How to Become a Psychology Writer With Nick Wignall

Nick Wignall shares how his therapist career inspired him to become a psychology writer. He talks about the humble beginnings, favorite writing tools, and offers advice for aspiring authors.

Nick Wignall is a psychologist and writer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico with his wife and 3 daughters. In addition to his work as a psychologist, Nick runs a popular blog and newsletter about the emotional side of personal growth at NickWignall.com.

He also teaches an intensive 5-week masterclass on the same topic several times a year called Mood Mastery.

How Did You Become a Writer?

It was definitely a scratch your own itch kind of thing.

A year or two into being a full-time therapist, I kept getting asked the same question over and over again: “How do I find a good therapist?”

After my 20th time or so giving this long, time-consuming explanation of all the factors and strategy that goes into answering that question well, it dawned on me that there must be a less time-consuming way to do this! 

Pretty quickly a book popped into mind as a potential solution.

I spent the next couple of months brainstorming topic ideas and organizing them into an outline. Then, each morning before work, I wrote a few pages and gradually the thing came together. A fumbled around for another few months figuring out how to produce a self-published book and then finally put it up on Amazon.

While I wasn’t expecting a New York Times bestseller, it shocked me how little traction it got. Which made me realize, if I ever want to do more writing, I probably need an audience.

After that humbling experiment with self-publishing, I set up a WordPress blog and newsletter and just started writing about anything I was interested in related to psychology, mental health, and personal growth.

I can’t say I had much of a plan, I just found that I enjoyed writing about topics that were interesting to me. 

In the beginning, I set a goal of writing one article per week and sending it out to my newsletter of about 10 friends and family each week. A few months into doing this, I started cross-posting my articles to Medium and they pretty quickly got some traction there.

I began including a small CTA at the bottom of each article there to join my newsletter and gradually I started gaining a bigger following. After about a year of this, I think I had 1,000 people on my newsletter and was getting about 20,000 unique visitors per month to my website. 

Medium continued to grow as an acquisition channel for my newsletter but I also started writing some articles with SEO in mind. At this point, I’d been writing for about 18 months and was averaging 50,000+ monthly visitors to the website and had about 5,000 newsletter subscribers. 

I’ve basically continued with the same strategy—writing one or two articles a week and emailing my newsletter weekly with my newest articles along with a few interesting links—and as of March 2021 (about 3.5 years in), I’ve got 21,000 newsletter subscribers and typically get 100,000+ monthly users to my website.

I haven’t and still don’t really rely on anything but Medium and my newsletter for distribution. And SEO + Medium makes up the vast majority of my reader acquisition.

How Did You Get Your First Writing Job?

I’ve never had a formal job as a writer and don’t take freelancing gigs.

In early 2018, Medium launched their partner program, which meant that if I paywalled the articles that I cross-posted there, they were eligible to make money.

For the first 9 months, I probably averaged $100 per month. But over the next couple of years, it steadily grew to the point where now I average at least $4,000/mo from Medium.

What Skills Do You Need to Be a Good Writer?

I think being a good writer is almost entirely dependent on your own goals and those of your audience or readers.

In my case, the main goal of my writing is to explain fairly complicated topics in psychology or mental health in a way that’s both accessible and inspiring.

The most important lesson I had to learn was to unlearn my more academic and information-heavy style of writing and learn to be more conversational and casual in my style and tone. 

I use lots of examples and metaphors, usually write in the 2nd person (i.e. If you want to X, why not consider…), and use plenty of paragraph breaks, lists, and sections to break up the page.

In some ways, all of this comes down to being empathetic as a writer. When you understand:

A) What you’re passionate about,

B) What your audience cares about and how they like to learn, good stuff tends to happen with your writing.

What Influences Your Writing the Most?

In a strange way, I don’t think of myself as a writer because when I sit down to write it’s much more like a conversation.

I just start talking to myself in my head and transcribing the words.

Periodically, I’ll hear a potential reader’s voice intrude and say something like, “Yeah sure, but what about X?” and then I just include that in the writing as well.

Thinking about writing as a conversation between myself and my reader is probably the most important idea that influences how I write.

What Tools and Software Do You Use for Work?

I do all my writing in Ulysses because it’s the only software that works well for me both as a writing environment (it’s fairly minimal and is based on writing in Markdown, which I love) and also as an organizational store of my ideas, projects, drafts, etc. I compose all my articles there, then copy them as HTML and paste them into WordPress before publishing.

I use WordPress for my website along with a free theme from Anders Noren that’s heavily modified with my own custom HTML/CSS/PHP. I’m kind of picky about design and find most website builders and themes to be not so easy on the eyes and much too slow and resource-intensive for my taste.

