There are endless ways writers and authors can connect with readers. An author website, TikTok, YouTube, personal newsletters, Substack, the list goes on. But how do you identify which is the right discovery platform for you?
This week I was fascinated to catch up with a content creator who has succeeded multiple times across different platforms. He has a popular personal newsletter and writes about Web3 and cryptocurrency. He's also a well-known book talker.
I'm talking about Nat Eliason, who creates content on various discovery platforms.
Now, my key takeaway from talking to Nat is that it's still crucial to connect directly with your readers. And for writers, that hasn't changed.
In this episode, we discuss:
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Nat: I think that really is the shortest path for most people towards becoming a published author, towards getting that book deal. It's starting the newsletter, building the list. At this point, I think if you're going to start a newsletter, you should be on Substack. If you're going to do a business newsletter, like very financial money focused, then maybe you want to be on Beehive. But for pretty much everything else, I think Substack is the place to be.
Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.
Bryan: An author website, TikTok, YouTube, personal newsletters, Substack, the list goes on — there are endless different ways that writers and authors can connect with readers. But how do you identify which is the right discovery platform for you? What's the best way to execute on some of these platforms?
Hi there. My name is Bryan Collins. Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Channel. I love experimenting with different platforms and tools. Over the years, I've mostly focused on SEO. So, I've written a lot of articles for Become a Writer Today, edited a lot of these articles and optimized them for search. Over the past year or two, I've branched out into other channels. I'm mostly focusing on creating videos for YouTube to grow the Become a Writer Today brand. In the past, I did focus on other discovery platforms like Medium. I've spent less time focusing on other platforms, including Twitter, which was probably a mistake, and also on TikTok.
I was fascinated to catch up with a content creator who has succeeded multiple times across different platforms. He has a popular personal newsletter. He's writing about Web3 and cryptocurrency. He's also a well-known book talker. I'm talking about Nat Eliason who creates content on a variety of discovery platforms. Now, my key takeaway from talking to Nat is that it's still key to have a way of connecting directly with your readers. And for writers, that hasn't really changed.
The best way to connect with your readers is through having an email list. You could have an email list that you have set up on your author site. You're attracting traffic to SEO optimized articles, or book summaries, or whatever it is that you'd like to write about. Or you could use a discovery platform like Substack, which will take care of some of that email marketing for you. That's probably the best way for a writer to get their work in front of an audience, and also to build their profile. So, if you fancy doing something that you've complete control over, go ahead and set up that WordPress website. That's what I did. Or if you just want to dip your toes into email marketing and writing online, then perhaps Substack is the best place to start. In fact, in the interview, Nat describes how he gets many subscribers organically within the Substack app. That's actually something that a number of Substack newsletter owners have said to me over the past few weeks. The platform is getting better and better. So, it's certainly one that I'm going to revisit.
I hope you enjoy this week's interview with Nat. He also talks about how he's writing a cryptocurrency book, which will be out sometime next year. I was fascinated to hear how he's approaching writing about such a complex topic. A year or two ago, I actually took a course from him called Effortless Outpost in Roam Research. Now, we don't go too much into roam research in this week's interview. But we do talk about personal knowledge management. That explains what his personal system is. I hope you enjoy this interview with Nat. It was certainly a good one. If you do, please consider leaving a short review on the iTunes store. You could also share the show with another writer or another friend. Because those shares do grow the listenership, and they really do help.
Bryan: Welcome to the show, Nat.
Nat: Thanks. I'm happy to be here.
Bryan: Lots of questions I'd love to ask you, Nat. You've been creating content successfully online across a multitude of channels for a few years now. But how did you get started with writing and with creating content online? What drew you to this particular type of work?
Nat: Yeah, I was a philosophy major in college. I was getting close to graduation and realized that there aren't a lot of great jobs out there for philosophy majors. So, I started down the entrepreneurship path because that was what I was always interested in. I realized early on that I needed to have some kind of marketing type skills if I ever wanted to grow a business. So, I looked at what I was good at and what types of marketing there were out there. Content marketing stood out as a really good opportunity, for at least a first job out of college.
