Taken on the beautiful Island of Eigg, west scotland

30 days of Medium

What I’ve learned from my first month writing on Medium

I’d not written in ages, and I never used to get comments on anything that I wrote online. After I started writing on Medium this month, that changed and I feel like I’ve found a new community. I thought I’d share my story, some of the things that I’ve learned and why I’m very positive about what Medium is doing for writing and the web.

Being scattered

At the beginning of the month I had a “project blog” at Sketching with Code, a dead personal blog at stef.io (the remnants of several iterations on several platforms, and full of bit-rot), my company blog that I wrote on occasionally, and Twitter, if you count that as a place that you put text.

I was scattered all over the place, and I didn’t have anywhere that I felt I could put serious thoughts. Where I could spend a lot of time on an idea and get good feedback from those who enjoyed reading what I’d written, and in response read and respond to other longer-form writing.

Very occasionally I’d be asked to write something for a publication. For instance, a Guardian piece on cultural hacking. The problem with submitting your text to a publication like this is that you can get sub-edited to hell. Then there’s the danger that they will pick an awful title. In this case “We could all do with getting hacked”. Annoying.

Being in the doldrums

I never used to get comments on my blog posts. Well, maybe one or two. It’s pretty demoralising, after spending a lot of time writing something to just get a few replies on Twitter and not much more for having written something that you’ve put some time into thinking and writing about. I’ve spoken to a fair few people who’ve experienced the same, and I think it really puts people off writing for the web.

It’s not about chasing metrics, playing marketing games and having a blog that brings you an income as the main goal. For me it’s just a simple idea that as a person, if you spend some time distilling your thoughts and sharing them, perhaps you’ll get some responses. In many cases I felt that I’d get a better degree of dialogue by sharing my ideas over a dinner table than online.

Perhaps the web has lost some of that old school “comment and connect” stuff that it used to have. It’s so big now.

Opening up your drafts

I started publishing the titles I hadn’t yet written, inline with the things that I had

I was in the doldrums and I had effectively stopped writing.

Around that time I’d been experimenting on Sketching with Code with sharing the things I was thinking about writing, or had partially started. For anything that was a “draft” or unfinished, I just published the title. I was exposing the things I was thinking about writing about.

I’d written my own blogging engine using Ruby and Dropbox to do this, and it was quite neat - I edited files in Dropbox and the site updated. Magic. Help Me Write is in some ways based on that – it’s a tool that lets you publish your drafts, people vote on the ideas that you might write about, helping you choose what to write. Kickstarted writing.

So after I was introduced to Medium via Jon Gold, via the “please review this draft” message he sent me, I saw a logical extension of that process. A new place that I could put “articles” (for want of a better word).

But I needed a deadline. I needed a “project”. I wasn’t just going to start writing something and not know where I was going. I’m the kind of competitive person that needs some kind of public promise so that I have to act. By saying something out loud it means I have to follow through.

Just write something on a Sunday

I had what turned out to be a pretty influential conversation with Caveman Klaus (Yeah, we’re both Tech City Hipsters). And he suggested a simple idea of encouraging a group of people to write every Sunday.

How would you run such a thing? I guess you could tweet it, and write a blog post, but how would you collect people together around a weekly event on the internet?

The obvious things came to mind. I could set up a Facebook group. Or I could make an Eventbrite page. Or something. But I hate Facebook for its closedness, it’s tiny font everywhere, that boring blue, and that crappy “I’m not really enjoying this party because my dad is listening at the door” feeling.

And Eventbrite, well I don’t know about you but I’m not so hot on the experience for people signing up to events on there, it seems pretty expensive for those running events on it, and it’s just not hackable.

Let’s try an experiment

So I took a Friday at home. Basically to re-learn Ruby on Rails. I know, I’m a Ruby guy who doesn’t use Rails. Weird. But the team is familiar with Rails, and as the leader of the team I have to optimise for their productivity, so I thought I should try it again after several years, and what better way than doing a hack? So I made Attending.io that Friday.

The aim was to make a site that let you make pages on the web that collect people together around “events”. The thing with events is that they’re no longer just time-based and location-based. They’re fuzzier than that.

I had an itch. So I had to scratch it. The result was a hackable little page to let people sign up for “Sunday Post”. I didn’t want to use one of those other services. I wanted to be able to iterate, to personalise and to make it right for what I needed.

