8 Things I’ve Learned From 5 Years Writing Online

Celebrating a milestone by reflecting on what I’ve learned.

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On June 10, 2014, I published . I was just 15 years old at the time, and more than a little excited about the start of my new blog, , where I would write up until last month when I started writing exclusively here on Medium.

It’s been five years since then. That’s a long time. A quarter of my life, in fact. Since that first article, I’ve published almost 400 more. I won’t pretend to be a prophet of the written word, but any time you do a lot of something over an extended period of time, you learn a lot about that thing.

Here are some of those things I’ve learned so far on my online writing journey.

Writing is Difficult

You probably didn’t need me to tell you this, but it’s true. Writing something you can be proud of takes time and hard work. Sure, we’ve all waited until the last minute to write a paper at one time or another and still gotten it done, but that wasn’t our best work.

The difference between writing for school and writing on a personal blog or a site like Medium is that with the latter, you are the one choosing to write. If you’re writing because you want to, you owe it to yourself to do a good job.

Some days will be easier than others. You will feel brilliant at times, but you will also feel hopeless or angry at times. If you are serious about making writing a hobby, be prepared to experience and work through all of it.

Don’t Expect Fame and Fortune

Sure, writers enjoy writing and releasing good content out to the world. But all writers also, to some extent, write for personal gain as well. If this wasn’t true, there would be fewer writers, and more writers would keep their work to themselves.

This personal gain comes in different forms for different people. It could mean book sales, article views, social media followers, revenue, or even just nice comments or constructive criticism from readers, but the need exists.

It’s a great thing to have dreams of success, but you should acknowledge them as simply that — dreams.

They could happen, but it’s far from guaranteed. The writers you love are excellent at what they do, but they also know how to market themselves, have good connections, and have probably gotten really lucky at some point.

I thought that even if it took a little while, people would eventually realize my sportswriting genius and I’d start to become popular. So far, that really hasn’t happened.

Actually, I’ve failed to gain much traction at all.

Many things I’ve written have only a few views. A few have none at all. For every famous writer, there are TONS of people like me. Maybe I’ll blow up soon. Maybe I never will. Either way, I’ve acknowledged that success isn’t inevitable.

It’s Easy to Get Discouraged

It doesn’t matter who you are — a writer with a small following like me or a household name. In fact, this isn’t even limited to writing. YouTubers, actors, musicians — anyone creating content gets discouraged. And you know what?

That’s okay.

However, it’s also important to understand why these feelings arise. Usually, it’s because the creator isn’t satisfied with their expectations of personal gain. The views, likes, dollars, whatever it is, isn’t there. The creator feels owed when the truth is that the world doesn’t owe them anything.

As a creator, you have to always be adaptable and focused on creating good content. If you aren’t satisfied, use that as motivation to work harder.

Your Writing Gets Better Over Time

Sometimes it might not feel like it, but believe me, it’s true. Occasionally when I feel discouraged, I reread one of my articles from a few years ago. Let me tell you something: even some of the pieces I thought were really good at the time just aren’t.

Of course, some hold up pretty well, but even these usually have sections that I wish I could rewrite or an embarrassing grammatical error hidden somewhere.

You get better with practice. Write more (and read more) and your writing will improve. The same goes for any skill. You are a work in progress, and especially as a younger writer, you don’t know what you don’t know. Growth only comes through repetition and experimentation.

I can only imagine what kind of a writer I’ll be in five years, and that thrill encourages me to keep going.

Take Notes of Everything

I am a prolific user of the Notes app on my iPhone. Every day, I use it to write down just about anything that comes to mind.

Sometimes that means big things — ideas for new articles, books, or podcasts. It could also be poetry — even just a line, or an interesting quote I heard. A cool title, even if I don’t know what it’s for. A character name, or a cool idea for a character. If I hear of a new concept in science, psychology, or philosophy that intrigues me, I’ll make a note. The list (in this case, lists) go on and on — literally.

Sure, it could be more organized, but I’ve found that it’s very important and rewarding to have a place to store all of my ideas. If I ever don’t know what to write about, I’ll just pick something I’ve already come up with and work on it. Smaller projects get finished, and dents get put into larger ones.

Not every idea ends up being used, but the important thing is that they’re written down somewhere, meaning they might be used sometime. Plus, just having these notes can often inspire new ideas entirely.

The process has to be immediate, though. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come up with something amazing while lying in bed and told myself that I’ll remember it in the morning. Here’s an important lesson: You won’t remember that idea.

In short, write things down when they come to you, no matter what it is if you think there’s even the slightest chance they will be creatively useful to you in the future. Better to have too many potential projects than to run out of ideas.

For the Greatest Productivity, Eliminate Distractions

This is a BIG one and one that I myself struggle with all the time. When you decide it’s time to write, commit to writing. This means no checking your phone (you’ll be fine, I promise), no talking to other people, no listening to music, no watching TV, etc.

Distractions will only slow you down and can make you lose your train of thought entirely.

Some people are capable of listening to music or writing in public at places like cafes (I, unfortunately, am not), but even if you are, phone away. This is the most important part. It is incredibly easy to check one thing on your phone and then get caught up in the world of the tiny screen. All of a sudden, half an hour has gone by.

Find a routine that works for you, and then put 100% of your writing time into actually working on writing.

Don’t Confine Yourself to a Schedule

Just like on YouTube, many young writers try to force a schedule on themselves. They make it a goal to publish something like weekly, three times a week, or even every day.

Goals are good, but from my experience, I’ve found that they often lead to complacency once the goal has been met. For example, if I want to publish an article every three days, I often take two days off after publishing something and don’t even think about writing during this time.

This is a huge mistake. For one thing, some articles will take more research than others and won’t be able to be completed in one day. This means that I end up failing to meet my goal.

You should write whenever you get the urge to write. If you can pump out two or three articles in a day, go for it. That’s fantastic. You don’t have to publish them all at once. Schedule them for the future, or save one for a day you go on vacation or just don’t feel like doing anything. Never put a cap on your output.

Writing is the Ultimate Self-Expression

Even after all these years, I still struggle to find a better feeling than hitting publish on something I’ve written. Writing truly is a beautiful thing. The process is so simple, yet the possibilities are endless.

It’s done alone — just you and the page, but the result has the power to change lives.

Perhaps the most important life it can change is your own. If you have an idea, do not hesitate: write it. If you don’t, years could go by and leave you wondering what if.

My biggest takeaway and piece of advice can be summed up in one word: write.

Sportswriter. Medill graduate student. Host of the Slept On Sports podcast. Relentlessly curious. My book: .

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