Welcome to Ali Luke, successful blogger, freelance writer, coach and novelist. She is the author of the Aliventures.com blog and newsletter, the novel Lycopolis, and creator of the thriving writers’ community “The Writers’ Huddle.” She is also under contract and currently writing a book in the popular “For Dummies” series on writing ebooks.
- Ali, would you start with some info about yourself, your background, how you got into writing, and basically how you got to where you are today?
Sure thing – and thanks for having me here, Bill!
I’ve been writing since childhood (and I was making up stories before I could write…) In my early teens, I started work on my first novel, and never really looked back. I studied English Literature at Cambridge (and wrote a second novel) and, after a couple of unfulfilling years in the “real world” of a 9 – 5 job, I quit to be a freelance writer and to take a part-time Masters in Creative Writing & Life Writing at Goldsmitsh College, University of London.
When I started freelancing, most of the work I did was for blogs. I’d had a couple of personal diary type blogs as a student and while I was working a day job, but I then got into “professional” blogging – with a clear topic and the intention of making money. This was what led to a few initial freelancing gigs, and what gave me the confidence to quit my day job.
You have what I consider to be a successful blog and writing career. Your posts and articles draw a constant flow of comments from readers who relate that they find your content helpful. And, you seem to have a canny way for hitting on quite practical advice that resonates with your readers.
- So tell us, if you would, what’s your secret?
Hubris and luck! 😉 I threw myself into blogging, confident of success. It took a good while longer than I expected, but I was constantly learning new things and putting myself out there. I started writing guest posts within my first month of blogging, and my first two guest posts actually led to paid positions.
I suppose perseverance played a role, too, along with a deep-seated love for both writing and the online world. I’ve also got a definite business-minded streak, which surprised me a bit!
- Do you still enjoy blogging? I know for some it can become like a treadmill, and it can be all-to-easy to burnout.
I love it – though I’ve changed direction a few times over the past four years, and it’s only in the last two that I’ve really settled on my core topic (writing for writers/bloggers). It definitely helps to be writing about an area that I’m immersed in as part of my work and life.
- Did it take a while for you to build up your subscriber list?
Oh yes! Aliventures was my third blog (after one on dieting and one on student tips, respectively…) and it still took me a good while to establish a strong readership base. Here’s how the stats look:
0 subscribers – July 16th, 2009 (launch)
1000 subscribers – February 12th, 2010
2000 subscribers – February 5th, 2011
3000 subscribers – March 26th, 2012
- When you were starting out, did you use any particular strategies to build your subscriber list? If so, did they help?
Guest posting has always been my best strategy, and it definitely helped. In the early days of Aliventures, I was blogging about personal development rather than writing, so I was able to tap into the audience for some of my paid work too.
Over the past year, I’ve also focused on my newsletter rather than RSS subscribers, and that’s now close to 2,000 members: in my guest posts, I’ve often promoted the newsletter rather than the blog itself.
- I’ve noticed that your posts and guest posts get a lot of comments. And I suspect that it’s because you aim at being very practical. Anyway, can you share how you think about addressing reader concerns and being practical–I’m assuming my suspicion re practicality is correct?
I absolutely try to be practical, though I’m not sure that’s necessarily linked to the number of comments. At least, I’d never thought of it that way! But you may well be right. I definitely think that readers like posts that offer practical advice which they can implement … though I try to mix this up with occasional posts that aim to be more inspirational.
I try to reply to all the comments on Aliventures (unless they’re very short) and also on my guest posts. Not only does this encourage people to come back and comment on more posts, it also boosts the number of total comments. 😉 Sadly, it’s getting harder to keep up with that now that I’ve got a bigger readership, and when I post on big blogs.
- The internet has enjoyed exponential growth worldwide. It seems to be evolving almost as fast as technology. Where do you see blogging going in coming weeks, months, years?
We’re in for a fantastic ride, I think! When I was an undergraduate, blogging was still the reserve of geeks – I certainly had no idea that anyone made money from it (beyond, perhaps, covering their hosting costs by running a few ads).
In the time that I’ve been blogging (2008 onwards) there have been some substantial changes. For one thing, WordPress has become much more user-friendly, so I think we’ll see more and more people joining the ranks of the blogging world. Twitter has also become hugely popular, and so bloggers tend not to do so many round-up posts, preferring to link to posts from Twitter instead. (Twitter’s one of my best traffic sources, in fact.)
I think we’ll see micro-blogging, with sites like Twitter and Tumblr, become increasingly popular. I also think blogging will become better understood and more respected in the wider world – for many people, it still seems like something a bit techy or geeky. The technology will, of course, continue to get better and better, and I imagine video blogging will become increasingly popular too.
- Do you see blogging and online entrepreneurship as a force for good in this world, generally or specifically?
I do. On a personal and individual basis, running your own business can be immensely fulfilling – it may well also mean a better lifestyle with more time for family or friends. And on a broader level – bloggers can be a powerful force for change, often able to express opinions that the mainstream media are unwilling to commit to.
Entrepreneurial bloggers can provide excellent services all around the world, and they all give away a huge amount of content too – so even those who can’t afford to, say, buy an ebook can at least benefit from blog posts and newsletter material.
Freelance and Copywriting
You make your living with your writing. I find that admirable. I spent most of my career in government, actually writing a lot, and I’ve done some ghostwriting and did various work as a writer outside of my career, but I have never made my living at it. But you earn part of your income freelancing and writing for the web.
- How did you get started in freelancing? I mean from day one?