I use ConvertKit for my newsletter, primarily because the design is nice and it’s got some really powerful automation and segmentation features that are increasingly important as my list grows.

What Are Your Writing Habits?

I write most weekday mornings.

Typically, I wake up at 5:00 AM, work out until 6:30 AM, write for 60-90 minutes, then start my day job.

I probably do this 3-4 times per week. On the other days, I’m doing marketing stuff, design work, high-level strategy, responding to emails, etc. 

I’m a pretty quick writer and don’t do much research, outlining, or editing beyond very brief proofreading for obvious typos. Which means I can pretty reliably write an article that’s 1,500 - 2,000 words in 60-90 minutes. I think I’m able to do this for a few reasons: 

  1. I only write about things that I’m pretty knowledgeable about already (I do therapy for a living and basically just talk about the things I observe and learn in my sessions). 
  2. I’m a selfish writer in the sense that I only write about things that are interesting to me. This means that I almost always have a high level of motivation and procrastination isn’t an issue. If I get bored half-way through an article, I have no problem tossing it and moving on to something else that’s more interesting.
  3. I’m kind of an anti-perfectionist. Again, I don’t edit my stuff much and, honestly, it doesn’t bother me if I have the occasional typo here and there. My attitude is, why spend two hours editing a piece when I could use that time to write another article?
  4. Because I write very casually and conversationally, I think this helps with speed. Like, in a lot of ways, I just sort of sit down to the keyboard and stream of consciousness let stuff flow.

What’s the Best Investment You Made in Your Career?

This might sound a little woo-woo or out there, but I believe the best thing I’ve done for my writing is to be selfish.

So many good things come from being willing to bet on my passions and interests.

Take procrastination or writer’s block… Doesn’t happen because I’m genuinely excited to write about whatever topic or article is on my to-do list each morning.

In fact, that’s a precondition for it even making its way onto my to-do list. And if I find myself not excited or unmotivated or even beginning to procrastinate, I don’t get down on myself or see it as a character flaw or weakness. Instead, I take it as a signal that I should be writing about something that’s more personally interesting and motivating.

Now, I get that this is a kind of privilege because I don’t depend on my writing entirely to make a living. That said, I still think people underrate their interests and passions and that being more selfish with your writing tends to pay off in the long run. Excitement, enthusiasm, and passion are infectious. If it comes out in your writing, people will be attracted to it. 

The other thing worth pointing out here is that it might take some effort and creativity to get your writing in front of people who care about similar things.

To use a broad example, I can post my stuff all day long on Twitter and it never really gets much engagement. But when I post on Medium, people tend to eat it up. Try to be thoughtful about your distribution.

What Are the Most Influential Books in Your Life?

Every year around New Years I re-read Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life. Forcing yourself to think about death is one of the best ways to live.

I’ve read Cal Newport’s Deep Work multiple times. It’s probably the most influential thing on my work and productivity. It’s not easy, but the benefits of training yourself to do deep work is almost impossible to overstate—especially for writers.

It’s quirky, but there’s a lot of wisdom in W. Timothy Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Tennis. At the upper echelons of any pursuit—whether it’s personal fulfillment and happiness or professional success and achievement—it always comes down to the inner game: “How good are you at managing your own psychology?”

What Are Your Favorite Writing Quotes?

I like this one from Hemingway:

“Sometimes when I was starting a new story and could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.”

When I see this passage quoted, they always include the “write one true sentence” part but usually leave off the part about the fire and the orange peels. This is strange because I think that’s the most important part.

I imagine Hemingway’s at his desk, staring at his typewriter, trying to think of what advice to give aspiring writers. But he’s stuck. Writer’s block. He’s procrastinating. So he remembers that time when he tossed an orange peel into the fire and watched the blue flame emerge. That, at least, he knows is true. So that’s where he begins his advice, literally. That was his one true sentence that led to his now-famous “Write one true sentence” quote.

If Someone Wants to Be Where You Are Now, How Can They Get There?

Be selfish about discovering and clarifying your values—the things that matter most to you. If that sounds intimidating, start with your preferences, enjoyments, and curiosities. What excites you? What are you nerdy about that other people think is weird?

It’s surprisingly difficult to filter out other people’s values—what society or your family or your business wants—from your own. But once you do, and aim your work and efforts at those personal values, a lot of things fall into place. Motivation because something you choose to harness rather than something you have to find or build. Creativity becomes something you tap into rather than waiting around for. You start attracting interesting and exciting people into your life because they see you as someone’s who is authentically interested and excited.

It’s trendy these days to say that passion doesn’t matter and you should just do the work. I think that’s a load of shit. It’s hard work to discover and be honest with yourself about what matters to you, but what kind of life will it be if you don’t?

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