Make a very public promise

My helpmewrite profile, showing the things I might write about and the people who have said they’d like to read them

And then it was live, and I sent a tweet telling people about the Sunday Post idea. And a few people I respected signed up and said they’d like to, just like me, write a blog post on a Sunday. That Sunday, to be specific.

There it was – the public promise. I’d said that I was going to do something that Sunday, so there was no getting out of it!

I was going to have to write something, and I had to think about what I was going to write about.

I’d spent a little while filling up my Help Me Write page, with nowhere “appropriate” to publish the ideas that people were voting for. I sent a tweet to @medium asking if they’d grant me an account so I could try writing them with the new service, and they quickly did.

I looked at my list of ideas and one in particular stuck out. Something I’d ranted about with friends and strangers alike: “Ignore the news”.

Follow through

I stayed up past midnight that first Sunday, writing. I’d decided that I’d give Medium a go for the first time. I loved how the text editor worked, and I polished and polished. Then in the morning I sent it to some friends, and I got some feedback. Better feedback than I’ve ever had on a blog post – ways to improve here, and here, and here. And did you think about this. And I’d probably remove that. And so on.

So I made the changes, published it, and arrived at the Makeshift studio a little bleary eyed, but so pleased that I’d finally written again. Jon and Natalia liked what I’d written and Jon suggested he should put it on Hacker News.

And blam! Maybe I’m sounding like a Noob, but I’ve never paid so much attention to blog statistics. The stats page on Medium was insane that day. I kept a tab open and occasionally refreshed as I worked, and find that another several-hundred people had read what I’d written.

By the end of the day, 12,000 people had viewed Ignore the News (I’m, not sure how Medium counts a “day”), and in total 23,400 people have viewed that little blog post now.

That’s more people on one article than have read most of what I’ve written, ever. Amazing. But I don’t think it was just down to that Hacker News link, I think there’s something else going on – some of the other posts didn’t get that kickstart. There’s something about Medium that encourages sharing, cross-linking and general “oh I’ll read that, it’s interesting”.

For utmost openness, here are my stats

Long form is encouraged

According to the stats, 73% “read” my first post. I can only assume this is a measure of people who scrolled to the bottom of the page. And it was a long post. A 10 minute read, by the estimate that appears on every Medium post. It also wasn’t a throwaway thought – I spent a while putting it together and really thinking it through.

That “long form is encouraged” is pretty amazing when you think about it. We live in a world of ever-decreasing attention spans, and here we have a service that actively encourages people to write, and read things with depth. Count me in.

Asking the audience what to write

For the subsequent four Sundays I continued my experiment, each time writing from the heart. Each time trying to think about something that I know, that perhaps other people don’t. Basing my post on things that I’ve added to Help Me Write, and seeing if anyone else thinks it’s worth writing. It’s surprising when you think something is a great idea for a post, and nobody agrees, and equally when something looks like a simple idea, everyone apparently wants to read it.

As an aside, I know I’m talking about something I’m involved in making here (in that I’m a co-founder of the company that’s developing Help Me Write), sorry if you find that salesy. “Eating our own dogfood” is part of our process.

Building an audience in advance of writing something is a pretty interesting idea. It’s meant that I’ve chosen to write about ideas that people I know have said they want to read, and avoided things that maybe aren’t that great as topics.

Hitting the front page

When will Medium’s “Cat Picture” moment come? Image by Lali Masriera

Back in the days of Flickr, I distinctly remember getting one of my photos through DeleteMe (remember that anyone?) and onto the front page. It was such an amazing feeling – a community of people pushing something you’ve made right to the front and saying “this is what we’re about”. Before the cat pictures kicked in, that is…

I got that feeling when that first post of mine hit the Medium homepage. And it stayed there for a while. I think there’s something clever going on behind the scenes to float interesting things to the surface. It’s probably something to do with the percentage of people that bother to read your post and then hit that “recommend” button. I don’t know, I’m not sure I really want to know how it works! But it’s very clever, because it seems to give everyone a little bit of the limelight. And as a person writing, knowing that it’s reaching other people is such a good feeling. Effort not wasted.

That’s not to say that the purpose of writing is to reach that audience –many people write just for the love or for the process of writing. It’s more about motivation. If I know I’m going to be accelerating serendipity a little, and forming a few connections with good people, that makes it more likely that I’ll write.

