brain. You will find that when you speak what you’ve written, some of it just won’t sound right, and you can start editing those awkward words and phrases.
4. Work With Professional Editors
After creative writing and self-editing, the next step is to bring in a professional editor to help you fine-tune your manuscript and get it ready for publishing.
One of the principles you should learn while working with a professional is that you need to be humble. You don’t want your ego getting in the way of learning the crucial skills and lessons that will help you become a better writer.
When you get back edits and comments from a professional editor, read them through the first time while pretending that you don’t know anything about writing. The more open you are to learning, the more you are going to learn, and the faster you are going to make progress.
I am not going to lie; reading through your editor’s comments for the first time can be a painful process, but you need to be open to their feedback and advice. If it’s not painful to read through professional edits your first time, then the editor is not picking up all the mistakes you are making, or you just don’t care enough about your work. Either way, it’s probably not a good sign.
If you don’t know how to find a good editor, check out our guide on How to Find an Editor for your Book with Step-by-Step Instructions.
5. Marketing and Promotion Skills
How is marketing different from promotion?
Marketing aims for long-term success while promotion is short-term.
Marketing is what you do day-in and day-out to attract more fans and readers. Most writers don’t start out with strong marketing skills, and that’s okay. Every great marketer starts at zero. You can learn as you go.
If you want to earn a significant income as an author for the long-term, you should concentrate on marketing. The best way to be successful with marketing is to be consistent, and that usually means focusing on using your strengths when it comes to marketing.
5 Marketing Skills for Writers
If writing is really your strong suit and you can write for three or four or five hours a day, then you may want to use your writing skills for marketing. You could do blogging, guest blogging, write articles for magazines, industry publications and newspapers, or simply write more books. Focus on how you can use your writing to get more exposure for your work.
If speaking is your strength,and it doesn’t feel like work to you, then you might want to put your energy into doing interviews, podcasts, public speaking, seminars, workshops, and conferences. Use your speaking as much as possible to get the word out about you and your work.
3. Technology / Advertising
If you’re a programmer, web developer, advertiser, or if you just want to do marketing without ever talking to people, that’s not a problem. You can do online advertising through Google Ads, Amazon ads, Facebook, Native ads, and the like. You can also design websites, video games, apps, and other things to help get the word out about your work.
4. Creativity / Crafting
If your creative talent is more hands-on—if you are a woodworker, for instance—then you can build a marketing strategy around this kind of talent, too.
For example, if you’re a sculptor and your book is a fantasy novel about dragons, you can create small, collectible figurines of dragons and post about them on social media, on blogs, and on sites such as Etsy. Create something unique that your readers can talk about, buy, and share with others,in order to spread your message faster than dragon fire.
5. Email Marketing
No matter what kind of books you write or what your background is, there’s another strategy you should be using.
The number one long-term book marketing strategy is email marketing. Industry statistics shows that the average return on investment for email marketing is 3800%. That means for every dollar you spend, on average, you’ll get $39 in sales!
Social media marketing is popular, but guess what? The response rate on social media is only about 1-2% while email marketing open rates average 22%. That means if you have 100 followers in Twitter or Facebook, you’ll get only one to two response to your posts, while if you send an email to 100 subscribers, you’ll get at least a dozen folks responding!
I don’t know of any other strategy that is nearly as effective as email marketing. So if you haven’t done email marketing before, you need to start building your email list now. Below is a list of tools you can use for your marketing campaign.
This is an email-marketing platform that gives you marketing tools for free up to your first 2,000 subscribers, allowing you to send up to 12,000 emails per month. This is great for new authors with a small mailing list and small budget.
This is the email marketing software I use. It’s cheap, reliable, and they have great customer service. Their support team can walk you through everything you need to get started with email marketing, and they will help you solve problems quickly. Calling up their tech support is like having a full-time, email-marketing expert you can go to for advice and troubleshooting. I have been using Aweber for seven years.
This email marketing service is new, and you can use it for more active and targeted campaigns. You can segment your subscribers by demographics, location, behavior, tags, and more. This tool is already being used by 100,000 small businesses worldwide. It’s pretty awesome.
If you plan to use multiple pen names or write books in more than one genre or niche, I highly recommend ActiveCampaign because you will be able to manage all of your various email lists and marketing activity much more effectively than you can with Aweber or Mailchimp.
Taking Your Writing Skills to the Next Level
Now that you know the 5 key writing skills that will help you increase your earnings as an author, it’s time to put this knowledge into action.
You need to do market research constantly, and be crystal clear on who your customers are. During the initial phase of market research, you might need to spend two or three days studying the key phrases that keep popping up in customer reviews of the bestselling books in your market.
However, as you learn more about your market and readers, you’ll be able to focus more time on fulfilling your customers’ needs and wants because you will understand them far better than your competitors do. Just make sure you’re staying informed with feedback and emails you get from your readers over time.
I encourage you to commit to a minimum of one hour a day for creative writing. Write new words everyday, so you never get stuck, and you can get into your zone. Do self-editing as necessary, but try to continue writing new words each day to stay in the habit.
Commit 30 minutes each day to long-term marketing. Jack Canfield, author of Chicken Soup for the Soul, has sold more than 100 million books. And when he was just starting with his partner, Mark Victor Hansen, they committed to do five things each day to market their books. They would make five connections per day with new contacts who could help them spread their message to more people.
You can write a blog post or make five phone calls in 30 minutes each day if you’re willing to put in the effort.
Are you ready to commit to your own success?
Post you comments or questions below, and let us know which writing skills you’re going to focus on learning.
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Tom Corson-Knowles is the founder of TCK Publishing, and the bestselling author of 27 books including Secrets of the Six-Figure author. He is also the host of the Publishing Profits Podcast show where we interview successful authors and publishing industry experts to share their tips for creating a successful writing career.