So, I stumbled into the writing blog articles as marketing world in my senior year. I started my blog then. I started putting up a few pieces. Instead of reaching out to companies that were hiring interns for content marketing roles, which was very few and far between. But one of those companies that I ended up talking to was Zapier — which I think everybody knows about now or a lot of people know about now. They're huge. They're much smaller back then. But I ended up getting — I think I was one of their first interns. I stayed at this content marketing internship. It's a trial because content was such a big part of their marketing strategy. It was really fun because I got to fly out to NSF and hang out with their head of marketing Danny Schreiber, and the CEO Wade. I just got to learn from them for a week, and then work for them for the rest of the semester. That helped us set a really good foundation to do a lot of blog and content-related work after that.
Bryan: Oh, interesting. I worked on the content marketing team for a British software company up until 2020. So, it sounds like you were working for Zapier, and then you also decided to set up a side hustle online.
Nat: Yes, during the same time, I was working for Zapier. Me and a friend built this course. I called it Programming for Marketers. He had a decent amount of marketing skills. I had some programming skills from just being exposed to it at my college. It was like a seven-part email series on how to learn basic technical automations for common marketing things you might want to do. This was fun. Because this was 2015, so I feel like email courses have came and went since then. Back then, they were just getting started. Then there were a few years where they were like all the rage. And now I feel like they subsided a little bit. But it was crazy because there was just less competition for good email courses back then. So, when we launched it, we were like top three or five on Product Hunt for the day for an email course.
Nat: We had a few thousand people go through that launched paid course off the back of that. That was really cool. Because we ended up launching the paid course the week that I graduated from college. It did about $58,000 in sales that week. We were splitting everything 50-50. I was like, "Shit, this is a lot of money for a recent college grad." I did end up taking a job, but I also didn't have to. I can just keep focusing on the blogging, writing content stuff if I'd wanted to.
Bryan: How have you managed writing across so many different industries and niches? I mean, you write about cryptocurrency. You've written about personal knowledge management. You create content on TikTok about great books. It's quite a diverse array of topics.
Nat: Yeah, that's a good question. I really don't manage it. It just happens. I think that, at the end of the day, I'm just somebody who is interested in a lot of very different things. I get bored of things very quickly. And so, I naturally float from one topic to the next as I get bored of it. Then the challenge has been like, how do I build a sustainable career in life and to whatever extensive business around that tendency? Writing works well if you're that kind of person, and if you can make it work. I really wish I could remember who said this, because it's such a great line. But basically, a writer's job is basically to filter the world through their lens for other people. And so, if you can provide an interesting filter to very different parts of the world, then you can jump around to be interested in different things, and it can work out. And so, I've just constantly tried to do that.
If there is a unifying, underlying thing to all of those, it might be that I think I'm relatively good at explaining technical things to less technical people. So, I can take something like crypto or very esoteric personal knowledge management software, and I can understand what the super technical, dirty, geeky people are talking about. Then I can make it more compelling or a little more exciting for people who maybe can't speak that same language as comfortably, or who don't want to. So, I think those are often the topics where learning has done well too, just bringing this geeky knowledge to a more mass-market audience.
Bryan: Yeah, I took your course Effortless Output in Roam, I think, approximately a year ago. It was a good course. I was trying to figure out how to use roam research at the time. I didn't ultimately end up using Roam Research, but I applied some of the principles from the course to another personal knowledge management output, Obsidian. I'm not sure if you've used that one yet.
Nat: I haven't played with Obsidian much, though it's probably the right choice. The unfortunate thing with the Roam course was it had that — the app had that crazy surge of excitement during that period, and that it felt like the product stopped getting worked on. I'm not really sure what happened there. So, even I don't really use it very much anymore, unfortunately.
Bryan: What do you use for your search, planning and so on?
Nat: Have you seen Reflect now? But I don't use it as aggressively as I used to. I think one thing that you realize eventually is that the note taking tools don't really help that much. They feel like they help a lot. They feel like they're making you really productive, and you're doing a lot. But most of it is just like procrastination. It's like organizing your desk and thinking that, "Oh, if my desk is really organized, my writing will be better." It probably won't. But it feels good while you're doing it.
Bryan: You're talking to somebody who spent a lot of time reviewing writing up. So, I certainly agree with you too. Is the book you're writing about cryptocurrency, which I understand you may have sent to your editor, is that the main focus at the moment for you?
