Winning on the Internet

David Perrell on developing voice, serving ideas, and succeeding online

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David Perell, founder of Write of Passage, joins Stew Fortier to discuss how he’s helped countless writers find their voice and succeed online.

1. Be the only person who can do what you do.

David’s secret to cultivating a loyal following is simple: find a way to be the only person who can do what you do. 

“If I were to put a framework to [building an affinity with your audience], I would say, what you want to do is be distinguishable in some sort of way.

When I was in college, I interned at a company called Skift that’s now one of the world's largest travel news and data companies. But when I was there, there were 10 of us, and I was their first-ever intern. And the CEO, Rafat always used to ask, ‘Would people miss you if you were gone?’ And I think that that's just a fundamental question. “If you left, what would be missing?” That to me is the first thing to focus on. How do you differentiate yourself? How do you get to a place where you're building a personal monopoly where you do what Jerry Garcia said, where you are the only person who does what you do?” 

2. What you attract online is a mirror to who you are. Write in a way that attracts what you want.

David always encourages writers to think of their audience as a reflection of who they are and to avoid appealing to the lowest common denominator for the sake of growing an audience.

“If you can write things and produce things that are entertaining to yourself, then they're going to be entertaining to others. I once hosted a meetup in 2018; it was like my own meetup. And I was like, ‘I don't really want to hang out with these people.’  They just didn't inspire me. It didn't have the vibe that I wanted. What you produce online is always a mirror to who you are.

There's a great line that if somebody is really mean to you, they're the problem. If everybody's really mean to you, you're the problem. And it's the same thing. If one person that you meet is kind of a mess, they're the problem. If everyone who is reading your stuff is a mess, you're the problem.

And so I was the problem and I did look myself in the eye and say, ‘Wait, I'm trying to appeal to a lowest common denominator audience and I don't want to do that.’

Write for smart people, entertain the hell out of yourself, and good things begin to happen. It’s so the opposite of copywriting and content forums and all that stuff that's just intellectual junk.”

3. Ideas don’t serve us, we serve them.

When asked how he chooses what to write about, David focuses on what innately interests him and goes from there. 

“My intuition is like a Rottweiler. I cannot control my compass for interestingness. If I'm interested in something, I just run with it.

I believe that we have a responsibility to serve ideas. Ideas don't just serve us, we serve them. And it's really easy to think of writing as, ‘What can I get out of this?’ But it all just becomes way easier when you say, ‘what can the world get out of this and how can I be the messenger to deliver ideas to society?’ Then you find this really nice Venn diagram where it's things that you need to say and things that the world needs to hear and they come together.” 

4. Great writing is often a byproduct of consistency.

While the quality of your writing is incredibly important, David reminds writers that consistent output is often a necessary step to achieve this higher standard. 

“Let's take someone like James Clear. James Clear published two articles a week, every single week, for three years. 114 articles per year for three years. Unbelievable output. Those articles, they're pretty good. They're not for the most part exceptional. Some like the Seinfeld Strategy, are unbelievable. Some of those articles are just exceptional.

But if you were to go through the average one, it's okay. It's sort of adjacent to life hacker, it's not always super insightful. But you know what James did? He committed to publishing, published like 500 to 1000 articles, and then because of that, he was able to write the category defining book on habits.

Is there any book that feels like it's just been more popular in our intellectual circles than Atomic Habits? He earned that. And so the route to quality is through quantity.”

5. Often, producing forgettable work is a necessary first step towards exceptional work. 

David likes to reference American Public Radio personality Ira Glass’ concept of the “taste gap” when his students raise concerns around the repetitive nature of writing online.  The “taste gap” occurs when creators can recognize excellent work, but don't know how to create that for themselves yet. 

“It's so easy to look at a book, or some writing that you really admire and say, ‘Wow, how did they do that? We should all be like that.’  What Ira Glass reminds us of in his explanation of the ‘taste gap’, is that we have to go through the monotony and the mimetic copying that we see all over the place.

Yes, Twitter is in this cycle of everybody just repeating each other and parroting each other, and I get that it's annoying. But every single one of those people, they don't want to end there, they're going towards something that is more inspiring. And that is the path that you have to take. And I think that when it comes to the way that we just criticize people over and over and over again for doing these things, I think that we should remember that this is the part of the process. Before Chris Rock does his Netflix special, he'll do 40 or 50 small comedy shows at a place called the Stress Factory in New Brunswick, New Jersey. And he'll go over and over and over again and work things out.” 

6. “Originality” is complicated: often, what appears to be new is more of a remix of the influences that came before it.

