My life was a lot different three years ago.
I was still a chip guy, impressing everyone with a very specific skill set of showing up when I said I would. Seriously, that’s all I did. The world of retail has incredibly low expectations.
And then, one day, I snapped. Okay not really, but I did quit my job without another lined up.
I legitimately thought I was going to retire for a while. Yeah. Really. I had just moved, and was flush with cash after selling my house. I could live a reasonable lifestyle for years without really depleting my savings, and I also had all sorts of other sources of passive income–everything from stock dividends to my private mortgage investments.
That lasted for about two weeks. My God, I don’t know how you early retirees do it. I was so bored. And I tried all the stuff I was supposed to, too. I read and hung out with friends and explored my new city and everything. I still only lasted two weeks before starting to look for a job.
After temporarily working at a grocery store for a few weeks and continuing to write at Seeking Alpha part-time, I was approached by Motley Fool to write on a full-time basis. The rest was history.
Now that I’m approaching my 3rd anniversary of writing about money for a living, I thought I’d take a look back at some of the more important lessons I’ve learned.
Over the years, I’ve had hundreds of people complain about errors I’ve had in my articles. Some of these errors were so minor it was comical. There’s a special place in hell for people who point those out. No, I don’t care about the typo in paragraph three.
Others did matter, including the time I got two companies mixed up and insinuated one was about to go bankrupt. It was actually the other that was struggling.
I don’t even need to take a second look at the data to know that bearish articles had a higher complaint rate. People do not like hearing their favorite stock is about to go down.
Most corrections came from regular investors. Every now and again, companies would get involved. I once had an email conversation with the CFO of a company y’all have heard of, and he was not happy. He was very insistent we meet and talk about my grave errors.
After declining this request, I decided to wait a few months and try it again. This time I wrote something much less bearish. Three things happened:
- The CFO reached out again, thanking me for “taking a more balanced effort.”
- The company shared the article and followed me on Twitter
- I was offered credentials to ask questions during quarterly conference calls
People don’t read investment research on the internet to hone their critical thinking skills. They read it to confirm their already-held beliefs.
Writing quality doesn’t matter
The more I write the more I realize something. I’m not a particularly good writer.
I’m perfectly competent. I use semicolons non-ironically. I’ve finally figured out that shorter sentences are better than longer ones. And I can spell all sorts of tough words on the first try.
But I’m not great, and I’m the first to admit it. This used to bring me pain. I wanted people to read my stuff and gawk in amazement. EAT YOUR HEART OUT, STEPHEN KING.
They don’t. And they never will.
But that’s okay. The nice part about being a non-fiction writer is people read me because they’re looking for something specific. As long as I present that information in an easy to digest and entertaining way, I’m good.
That’s what I focus on now.
I remember back in 2012, I read a tweet from some long-forgotten PF blogger who bragged about firing off four posts in two hours. I thought that was insane. Who writes that fast?
2016 Nelson can do that if the topics are easy enough.
Between this blog and my other writing clients, I estimate I’m writing between 15,000 and 20,000 words per week. I’m capable of doing about 25,000 words a week. Spread that out over a 40-hour work week, and we’re talking about 625 words an hour.
One of the nice things about the writing business is I’m rewarded for being efficient. I get paid more if I produce more. And the easiest way to produce more is to get faster.
It’s a volume business, at least for me.
Certain websites have different editorial standards. Some do not care at all, posting everything I’ve ever written as is. Others go nuts and will change 5% or 10% of what I write. I’ve even gotten an article or two back, asking to make wholesale changes.
From my perspective, a good editor makes me sound better. They’ll make my words flow smoother and clear up any punctuation mistakes. Typos too, but I find that most writers don’t care so much about typos. It’s editors who really care. Think of it like detailing a car. I’m providing the engine, seats, and so on. The editor is just shining it up before it goes out to the customer.
But what many editors need to realize is the difference between good copy and great copy isn’t worth the additional effort. I’m lucky; my editors get that, almost without exception. If I’m missing a comma or make an embarrassing to/too mistake, they just change it. Any writer appreciates that.
I’ve met editors who will spend 20 minutes composing an email to tell a writer about an error that would take 20 seconds to correct. These people have dedicated their lives to learning all the inner workings of the English language, and they take it as a personal insult when guys like me only know 98% of what they do. It might read fine, but that’s not good enough for them. They want perfection.
What I’ve learned is there are websites I will not write for because their editorial standards are just too high. That simple rule has saved me countless hours of frustration over the years. Those sites may offer higher rates, but by the time I’d go back and forth with corrections, I’d probably end up making about what I make now.
I pitch two or three websites a week, spending at least 15 minutes clicking around the site and coming up with an educated pitch. None of that copy and paste crap for me. I know that gets rejected 100% of the time.
Instead, I get rejected 95% of the time. Progress!
The internet is a tough place to make a living, especially in writing. There are a million people out there who are willing to write about personal finance who are better at crafting sentences than I am. I probably know more about the genre, but it’s hard to convey that in a 250 word pitch email.
So I’m constantly hustling, doing everything I can to get more work and further diversify my income away from one source. I think I’m getting better, but it’s still one rejection after another. That’s the way it is.