Nat: Yep, that's the main project right now. I was working pretty heavily in crypto for about a year, a year and a half. Then when the market crash stuff happened in May, I stepped back and stopped putting as much time and effort on it. But I knew that I could probably write a pretty good book about crypto and about that period, that would again going back to this idea of taking something cloudy, closed off, confusing and making it very understandable and approachable to more mass market. That was the idea that I pitched for the book. It got picked up by Penguins in print portfolio. And so, I've been working on that since June or July of last year, but kind of in earnest since September.
Bryan: That's quite a long time. So, is the book more about an explainer or insights from your experience in crypto, or have you interviewed other people who are involved in the space?
Nat: A bit of both of the first two. I think that a straightforward explainer would just be very boring, and be way too technical and in the weeds. People have tried to write some of those books. They just don't do very well, I think. Because without some story to hang it on, it's just hard to follow and hard to be interested. So, it's a combination of story driven of the time period and explaining some of the more technical stuff that was going on behind the scenes and much easier to understand language.
Bryan: Oh, interesting.
Nat: Basically, for everybody who saw the crypto headlines or had a friend, or a relative, or somebody from high school who was super into it, and they were sitting around wondering like, "What the hell was going on in crypto the last two years," that's what this book answers.
Bryan: So, you're at that weird place where you've sent your book to your editor. Well, what do you do when that happens? Because a lot of writers get really antsy. They're waiting on feedback. They're not sure if they should continue working on the manuscript, or do something else, or just take a break.
Nat: Yeah, I'm just letting it sit for a few weeks. I'm playing video games and making TikToks, working out, doing other stuff. I just try not to think about it too much. I have found that the periods of letting it sit have been very, very helpful. I think stuff percolates in the background, and your mind figures things out when it's at rest. So, giving my head that space to ruminate on things and figure out what to do when I go back to it will be very helpful, even if it feels unproductive at the moment.
Bryan: I read some great writing advice from Joan Didion, a famous American nonfiction writer. When she finished an essay, or a collection of her works, or a screenplay, she'd put it in the freezer for a few months. So, she forget about it, and then take it out ones on the afternoon, read through it with a more critical eye.
Nat: I like that, yeah.
Bryan: So, you also have a couple of different newsletters as well. How do you decide what newsletter to focus on for, I guess, your crypto audience versus your personal writing? Because you also write about philosophy. So, I'd imagine there are two subsets of readers.
Nat: I haven't done the crypto newsletter in months, like six months. I really just have one newsletter, and I send that every Monday. It's really just whatever I feel like writing about that week. I'm not really focused on any particular niche with it. That certainly limits the size that it can grow to or that it has grown to. Because it's almost like a hard thing to recommend to people. It's like, oh, you should read this newsletter. What's it about? I don't know. But it finds an audience anyway.
Nat: Yeah, like whatever. I've set the expectation for myself that I'm going to publish something on that newsletter every Monday. Then usually, during the week, the thing that I want to write about for that week will kind of naturally emerge.
Bryan: Interesting. Over the past few years, I've focused a lot on producing articles that rank in Google search and on SEO to build up my site. That work quite well. Lately, I've been looking at discovery platforms like YouTube and TikTok. I'm mostly focused on YouTube. I'm recording long and experimenting with short form videos, but I already used TikTok. I haven't used TikTok much. But you've had a bit of success with it. Would you be able to describe what you're doing on it?
Nat: Yeah, I'm really just talking about books that I've read. I tend to read a lot. I think if you're going to write a lot, you have to read a lot. It's really one of the only ways that you can try to get better passively. I've taken notes on the stuff that I'm reading for years. I was always just publishing those in online site. Like you said, SEO type strategy. It's very good for ranking. To this day, if you search for a bunch of book titles and then add summary or notes to the end, my site is usually one of the first ones that comes up.
I've just had those notes sitting there forever. Somebody mentioned that there were a lot of people on TikTok who were really into books. Book talk was a pretty big thing. And so, I figured, okay, cool. I'll go check it out. They're right. It's a big community. And so, I started just using all of the books that I have taken notes on for the last eight years or whatever to make videos about them. It's found a really great audience so far. So, that's been a fun side thing to do to take a break from the writing. Because you can't really write all day. You'll run out of good energy after a few hours, it's fine. So, this is a good separate thing. It's a good future marketing channel for when the book comes out.
