How I Got from Medium to the Front Pages of Major Media in 10 months
In the past few months I have been on the front pages of Cracked, The Huffington Post, SELF Magazine, and Medium. I put my first story on Medium just 10 months ago. Here’s how it all went…
[tl;dr Jump to the short list at the end.]
So just this morning Robert Lopez, another Medium writer, asked of me—
I would be interested in hearing how you got hooked up with [major media], or if you have been a published writer for some time…
Actually, I’m a complete newbie — and yes, it’s really been only 10 months since I put my first story up on Medium.
I wish I could take the credit based on the quality of my writing. Whilst that is certainly prerequisite, it is not how I got access. Good writing isn’t nearly enough.
Alas, I’m sure the access is largely due to the sensational nature of my main topic (transgender) and my unusual and long history within that topic (I transitioned twice, once as a child in the 1960s and again as an adult in the 1980s, either of which makes me a special unicorn; plus extra drama, like having been woodworked for decades, having been in sex work, a history of sexual assault, &c).
None of this is helpful to you, except to suggest that you should write well (duh) and feature the most exceptional and dramatic aspects of your own experience or that of your subjects. If it bleeds, it leads.
But also, I did some very important things to generate my own ‘luck’.
I’ll discuss how I write, what I do to get the work seen, and what has happened for me as a result.
How I learnt to write well.
Be a student first, a writer second; do both a lot.
- I am a lifelong, voracious reader across a wide range of subjects. I almost always have several books going, in addition to extensive online reading. I am a critical reader, in the habit of picking apart the material I read, even big-name writers. The single greatest influence on my ‘voice’ is without a doubt John Steinbeck. Other major influences include everyone from Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll to Virginia Woolf and Margaret Atwood, and many others.
- I have written (mostly unpublished) poetry my whole life, and this deeply informs my prose. I think the emotionality, the spare imagery required, and the restrictive format are the key factors here. With everything I write (exclusive of some essays — like this one! — and my oh-so verbose correspondence), less is always more.
- From the very first piece I wrote, ten months ago (and which I chose not to publish, BTW), I had the benefit of review and critique by experienced writers and editors. I deliberately sought out these people online and developed a friendly correspondence based on their work, followed by humble inquiries regarding my own. Note that these people are mostly in low-to-mid-level positions, thus are more accessible than ‘big names’. Which does not mean that they are not expert — they are. You may notice a distinct improvement in the quality of my work over the time I’ve been here on Medium, and I attribute this to these editorial relationships, and to the fact that—
- I write and publish a lot. I have the luxury of writing full-time and have published 50-odd ‘real’ stories in the past 10 months, a bunch of ‘toss-offs’, and an absolutely absurd amount of correspondence. I was once a musician, long ago, and this is the same — practice is key.
- I know my subject very well, yet am nevertheless constantly educating myself (again, read a lot). When appropriate to the story, I am careful to do good research and run my drafts past experts who know more than I. I cultivate my relationships with experts as per #3, above.
- Nobody writes what I do, like I do. I write my own story in my own voice and ignore what others are writing or think should be written. (Especially what people think sells.) This may seem to contradict my incitement to read, but here’s the thing: I read to learn; when I write, I forget all that and just write. I write me.
How I promote myself.
You’ll note a common theme, above and below: (1) I always approach people regarding their work and interests first; (2) only later, once a relationship is established, do I present what I’d like from them; (3) but I do ask for what I want; (4) I conduct myself with humility and gratitude; (5) the time investment is large.
- In addition to Medium, I opened Twitter and Facebook accounts when I first started, and used these to cultivate the relationships described in #3 and #5, above. I proactively sought out other people who had common interest and deliberately coaxed them into following me by following/‘friending’ them and investing time in reading and commenting on their posts. As a consequence some of them became readers and some of those began sharing/retweeting my stuff. I kept at this for about six months before I got meaningful traction (at roughly 500 followers for each platform, probably 100 with whom I corresponded directly at one time or another). I conduct myself in similar fashion here on Medium, with similar results.
- In particular, I am scrupulous in personally thanking each person who shares or retweets one of my story announcements. I add-friend/follow them if they’re new (after vetting for creeps). This is very effective in securing new readers and future shares. I always wish people a happy birthday.
- I announce new stories and republications on all my platforms. I do not use the default Medium method, preferring to have more control. Late Sunday/early Monday and late Tuesday/early Wednesday seem to be the best times, in that order, with late Friday/early Saturday as a distant third.
- (W.r.t. other platforms…I experimented with Quora for a few weeks a few months ago, and quickly got pretty good traction, which was effective in generating new readers and followers across all my platforms. It would be wise were I to continue there but I have let that go, simply because I do not have time to manage another platform. Other writers have been effective on Instagram, Tumblr, and Reddit. I looked at these and decided they were not a good fit for what I do. Whilst I see a solid social media presence as crucial to success as a writer today [as do prospective publishers, BTW], one can lose one’s life in the rabbit-hole of social media, and again, I need to budget my time. One lovely thing which has started to happen just recently is that I have fans who have been echoing my announcements on these other platforms where I do not maintain a presence. Pro-tip: You can ask your readers for help.)