It does concern me, that as it grows, Medium will have its “cat picture” moment sooner, rather than later. Through a clever invitation system, a general feeling of an encouragement to write well, it can hold it bay. I wonder what the plan is as it scales up. Will we see “Medium subreddits” emerging? Is that what the collections are all about?

Getting into a rhythm

I’ve found a comfortable rhythm, writing every week on a Sunday and then posting on a Monday. Sunday is a downtime day, a day to spend thinking about what you’re doing, but also spending with the family.

I suspect there is much online about “finding your rhythm as a writer”. I wish I’d read it! But I’m not really a writer, I’m a software person, a designer, a cross-over jack-of-all-trades and for now I seem to have found a place where I can actually write things, people read them, and I learn from the act of writing.

Writing, I’m now understanding, isn’t just about information that you present to a reader. It’s about understanding your own process, how you think about things, spending some meditative time putting your thoughts into coherent, communicable packets and only then, perhaps, releasing them to the world. Or indeed, not to the world. To a self-selecting group of interested people. A community.

Communities of tiny ideas?

The community here is such a strong thing. I’ve found so many interesting people this month. I’ve had conversations with people on the other side of the world, and found many people that value similar things to me. It’s been a while. I think “the great connector” that is Twitter in some ways connects, but it can also disconnect through sheer noise.

I’ve become interested in “communities of tiny ideas”, that those people who react to, or respond to your ideas online are the people you need to hold onto and connect with. So I made a tiny tool that helped me make Twitter lists of people who recommended my articles, or tweeted about them. I’m not sure where that will lead, but you can see some of them on my Twitter lists page, and I’ll post the code once it’s a bit more polished.

It’s not about readers. It’s about carers

270 people clicked the “recommend” button on one of my posts. That’s a valuable collection of people to connect with

One person’s community is another person’s silo. When I’m asked “why do you put your writing in a silo”, I’ve not had a good way to explain it, to date. Why do you care about lots of people reading something you’ve written? Surely you should care about the right people reading, and for you to find other people that care about what you’ve written, and even better, to find other people who write things that you care about.

Carers, not readers. Whilst the month started with a Hacker News slashdotting, I’ve come to realise I am more interested in who’s recommending or sharing the things I’ve written than I am about looking at the total number of people who’ve clicked a link somewhere.

The biggest thing for me through writing in this way has been that I’ve found new people – I couldn’t have found them if I’d been doing this on my blog, because it’s not set up that way. If someone presses the “recommend” button at the bottom left of a post, they are added to a page that looks like the image above, which grows over time.

A usual blog is set up for “writer, reader, and commenter”, and it’s very hard, unless you ask for people’s email addresses somehow, to keep in touch with them. Medium seems to be set up for “writer, reader, commenter and carer”, and I can’t wait to see how that develops.

Where next?

An amazing month. Three of my posts hit the top 100. I doubt it can be repeated, but I think I’ve developed some principles for next month:

  • Stick to the rhythm. Write something every week.
  • Write what people want me to write
  • Write from the heart
  • Connect with people who respond
  • Promote the work of others

And for Medium?

I’m feeling pretty positive. Much like this community.

People ask me “why do you write on there when you could put it on your own blog”? I think I’ve answered that in this post.

Medium (and where it overlaps with Twitter in an interesting way) is a constructive, supportive place to share your thoughts, to read the considered thoughts of others, in a web that is often antagonistic, and cynical. I’m suddenly rather positive about strong, human, meaningful content not just surviving, but thriving on the web.

This month in words

  • Ignore the news – Why I gave up listening to mainstream news so I could concentrate on things that matter
  • Create something every day – Why I made this my rule for living, and what happens when you decide to make things all the time
  • Make it up as you go along – I’ve been making up bed-time stories for my kids.Could imagination and improvisation prepare them (and me) for the modern world?
  • The little, big idea – How just doing the first, tiny part of your idea can help you find out what you need to do to really make it a big idea.
  • Learning by hacking – I do hacks. Tiny prototypes for digital things that I show to people quickly. And for five years I’ve been doing, on average, one a month. I call it sketching with code. Here are some of the things I’ve learnt.
  • Sunday post - a collection of posts that were written by others writing on a Sunday.

Each written after putting our four kids to bed and opening up a browser at about 9pm!

If you’d like to join our little gang, there’s not much to it. Just post something, tweet it with #sundaypost. If you want to connect with others, add your twitter to our little page.