Speaking of originality, David reminds writers that they don’t need to rely on a stroke of creative genius to write their next article. . 

“I want to talk about originality, because there's two spectrums. There's the Austin Kleon, ‘Steal Like an Artist’  spectrum, which is the idea that no ideas are original and you're just borrowing and you're remixing and you're repackaging. That's on one side of the spectrum. The other side of the spectrum is. ‘Oh, my goodness, that was entirely original. Nothing that this person has produced has ever been said before.’ And that doesn't exist, it just doesn't.” 

What I encourage all of you to do is pick your favorite writer and go look up and actually read all the people who influence them. The good news is that it will be very empowering for you. The bad news is that this writer will no longer be magical to you in a lot of ways, because you will see how they've built upon the work of other people, and you'll literally deconstruct it. I do this all the time. 

That’s how a lot of originality is. That's where a lot of creativity comes from. We need to stop thinking about originality as a sort of genius. Do you know what the etymology of the word genius is? It's genie. And what happened is an ancient Roman times, people believed that a genie would literally fly into the mind of a creative person and it would soar into you and it would actually get inside of you.

This is not how creativity works. Now, there's an element of mysticism in creativity, I will not doubt that. I don't know how certain things happen and it's magical. When we overplay the element of mysticism, it makes such a beautiful story, but things are really created and combined. On the other hand. when things are just a regurgitation of what other people are thinking, then the writer hasn't done the work and hasn't gone through enough brain cycles, where they're actually adding something to the conversation, which is always something that I want to do.” 

7. Feedback is a gift. Take note of how people react to your ideas.

David isn’t afraid to see how others react to his ideas before he ships them. In fact, he uses these interactions to refine and improve his writing. 

“There are certain articles that I will sit down and I will type and they will all come out in a way that's good. And then I'll publish it as a mini essay on Twitter or something. And then I'll go ask a friend to edit it. I'll say, ‘Hey, can you give me any feedback?’ And I'll publish it that night. It happens all the time. And then there's other pieces that I really need to work through things that aren't communicated well. And what I do there is, I will have a lot of conversations. People don't realize what a gift conversation is. Like right now, I basically get to sit right here and I get to watch all your facial reactions to the things that I'm saying.

Other people’s reactions allow me to understand what's interesting, what I call CRIBS: what is confusing, repeated, insightful, boring and surprising. It’s the one thing that I do all the time when I need to develop ideas. I just talk to people about them and they throw questions back at me.” 

8. Take a three-phased approach to editing your work.

David tackles his editing in three distinct phases, which he refers to as the three knives of editing.

“The axe phase is when you go and you just cut out big old blocks of writing from your essay. You do it really fast. It’s  great because you can take out parts that aren’t totally relevant or necessary. And so you do that, that's sort of the first phase of editing.

Then, in the kitchen knife phase, you go in and start thinking a little bit more about styles in terms of stories that you tell, in terms of analogies, in terms of frameworks that you bring, in terms of how you actually present an idea. One of my own personal things that I strive for is how do I analogize things that have never been analogized before? I  try to do that all the time.

Then I get to the chisel phase. I always think of it like manicuring your nails, where you just make these little adjustments at the end. I just add what I call intellectual jewelry. It's like when you look at a woman on the red carpet, and she's just stunning. You see that she's got all this jewelry on.  It's not the essence of the outfit, but it kind of makes the outfit. It gives it that sort of the sparkle at the end. All really good art has that jewelry. So what I have is a list of words that I really like, and phrases that I really like that I've collected, and I just zip them all together. I always do this last chisel phase of editing sitting in my bed, on my phone, open on Google Docs half asleep. I just add a little bit more style.”

9. Practice and dedication can help you overcome just about any perceived shortcoming.

David didn’t consider himself a talented writer growing up. He leveraged his other innate talents and a growth mindset to transform his writing over time.

“I was just an awful writer, I was atrocious. I got Bs and Cs and Ds in my writing classes, I was told that I was an absolutely awful writer by my girlfriend, by teachers, by people, by friends. When I was at my first job, my biggest feedback was, ‘You're not a good writer.’

Now I'm a pretty damn good writer. I figured this stuff out too, and I just did it through a tremendous amount of hard work and dedication. So that refutes the argument that it’s what you're predisposed to.

On the flip side, what I was born with is a meta skill of building structures and frameworks that I can use to figure out exactly how I can get better things. I did it with baseball, I did it with Division 1 golf in college, and now I've done it with writing.”

This interview summary was prepared for Foster, a paid invite-only community of online writers. Apply here

You can apply to Write of Passage's next cohort here, or follow David on Twitter.

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