In January 2008, I wrote a guest post to promote my new and fledgling blog The Office Diet (it still exists, and brings in some advertising revenue, but I haven’t updated it in years). The guest post was for Diet Blog, and the editor there, Jim, said he could offer me a paid gig. That email opened my eyes to the world of freelance blogging. (Thanks, Jim!)
- Did you do anything to prepare yourself in the way of skills and knowledge about copywriting before taking or looking for assignments?
I bought a couple of books on copywriting and freelancing, and I read Copyblogger and Freelance Switch avidly. In terms of my assignments, though, most of what I was doing was fairly straightforward – I wasn’t writing sales copy, just content.
- For readers thinking of getting into freelancing, how would you advise them? For example, would reading some good books and blogs on copywriting fundaments and insights be advisable—or should the wannabe just jump in and sink or swim?
I think this really depends on the individual. If your writing skills are already pretty strong, I’d just jump in! (By “strong”, I mean that you’ve written as part of a day job, or you’ve been blogging consistently for a while, or you’ve had work published – even if it’s in a somewhat different style.)
If you’re going to be writing sales copy, then you will need to get some solid knowledge on that. I didn’t take on any sales copy until recently, and even now, it’s something I only tend to do for existing clients – I don’t advertise myself as a copywriter.
eCourses and writing eBooks
You’ve written a number of ebooks and also ecourses, so…
- Do you have what they call an “ideal reader” in mind when your write? Do you aim your materials at beginning level writers, as well as more advanced? Or do you have a wider target?
I concentrate on what I consider relevant about my ideal reader. I don’t worry about things like how old they are or where they live, but I do consider their level of technical expertise, as well as their writing experience. I tend to assume that my readers want to write and that they’ve done at least some writing beyond what they had to do in school.
I suppose I’m aiming at the beginner to intermediate range in my ebooks, with The Blogger’s Guide to Irresistible Ebooks being more advanced than the others. With my ecourses, I try to make them as broadly applicable as possible, but they’re not suitable for absolute beginners.
- I suspect that you started with you first ecourse (Ontrack, right?) when you didn’t have quite the online following you have now? So, did you have a sizable number of followers when you offered your first ecourse?
Yep, On Track was my first ecourse, in January 2011, so I had about 2,000 blog subscribers at that point but just 250 email newsletter subscribers. (I think loyalty is often underestimated in the blogging world; it’s not just about the size of your list, but about how much those people actually care about you and what you’re offering!) Forty people joined up for On Track, which made it well worth running.
- Would you advise those with knowledge to teach to start out small. I know, later on, a course-giver can recycle the ecourse in an updated version, say.
Definitely start small in terms of offering something that’s fairly straightforward: On Track was an email ecourse to keep things simple both for me and for the participants. In terms of your audience, I think you need to be confident that you’re not going to end up spending a huge amount of time for very little return – obviously you can reuse the basic course materials, but if you’re also offering a weekly Q&A or similar, technical support, etc, then the time invested can quickly add up.
You might prefer to begin with an ebook (or self-study course) so that you can easily sell it over time, rather than relying on bringing in enough people with an intense launch.
- I’ve noticed you do well when you offer ecourses. How did you learn to write them, in a lesson format?
Thank you! The wonderful Ainslie Hunter of Courses That Matter helped me out a lot, and I also ask for feedback from course participants, which helps me improve each time. I come from a family of teachers, too, so perhaps it’s in my blood. 😉
I approach my courses in a similar way to my blog posts: I try to make them as practical as possible. I’m particularly keen on including step by step instructions and short, straightforward exercises to help get people moving.
- What has worked well with your ecourses, and what not so well, if anything?
I’ve been lucky enough to attract great people to take them! With a group course, the mix of participants is really crucial. I’ve found that breaking things into short, simple lessons works well, particular in a web format; that way, people don’t have to wade through huge passages of text at a time.
In terms of not so well … the technology can still get in the way, and this is something I really hope will improve over the next few years. I know Writers’ Huddle members have been having a few problems with the login system (and I’ll be the first to admit it’s not perfect) – unfortunately, I have to work with what’s available.
I’ve also not done as good a job as I’d like of promoting my courses at launch. Next time I open up Writers’ Huddle, I want to do lots of guest posting to reach out to a wider audience than my own blog and newsletter list.
- What sort of coaching have you done? For example, do you coach fiction writings as well as nonfiction, copywriters, webwriter?
Yes! I’ve had years of experience of fiction critiquing, both in informal workshops and an academic context, so I do work with clients on short stories and novels. Most of my clients are writing blog posts, ebooks, or web copy, and with those, I’ll often give some strategic support as well as help with the actual writing bit.
- Do you offer coaching of small projects as well as large ones?
I do; some people come for just one session on a specific project, like a guest post for a big blog. Most of my clients stick around long term, though, often working on an ebook, a blog, or a whole writing career.
- What specific areas do you focus on when critiquing a client’s work?
This depends a lot on the client, in terms of what sort of support they’re looking for, and in terms of what level they’re at with their writing. With most people, I’ll look at the big picture (structure, flow, etc) as well as the details (voice, grammar, etc).
I find that voice is often a key area – it’s easy to accidentally slip, and I’ll pick up on any words or phrases that seem inconsistent with the overall voice of a piece. Most people tend to over-write, too, so I’ll often make suggestions for where words, phrases, and sentences could be cut out.
I love it, and I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t! It’s wonderful to see a client’s work progress over time, and I also get lots of great ideas from my clients – if I see the same sort of problem coming up for several people, I know that will make for a great blog post.
Note: Do you have any questions after reading the interview above. Please feel free to share them, or comment of course…
Coming next Monday, May 14th: Part Two of the above interview.