Bryan: I found that two to three hours is about right for most writers, with a few exceptions like Stephen King. After that, it gets harder to focus.
Nat: Even Stephen King though. If you read between the lines, if it's like on writing book, I don't think he does much more than that. Because he says that he gets up and works for a few hours until he gets a few 1000 words. Then he stops for the rest of the days. That's probably two to three hours for him. He only does that for three months, and then he takes a six-week-plus break. It's like he's not working at least a third of the time, like a week or two. It's kind of crazy, because he's obviously been very prolific. But it shows that you can be super prolific without having a totally insane writing schedule.
Bryan: Yeah, I guess he's in his mid or early 70s.
Nat: Yeah, that helps too. His first book came out when he's like 26.
Bryan: Correct me if I'm wrong. He had a long back catalogue.
Nat: Yeah, and he's been writing until he's 72, 73. So, 50 years of publishing. A lot of books out.
Bryan: Yeah, he's written some fantastic books over the years. He's one of my favorite authors. I'm curious about your research process. I've tried to improve my research process. Some of the principles you taught in your course elsewhere. So, I keep a type of something that's called Zettelkasten. I'm sure you're familiar with that concept. You mentioned, you have years of books. So many notes. Would you be able to describe your process for writing a book summary for nonfiction writers who might be interested?
Nat: Yeah, I mean, I pretty much never write a book summary. I don't personally find that super useful. What I'll do is I'll just read books, and then highlight anything that's interesting as I'm going, and then add sticky tabs to know where the highlights are so I can go back and pull them out later. Then sometimes when I'm done with the book, I'll go through and pull them out right there. I'll put them into my note taking app. Other times, I'll just leave them, and then see if I ever am curious what those notes were. Then I'll go back and pull them out. It's basically the Building a Second Brain method. But I usually don't do the more involved steps like the progressive summarization and whatnot, unless it's one that I'm coming back to over and over again. For the most part, it's simply just highlighting things as I go and leaving the sticky tabs, and then seeing if I ever come back to them.
One thing that I think is nice about having physical books versus reading on Kindle or something is, there's something about the spatial reminders, like seeing the books on your desk or on your shelf or whatnot. These aren't really my bookshelves. They're outside the office. There's something about seeing all of it. I find it as a really helpful reminder of what the ideas are. So that if I'm stuck on an article or if I need a reference for something, I can just go look at my bookshelf. And some part of my brain will remember something from one of the books and will pop out at me. So, I really don't put much time at all into the summaries or research or anything that I think we would call organizing by knowledge from books.
Bryan: I found it harder over the years to read Kindle books, unless it's just I'll quick look something up. I've gravitated back towards physical books. I think that's because I spend a lot of time looking at a computer screen.
Bryan: So, I guess the Kindle is another digital device. But I do find audiobooks quite enjoyable to listen to. So, does it take long to turn your book summary then into a script for a TikTok video? Or do you just look at the notes as a type of index points and then just shoot off the cuff?
Nat: I can do it pretty quickly. But I think I've had a lot of practice. I did some YouTube videos for a while. I've obviously been writing for a while, making tweets and things. So, writing the scripts for the TikTok goes pretty quickly. I do loosely script it. But I don't know. It comes very easily for me. I'm not sure why.
Bryan: If somebody is listening to this, like a writer, and they're looking for a platform to get started on, should they start a newsletter based on your experiences? Or is it creating a YouTube channel? Or perhaps is it publishing stuff on their author website, or is it TikTok? What do you think is the greatest opportunity for creatives today?
Nat: Yeah, I mean, if your goal is to be a writer, then obviously you should be writing and not making YouTube videos or TikToks or whatever. Those are good if you need extra marketing, but they should always be a second or third priority. The first priority has to be whatever the writing is. I do think it's worth asking whether you want to write articles or write books. I think a lot of people spend way too long — I definitely fell into this too — writing articles if you really want to write books. If I write books, I'll figure out how to start writing books. I think there's a lot of merit to that, because nobody really remembers articles.
You might remember a few articles. You might recommend a few of them. But if you think about how many books you have on your bookshelves, if you think about how many books you've handed to people, and think about how forgettable articles generally are, even great articles. We just don't value essay-length content very much. It's like good brief entertainment. Occasionally, we'll have a really good idea. But books are the medium if you're a writer. Figuring out the shortest path between you and book writing, unless you want to be a journalist, like listening on record on New York Times or something. That would be the exception, I think. It's a good question. The answer is pretty much you either have to have some meaningful credential. You're a published professor, or you have some crazy business experience or life experience, something like that, or you have an email list. If you have an email list, you can get a book deal. That's the short of it. Because not many people have multiple thousand-person email list. If you can get there, then that means you can sell some basic number of books, or you'll be able to get that first book deal.
I think that really is the shortest path for most people towards becoming a published author, towards getting that book deal. It's starting the newsletter, building the list. At this point, I think if you're going to start a newsletter, you should be on Substack. If you're going to do a business newsletter, very financial money focused, then maybe you want to be on Beehive. But for pretty much everything else, I think Substack is the place to be. I get most of my subscribers now through the Substack referral and recommendation program. It's great. They handle just everything for you. You don't have to worry about web hosting. You don't have to worry about formatting and stuff. It just makes it so much easier for you.
Bryan: I interviewed an author yesterday. She's actually advocating that aspiring authors serialize their book directly on Substack because for the reasons you described. Basically, it's taking care of marketing. There's organic discovery now built into the platform.
Nat: Did you mean like publish it on Substack?
Bryan: She was advocating that if you had a book — it could be a memoir, or it could be a novel — you would take chapters from the book and just rewrite them as installments that you would publish each week.
Nat: Oh, yeah.
Bryan: You might make a few tweaks. The chapter doesn't translate directly to a Substack newsletter. She was a big advocate for that.
Nat: I think there's a lot of wisdom that — Andy Weir is kind of the classic example of this. That's how he wrote The Martian. He just sent a newsletter every week with the next chapter of the story, and then got feedback on it, and kept writing it that way until it was done. Then once it was done, he compiled it into an e-book, I think. He was trying to give it away for free. Then eventually, it got picked up by a publisher, and then a bigger publisher, and then some movie with Matt Damon. It's a cool story.
Bryan: It is. Yes, it's a great book. Because I've read the book to the film. When you're on Substack, do you spend a lot of time promoting your newsletter these days, or do you just rely on organic discovery?
Nat: I pretty much just rely on organic discovery. My focus right now is just on writing the book. I think for my newsletter, in particular, it's just a tough thing to promote. Because I can share the articles on my channels, but I'm not going to drive ads to it. I'm not doing SEO on it. I'm not trying to get links from other publications or asking people to promote it. I think growing that as hard and fast as possible isn't a huge priority right now. Well, partially because, I've got the book deal. So, I'm working on that.
A lot of, I think, book success is not entirely just how big your newsletter is. The much more important thing is the quality of the book. The size of your newsletter will get you an initial amount of sales, but 98% of your sales are going to come from word of mouth and from the viral coefficient of the book. So, if one person buys it, how many more people do they tell to buy it? If that number is above one, then you can have a really successful book. If it's below one, then it won't succeed.
All that the newsletter does is add a multiplier to that initial starting number. So, if you have a viral coefficient for your book of 1.5, and you start with 10,000 sales, then it will grow much faster because it starts at a larger number. But if you have a viral coefficient of 5, and you start with 10 sales, it'll still turn into a really successful book. But if the book is not viral, even if you force 50,000 people to buy it off the bat with a huge newsletter, it's still not going to be very successful because people aren't recommending it. So, it's tempting to focus on the marketing, the marketing, the marketing. But at the end of the day, the most important thing is for the book to be really good.
Bryan: When you were writing your book and considering what to do with the finished version, did you explore self-publishing at any point, or was it always on your mind to try and get a traditional deal?
Nat: No, I've done some self-published books, e-books, in the past. I'm seeing no people who self-published books. I still, just for one, I don't think that self-published books are as nice. I can tell. Every time I pick one up, it's obvious that it was a self-published one, even like it's a really, really high end or like Goggins' book with scribe and everything. It's like you can tell. There's a little hint of it. The vise is still there too. I wouldn't feel like I really published a book if I self-published it. Because it's kind of like matters to get accepted by that esteemed pedigree, whatever. It makes a difference. It feels very different.