- I have felt no need to do any self-publication outside of Medium (e.g., separate blog or website) — I just don’t need another platform to maintain, and I see no upside. Medium does have serious deficiencies in terms of being able to properly display and monitor the ‘real’ work separate to announcements and correspondence. (This is a serious problem that they really need to fix.) I partially offset this by having a pinned Reader Guide and a Press Packet, to which I link when needed. I have just recently added a Facebook Author Page to augment my personal Facebook account (something I ought to have done sooner), and a domain name (AllisonWashington.net) which forwards to the Reader Guide.
- I am careful to cross-link my stories and media platforms, and to update those links as new work is added. I include links in the body of my stories (notice all the links here? ;-), and at the bottom of each story I have links which lead to related stories and a ‘plug’ specifically asking for support. Ask for what you need.
- When I am published or interviewed elsewhere, I always ask for (and get) a link back to my author page. They don’t do it if you don’t ask.
- Lastly, don’t underestimate the value of a catchy story title. With rare exceptions (Cured. comes to mind) my ‘hits’ have all had click-bait-y titles (Why my mother raised me as a girl, Sex and the Trans Girl, What’s it like to be a trans woman?). Personally, I prefer arty titles (Clocked, Metamorphosis, Les Amies de Place Blanche), but that’s not what sells. Come for the click-bait, stay for the story. And always lead with a dramatic image. Always. These show up in social media cross-posts and increase click-through enormously.
All these things take a lot of time and organisation, but you have to do them if you want readers. I spend three times as much time in social media, platform maintenance, and correspondence as I do actually working on stories.
I have had three major media front page appearances thus far (exclusive of the Medium front page), one an in-depth interview and two featuring my own work. In all cases they came to me (I’ve never pitched).
- The first thing that happened is that, after six months of working pretty hard here, Medium Staff took an interest in me, followed me, and put four of my stories on the front page as Editors’ Picks. I attribute this initially to the appearance of one of my better stories (What He Did to Her — not trans-related, surprisingly) in a midsize Medium publication (This Glorious Mess), to which I had submitted (so I guess I have pitched after all ;-).
- When Medium introduced the Top Writer feature, I appeared near the top of a couple major categories. I believe this drives new readers/followers, and I attribute my position on those lists to both the quality and volume I produce. Note that this doesn’t happen unless you tag your stories properly.
- Unrelated to Medium, someone relatively prominent saw a story announcement in Facebook (I don’t know what led them to it), read the story on Medium, and shared it to a large following, from which it was picked up by another well-known somebody who re-shared it. A managing editor at Cracked saw this, read the story, and requested an interview; which then became a widely-read front page feature (600K views thus far). This in turn led to a major media podcast interview (600K subscribers, coincidentally). This all happened due (1) to my social media presence, (2) the sensational nature of my topic, and (3) only indirectly because of my writing (but would not have happened had the story in question not been good). Pro-tip: Give good Facebook.
- Also unrelated to Medium, an editor at Huffington Post saw a story announcement on Twitter (I don’t know what led them to it), and read it on Medium. They requested the story and slapped it on their front page (250M [yes, that’s an ‘M’] front page views; I’ve no way to know what the click-through was). Again, they were attracted by the sensational topic and title, but would not have asked for it had the story not been good. Pro-tip: Give good Twitter.
- As a direct consequence of my visibility on the front page of Medium (and the click-bait title, no doubt), the chief editor at SELF Magazine (3M subscribers) saw Seventeen. When she later saw me on the front page of Huffington Post, she was motivated to contact me and commission a story, which now has its very own click-bait-y title. As mentioned, this story is presently on the front page of SELF and is about to be pumped through their social media.
- Looking to the future, one of the major media editors I’ve worked with has taken a personal interest and is currently helping me put together a book proposal and secure an agent. All as a direct consequence of my presence on Facebook and Twitter. And Medium, natch. Oh, and good writing; don’t forget that…
So that’s where things stand.
- Read. A lot.
- Get smart people to critique your work (professionals, not friends).
- Write well, tag properly, and publish a lot on Medium to get near the top of a couple major Top Writers lists. Budget 1/3 of your work time for writing.
- Use titles and images that grab.
- Submit stories to the largest Medium publications that will have you.
- Cross-link relevant stories and social media, and maintain those links.
- Maintain professional, uncluttered social media accounts devoted solely to your work (no bloody memes!). Facebook and Twitter, at a minimum. Actively cultivate colleagues and followers. Correspond a lot with readers. Budget 2/3 of your work time for this.
- If you write full-time (and well), expect to work hard for at least six months before you begin to see results. Probably longer. Don’t give up.
- And finally, don’t write what other people are writing — and for heaven’s sake don’t write anything you think ‘will sell’ — that’s boring, for you and your reader. Write yourself.
Best of luck (that you create for yourself!), your voice deserves to be heard.