A lot of people come to me for unsolicited advice, and I always aim to please.
Before I do what I promised to do in the headline, let me apologize.
You see, the headline above promises to teach you to shine as a writer, but let’s face the facts.
You wouldn’t have clicked on the article without that little dollar sign “typo” hinting that you could make tons of money writing on a site where your chances of making $10,000 are not much better than winning the lottery for a similar amount.
Trust me, I’ve done the math.¹
Now before you click somewhere else in a desperate attempt to find some kool-aid to drink that will give you hope for another day, wouldn’t it be a good idea to actually learn something about how to become a better writer?
I’ve done a lot of the work to improve as a writer over the last eight months, and that’s after spending 20 years in the world of advertising, where clients like Disney, Subway, Warner Bros Studio Tour, and Six Flags have paid me to write headlines, ad copy, billboard concepts, and scripts for TV and radio spots.
I know that’s not much compared to someone making hundreds of thousands of dollars on YouTube by opening up product packages with the finesse and longing of a pedophile.
But ask yourself: could learning something about writing kill more brain cells than watching a five-minute highlight reel of people doing idiotic stunts in the hopes they’ll be asked to join JackAss?
I’m sure you’ll let me know in the comments below.
#1: If you want to matter as a writer, start by becoming a good member of the community.
Today’s public service announcement was inspired by a reader who made the comment, “…feeling like I’m writing in a vacuum can be pretty damn frustrating too.”
How many of us have felt like they are writing in a vacuum? I know I’ve felt that way.
Even if you don’t read past this paragraph, could you show some solidarity with our brother writer and leave a comment below with a message like “I’ve felt that way, too,” “ditto,” or “me too”?
The first way to matter is through becoming a part of this writer’s community. You can’t expect everyone to come to your party if you haven’t gone and met every person on the block (pre-quarantine), either by showing up at their party or by bringing a gift (as long as it isn’t a fruit cake).
Don’t believe me? Here are the words of a published author, former NY Times columnist and one of the funniest writers on Medium, Roz Warren:
If I love your work, I will clap enthusiastically. If I don’t love your work? Well if I’ve managed to read to the end, I’ll give it a few claps, as if to say: “Hurrah! You wrote a thing! Good for you! Keep writing! Maybe the next thing will be better!”
Why don’t I punish bad writing by withholding claps? Because I’m an editor. I know that any writer can improve, but only if they keep writing. If, with a couple of claps, I can encourage a writer to persevere, I will.
On the other hand, if you’re a selfish writer, someone she characterizes as a “Clap Grabber”:
I soon realized that he never claps for any of the writers who regularly clap for his work. He writes. A lot. He accepts our applause for his work. (And it’s a lot of applause.) But when it comes to our work?
He doesn’t give a clap.
I’ve since noticed that there are several such Clap Grabbers, who are far too busy churning out Medium Masterpieces to waste their valuable time reading the work of others.
Needless to say, she doesn’t give a clap about these people, either.
If you want to stop feeling like you’re invisible, read more, clap more, and engage other writers with a comment that keeps the discussion going by doing one of the following:
- Asking intelligent questions
- Respectfully disagreeing about a particular point and explaining why with facts and reference sources
- Adding to the author’s story with a point that is related but not covered in the article
- Complimenting an author by describing your life circumstances and how their article moved you
Most of the good writers on this site will respond to you and check out your profile to see if there is a story that interests them. (On the other hand, the Clap Grabbers and social media marketers are making enough money they won’t deign to have their editors respond.)
When you write a great comment, article readers will probably see it and either respond to you or look at your profile to find one of your articles.
My first article on Medium warned millennials about the stakes of the 2016 election. It got ZERO views. (Young people not responding to some old guy yelling at them to get their shit together — who would have guessed?)
It took another six weeks for me to write an article, but I read and commented every day.
To this day, I still read and comment more than I publish, and that’s helped me develop friendships with dozens of wonderful writers along the way.
And this site can get pretty bleak without friends.
#2. Write a headline that actually explains what you’re trying to say.
In addition to the need to compete for attention with terrible clickbait headlines (mine included), it is vital to tell people what you are going to do and then deliver on those promises.
Look at your headline from the perspective of a reader who doesn’t have all the context you possess and ask if there is enough information in the headline to understand the benefits of the article.
Sometimes a writer is so focused on the story they want to tell, they don’t realize how something might bother potential readers.
For example, if you want to write a memoir of your travels overseas, you might want your headline to include the fact you are writing about events that happened before the entire world went into lockdown.
Another aspect of writing headlines is to create excitement by revealing secrets and using powerful emotion words. Everybody tells you that, but my experience seems to be the exact opposite.
When I look at my stat history (either by views, reads, or fans), there isn’t one listicle in my top ten, and only two in the top sixty, which were parodies.
Only one article in my top ten mentions making money, and only two in the top sixty.
Not one article in the top 50 contained keywords like “power,” “success,” “breakthrough,” or any of those power words for writing emotional headlines that you’ll find on content marketing sites.
Given my relative anonymity, I don’t know if this proves my headlines stink, I’ve chosen writing integrity over more readers, or that clickbait doesn’t work.
I did some serious research on writing headlines that I follow to the letter in an article that takes the task to its logical and absurd extreme. All I can say is I have never laughed harder and longer while trying to finish an article.
#3. Find publications that focus on your favorite writing subjects.
A smaller publication (not one of the Medium-owned giants) is like a Facebook group, focused on one area of interest, like humor, fiction, or poetry.
When you find the right publication, you can read the work of more experienced writers and interact (see #1) with a group of like-minded people and see why they’ve developed a following.
Once you get more comfortable with your writing, submit articles to that publication because it’s the place where your potential readers hang out.
