7 Writing Lessons Gleaned from the Samurai Code

Apply the Samurai's Bushido Code to your work and life as a content creator and writer.

An AI-generated image of a samurai in blue armor.
Apply the Bushido Code to content creation.

Feudal Japanese samurai followed a strict moral and ethical code called "the way of the warrior." This set of principles guided the samurai's conduct in battle and life, and it might teach us about writing success, too.

Earning a living online is akin to entrepreneurial warfare. Whether you want to work as a freelance writer, a professional blogger, or an email newsletter publisher, you must fight many battles with your competition, the market, and your own self-doubt. So, why not take a few lessons from some of history's most famous fighting men?

The Bushido Code

"The way of the warrior," or Bushido code, developed over many years but is generally said to hold seven eternal principles. So, let's consider each of these and adapt them to earning a living online with a content-based business. Call it "the way of the content entrepreneur" or "the way of the writer."

An AI-generated image of a samurai in red armor.
Let the Bushido Code guide your writing.

Rectitude (義, Gi)

The first Bushido principle is rectitude or integrity.

The samurai pursues justice and righteousness, making morally sound decisions. He recognizes that there is a standard of truth and goodness outside of ourselves, and he believes a warrior aims to live not by his own desires but according to the absolute truth.

Let's apply this idea to "the way of the writer."

Imagine a young writer working for a small-town newspaper circa 1992. On a Saturday morning, when most of the senior editorial staff was out, this young reporter started work on the crime section. He was typing up a blurb about a domestic violence incident the prior night. Per newspaper policy, the reporter names the fellow arrested down to his middle initial.

Just then, his phone rings. It is the chief editor. The fellow involved in the previous night's "drama" is the paper's accountant and the editor doesn't believe just a little scuffle should be mentioned.

In an act he believed to be integrity, he put the phone down and sent the crime section to the desk with the accountant's name still in it.

Thus, for a content creator earning a living online, rectitude could mean a few things, like:

  • Produce trustworthy content. A content creator with rectitude would prioritize providing truthful and accurate information. He or she would fact-check claims, cite sources, and correct errors promptly. The writer might also avoid clickbait headlines or sensationalized content that misleads readers.
  • Be respectful. A writer with rectitude would avoid personal attacks, ad hominem arguments, or spreading misinformation without being so winsome as to tolerate any idea or behavior. To paraphrase Charles Spurgeon, sometimes you need to shove someone down a flight of stairs, but do it in such a way that he will thank you for the trip.
  • Don't hide how you make money. A content creator should generate revenue from advertising, sponsorships, affiliate marketing, products, and more. Rectitude demands that these revenue streams are disclosed, allowing readers to make informed decisions about the content and promotions.

Of course, we could add to this list, but perhaps it is best to say to do what is right when you write.

Heroic Courage (勇, Yū)

The second Bushido principle is heroic courage.

For the warrior, courage is the ability to confront fear and danger with bravery. This does not mean that the samurai did not feel afraid. For the samurai, courage is the willingness to do what is right, even in the face of adversity or opposition.

Applying this concept to a content business can manifest in several ways, but I think it is best to think of it as persevering.

The best content businesses I know are all built on consistency, persevering through long periods of low website traffic, financial struggles, or creative blocks. For "the way of the writer," courage is producing a weekly newsletter for months even though only your grandmother reads it.

For example, before he got his first sponsor, podcaster Hunter Hoover produced 131 weekly episodes of Privycast, a podcast about bathrooms recorded in the bathroom. That takes a form of courage.

Courage could also describe taking a professional risk. For a content entrepreneur, leaving a job, any job, to become a professional content creator requires courage.

An AI-generated image of a samurai with a red background.
Sometime courage can take the form of perseverance.

Benevolence (仁, Jin)

The third Bushido principle is benevolence or compassion.

Applying the concept of benevolence to a content creation business involves fostering a sense of compassion, kindness, and a genuine concern for the well-being of your audience.

Thus, benevolence might lead you to create content that genuinely helps your audience solve problems, learn new skills, or gain valuable insights. Your content might be tutorials, guides, informative articles, or resources that address your audience's needs and interests.

A second form of benevolence is giving back to the community once you become a successful creator. For example, when you are super famous, and I ask you to be a guest on my podcast, you at least think about it.

Respect (礼, Rei)

The fourth Bushido principle is respect.

Respect is its own reward. When you show others respect, they are likely to reciprocate. Our politeness and courtesy in interactions lead to better relationships and, ultimately, opportunities.

You can manifest the respect in at least two ways.

First, respect your own journey as a writer. Take the time to hone your skills, seek continuous improvement, and stay curious. Writing is both an art and a discipline, requiring dedication and reverence. Respect the craft, and honor your growth and the legacy of writers who have paved the way.

Second, respect your readers. Avoid unnecessary fluff and get to the heart of your message. Be concise, clear, and engaging. Remember, every sentence should serve a purpose. And be direct. Too many writers are politically correct, inclusive sissies. Respect your readers enough to write about uncomfortable topics.

An AI-generated image of a samurai in green armor.
Always seek the truth.

Honesty (誠, Makoto)

The fifth Bushido principle is honesty.

Being an honest writer starts with recognizing that there are things much more significant than you.

Truth is not an inward thing. "Your truth" is no truth at all. Rather, there is a set of universal truths that transcend culture and being. These absolute facts are true whether we like them or not. They are true no matter whether they condemn your lifestyle or not.

Try to argue with this fact, and you betray honesty and have an undefendable position.

It's tempting to embellish or alter facts to make a story more compelling, but that's a slippery slope.

Once you start lying to your readers, you lose their trust. Whether you're writing fiction or non-fiction, stick to the truth. If you don't know something, admit it. If you make a mistake, correct it. Your integrity as a writer is worth more than any temporary boost in engagement.

An AI-generated image of a samurai in blue armot.
The Bushido Code's principles often overlap.

Honor (名誉, Meiyo)

The sixth Bushido principle is honor.

One of the most important assets a content creator has is his or her reputation. And just after that is the reputation of those around you.

Imagine you are just starting out as a content creator. You attend the Craft + Commerce conference and meet hundreds of creators. One, let's call him Jay, invites you to his podcast and gives your newsletter a real boost. Within days of the podcast's release, you have 5,000 new subscribers.

The principle of honor dictates that you should protect Jay's reputation, too. Don't allow his association with you to harm him.

Thus, honor might take the form of a steadfast commitment to truth in what you publish.

An honorable writer conducts his or her work ethically and responsibly, respecting intellectual property, giving due credit to sources, and avoiding plagiarism at all costs.

Loyalty (忠義, Chūgi)

The seventh Bushido principle is loyalty.

Where does your loyalty lie as a writer and content creator? This question is important because if you want to become a professional earning your living online with a blog or newsletter, you will face loyalty questions.

I will give you an example. I know a creator who had 250,000 subscribers to her weekly newsletter. One of her sponsors was an online therapy website, which paid $7,000 per newsletter for its 75-word ad. The therapy site had a data breach, and this creator did not like how the company handled it. She placed her loyalty to her subscribers above her income and dropped the sponsor.