Also, it's nice to have pros who are working on all the parts that you don't want to work on. I don't want to think about typesetting. I don't want to think about binding, or getting everything set up on Amazon, or distribution, all these things. I just want to write. I will very happily give up a lot of the upside to have people handle all these other things. I think there's a good analogy to venture capital, where you can totally bootstrap a company and fund it all yourself, fund it through sales. But in the vast majority of cases, that will end up being a smaller business, and it will grow much slower. If you really want to be Google or Amazon or have a huge, crazy blowout successful business, it helps to raise money in the beginning. It helps to share the upside. Then I guess what you're doing when you go to a traditional publisher too, you're sharing the upside. Your slice of the pie might be smaller, but the whole pie can be way larger.
So, I think it's almost always the move, unless somebody is doing very niche specific books, where they might not be going for 100,000, a million copies. They're going for a smaller number, and they just want to own more of the sales. Or if you're doing wearable or something like that, then it might be easier to self-publish it. Because people consume that stuff like candy. That's where I'm falling on that.
Bryan: Yeah, I saw David Goggins speak in Dublin a few weeks ago. He did briefly touch on his decision to self- publish. My takeaway was that the success of his book surprised him. A lot of it was down to that famous Joe Rogan interview that he did, which is more about him and his incredible story that necessarily started the book. Not everybody. There was only one David Goggins.
Nat: Yeah, and that might be another situation where it does make sense. You really don't need any support on the marketing. To do it right, to do it really, really well, you're probably going to be spending like 50 to 100 grand of your own money to self-publish it nicely. So, if that amount of money doesn't mean anything to you, and it's worth investing that much to have most of the upside of the sales, then maybe it makes sense. But you're still probably going to have to hire a team to manage a lot of the logistical stuff for you, that you would otherwise get for free with a publisher.
I don't think it's quite as cut and dry, like obvious financial win to self-publish. Then I think what a lot of people do is they say, like, "Oh, I want to self-publish and have more of the upside." Then they go cheap on a lot of the stuff like the paper and the typesetting and the cover design and all these things. Then it just looks like a cheap book. Then it's hard to recommend to people, because it's not like a real book. So, I do feel like if you're going to do it, you really, really have to do it right.
Bryan: It makes sense. Finally, I'm curious about when you do finish your cryptocurrency book — I know you'll spend time promoting this — do you imagine you'll stay writing about Web3 within that particular niche, or you're just going to see what you're interested in next?
Nat: That's what I'm interested in. If it goes well, there might be a demand for a follow-up book. I don't know if I'd want to do one. Because I already don't talk about it too much anymore. I'm talking about other things. No matter how good the money is, it's like if I don't want to write about it, it would just be very hard to do additional content. So, it'll just depend on what I feel like doing, honestly.
Bryan: So, where can listeners go, Nat, if they want to read your book or check out some of your work?
Nat: Yeah, I'd say check out my newsletter. That's where all my writing is. It's just blog nateliason.com. Then, basically, whatever platform you're on for social media, I'm there. Just Nat Eliason on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok. I'm not really on LinkedIn. I'm on those three. So, you can follow me there.
Bryan: I'm surprised you're not on LinkedIn. A lot of online writers are using it these days. But yeah, I'll put the links in the show notes.
Nat: I just hate it. I hate LinkedIn so much. I hate it. It's so just cringe and annoying. It just makes me sad every time I open it.
Bryan: Yeah, I associate it when I was in the corporate life.
Nat: Yeah, totally. But okay. So, I did hear one really good explanation for why it does make sense to post yourself on LinkedIn, though. This was one of the few things that changed my mind on it, which is that, in corporate America, it's socially acceptable to have LinkedIn open on your computer during work. But it's not acceptable to be on Twitter, or Instagram, or TikTok. So, if what you're creating could appeal to people who spend all day in an office, putting it on LinkedIn does help a lot with reach. Because that is the one social media they get to use all day. I heard that from Paul Miller. I don't know. It was a pretty compelling argument for why I should—
Bryan: Yeah, that's a good explanation.
Nat: Yeah, I was like, okay, maybe I should swallow my pride and post my stuff on LinkedIn.
Bryan: Yeah, I'll certainly look into it. Thanks for your time, Nat.
Nat: Yeah, thanks so much for having me.
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