When I started writing on Medium, I was drawn to a particular publication that housed stories I loved. My first goal was to see if they would publish my stories.
I can’t tell you how much it boosted my morale to have one of my early stories accepted after getting zero response for my first story.
#4. Improve your craft as a writer.
One of the worst features of social media is that everyone can have a strong opinion, but nobody is recognized as an expert.
In my experience, publication editors either reject your writing with no explanation or publish your work with no comments on how to make it better.
Maybe they don’t have the time or interest, and maybe they are worried about hurting the feelings of other writers.
The bottom line is most people aren’t going to get much feedback unless you are one of the lucky few who get accepted by a top publication and they make sure the article meets their standards. (I don’t even know if this is a thing, considering so many of the articles I’ve read on big publications seem no better than the articles I’ve read by the little guys.)
Writing is subjective, but there are basic rules of grammar, style, and story construction.
Here are the best ways to get the information and feedback you need to become a better writer:
- Use a free online writing editor like Grammarly or the Hemingway editor. Grammarly offers so many metrics besides education level of writing, use of passive voice, and hard-to-read sentences. If you use it long enough and rework your phrasing and sentence structure to remove errors and increase your score for clarity and engaging, as I did, you will begin to writer cleaner, clearer prose. When I ran my old finished pieces through Grammarly, my average score was 68.2. When I run my first drafts through the program my scores are in the mid-80s to low 90s, and then I edit them to see if I can get the score as close to 100 as possible. This is not the end of your journey, but it’s a good start.
- Read articles about writing that describe how to improve your writing, not increase your popularity. There’s nothing wrong with learning how to market your work, but people focus on the get-rich-quick articles and never learn the actual skills. Start with Linda Caroll’s “26 Weak Words That Water Down Your Writing and How to Fix Them.” and Dawn Bevier wrote “How to Use Sentence Variety to Enliven Your Writing,” one of my favorite how-to-write articles. Search through their work and you’ll find some great reference material to improve your craft.
- Ask a friend to read your work and give honest feedback. This can be difficult for both of you since your friend might worry about hurting your feelings and they may not be skilled enough as a writer to articulate what works and doesn’t work in your writing.
- Join a writer’s group. Most groups ask that you review and provide feedback for the work of others, so they will do the same for you. Again, this can be super scary. If you write humor stories, the SlackJaw challenge contest forces you to submit a group of headlines to their Facebook group so the members can vote on their favorites. After you have your best headline, you write a story and can ask for group members to give you feedback. I did this and found the process to be helpful, although you’re not going to get the kind of in-depth feedback you would if you go to Write-con 5.
- Hire a writing coach. This can be expensive, but it’s a good way to get real feedback and view your work from a different perspective. The downside is that the quality of coaches will vary greatly, so it’s hard to know which coach has the right combination of skills to help you.
#5. Write about a subject where you’re an expert, but on a site where expertise matters.
I’m not going to waste a lot of words dumping on the vacuous gruel that thousand of people slurp up on this site, but expertise is not defined by some content marketer quoting a wise man and then rambling on for ten minutes.
Wouldn’t it be great if there was a place where you could show off your expertise on a subject by answering questions? Wouldn’t it be great if all the answers to each question were on the same page? And would it be great if your popularity was solely determined by the quality of your answers?
Guess what? That place exists, and it is called Quora.com.
Another way to matter as a writer is to write something really useful, like answering someone’s question.
If you write a great answer on that site, people will notice and respond. It feels good to have your work validated, even if it is only a narrow niche.
Hopefully, some positive experiences over there will give you the confidence to come back here and keep on writing, regardless of your anonymity.
Social media popularity does not confer credibility on a writer; it’s your knowledge of the subject and ability to find new perspectives that counts.
#6. If you can combine subjects in unexpected ways and provide a fresh perspective, you will build a following.
Despite all the propaganda on Medium about the importance of “quality” content, there is absolutely no correlation between great writing and social media popularity.
I wrote in depth about the difference between telling a story like everyone else and finding unseen connections between to seemingly unrelated topics. It’s a gold mine.
Do You Want to Be a Storyteller or a Court Reporter?
An in-depth analysis of providing new perspectives on popular subjects
The writers who can make these unexpected connections are the ones who will have readers coming back in the hope of new surprises.
For all the new writers out there, I hope these tips help you develop an effective plan to improve as a writer.
- Join the community.
- Make sure your headline explains how the article benefits the reader.
- Find the right publications and submit.
- Improve your craft as a writer.
- Write about a subject where you’re an expert on a site where expertise matters.
- Look for unexpected connections to get your readers to come back for more.
Thanks for reading.
If you enjoyed this article, here are Parts 1 and 2 of the series.
Do You Want to Be a Storyteller or a Content Generator?
Readers want real people sharing wisdom, not bot chat.
Do You Want to Be a Storyteller or a Court Reporter?
An in-depth analysis of providing new perspectives on popular subjects
Here’s to better writing.
¹There’s this little annoying economic reality known as the zero-sum game, which states that each participant’s gain or loss of utility is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the utility of other participants.
Imagine that each Medium subscriber’s five dollars go into a giant pie tin to create a money pie. If every single subscriber wrote articles and got an equal share of the revenue, each person would get back $5.
For one writer to make $11,369 in one month, 2,842.25 other subscribers would have to make zero dollars.
If we extrapolate this to a pool of $5 million, only 500 out of 1,000,000 people could make the $10,000 in any given month.
That’s a 1 in 10,000 chance. Sounds more like a lottery, doesn’t it?
For more detail on how the hype about the paywall is more like a pyramid scheme, and how Medium gamified the site to get people hooked, check out: