How to be a top writer on Medium in Journalism

David speaking to the BFI

I imagine myself to be a chocoholic, raiding the fridge at three o’clock in the morning. I’m embarrassed by my nocturnal activities because I occasionally find time to show off to friends my not-so-bulbous stomach. If I hold my breadth and squeeze my mid-riff for 10 seconds I can tempt a six-pack to the surface.

In reality, I can’t eat chocolate. I convinced myself ten years ago it should not be part of my healthy diet. When I returned to sample its pleasures five later, my stomach was alarmed at the foreign agent entering my intestines.

I’ve never been a fridge-raider too but I do have some secrets that have helped my alt-passion. I love to write, though I don’t see myself as a writer. I’m writing this at seven in the morning — my golden hour. It is a period when I am at my most fruitful and invariably words flow faster than I can keep up writing. Otherwise, when I’m travelling I’ll catch the morning glory for inspiration. This is Perugia in Italy at their journalism festival

David’s image of Perugia at the Journalism festival

Between that liminal zone, coming out of sleep and the smell of the day, I’m sampling any number of ideas. The difficult ‘aha’ moment for how I might start an article emanates from a slow burn in thought processing. Like pinballs in my head, analogous to neurons firing along nerve pathways, an idea eventually ricochets off the side and finds an opening. A slipstream towards structure then opens.

There is no magic, but recurring 7.ams throughout the day. I’m not a writer in the sense that if you read my copy, and compared it to yours or those of journalist Matthew d’Ancona, Guardian writer Gary Younge, or Economist columnist Anne McElvoy, I imagine you’ll be disappointed.

Hence, it came as a shock to me too when @Medium placed me within its category of being top writers in journalism. It’s a billing I share with journalist Mike Cernovich best-selling author of Gorilla Mindset, Story hunter @Storyhunter, Charlie Becket, and @damianradcliffe — A Brit professor in the US, with a rich journalism pedigree whom seems to have the playing field covered to himself.

And then there’s Jeff Jarvis, a professor of journalism who comes close to quarter-back star status in the emergent zone of warp factor journalism — that which links old skool with unfolding media. I can’t write like any of them. Decorum and an antenna for hubris wards me away from the modern practice of self-anointment. Not another expert, leading this or that, you might think. There was a time when it had to be conferred upon you, a gratifying moment to think that your 7 am sojourns weren’t all in vane.

Before this present accolade, a few nods have been floated my way. In 2005 when I started blogging properly on blogger.com and launched Viewmag.blogspot.com I received this notification:

Our editors recently reviewed your blog and have given it an 8.3 score out of (10) in the Technology category of Blogged.com. This is quite an achievement! We evaluated your blog based on the following criteria: Frequency of Updates, Relevance of Content, Site Design, and Writing Style. Please accept my congratulations on a blog well-done!! www.blogged.com

Largely though, kind words have been pointed to my video/mobile or cinema journalism. More of that in a moment, so when I got up today, I thought, maybe, just maybe, I’m onto something and if so how can I share it.

I’m afraid I’m not going to offer the non binary of memory shopping lists — the listicle. Instead, as I have done in my Steal like an Artist approach I’ll copy Stephen King On Writing, who resisted a book on style to exemplify it through writing, sprinkled with the odd tips. You can however find his listicles here. I like (19) a lot.

I sir am no Stephen King, but as a lecturer I’m in a constant continual exchange of views with my MA students about ideas in blogging and writing and there are a number of stories I recount about writing.

Take from you past

You’re dyslexic intoned my lecture. I knew that. I could recount Einstein’s theory with glee, but despaired how I would use my Applied Chemistry degree in the real world. I can still eke out the formula for an electrophilic insertion into Benzene, but the legacy I feared from writing chemical formulas would result in my inability to string a sentence together and I desperately wanted to become a journalist. Plus, my own handicap I thought: I grew up in Ghana, so was never quite privy to the extraordinary palette of Western popular writers who leave an indelible imprint on style e.g. Wilde, Bronte etc. My wonderful poets were the Chinua Achebes.

I’m constantly reminded of my past from the number of rejection letters I framed as art. It got to the point that BBC Human Resources called me in for an interview to understand why I wasn’t getting interviewed from my applications. Rejection, is but the next step closer to that job.

My secret chocolate raid, I tell students, involved me cutting out newspaper articles, laying them out and reading them as if they were poetry. I would then attempt to mimic the style of a writer, imbibing and using words which would previously be unfamiliar to me. I still do it today, rereading copy, not necessarily for the ideas, but the structural flow and rich use of vocabulary.

King’s advice for the bread of writing is vocabulary. “Happily pack what you have without the slightest bit of guilt and inferiority”, he says, adding, “put your vocabulary on the top shelf of your toolbox, and don’t make any conscious effort to improve it (You’ll be doing that as you read,..).

I write about journalism, tech, film and culture. If you gave me something on macro-economics, I’d labour for a while. That in itself is clearly a reason for self-doubt, which like a 100m runner, I require. I require the feeling, I’m not that good, but can be better. The moment you stop being nervous or that butterflies don’t run amok in your stomach going on stage, sprinters and athletes say something is wrong.

After this post, I’ll be marking dissertations on the media and here I am likely to come across common traits that I consider impair good writing. For instance, the lone necklace in the wood. It’s the isolated sentence that sits inside a forest of ideas and throws out the rhythm of reading. A sentence here or there changes everything. Either build on it or otherwise heed Pascal’s words who apologised for the length of a letter. If I had more time, he says, I would make it shorter. Get rid of superfluous words. I wrote about this recently in the Fresh Fish Story. Where’s that link again? I’ll go find it.

Another flaw is the lack of attribution. An idea promulgated by a writer that wants to be read as evidence, but is opinion. It’s the one-step link away from alt reality. Demonstrate your proof, where possible. Content doesn’t bare speaking about. All the cliches going ensure its omnipresence, however style plays an equally important part. At a time and place when content becomes ubiquitous, when everyone is covering the same thing, the distinguishing factor becomes style. David Bordwell’s spectrum of books have been good companions over the years.

I often tell my students, what you’re invariably paying for at this stage of your career is an accelerated process of critiquing from others and I‘m here to nail down those substantiated claims. As a burgeoning reporter, you knit what others say to make a point and as you grow, your voice begins to take centre stage, yet this still does not negate attribution.

How to be a top writer on medium? The first rule of write club is to write. The second rule is to share and expect to be critiqued. Sometimes it comes from places where the tone can be harsh and not particularly helpful to build confidence, but as an artist of any sorts, an audience is your barometer. Here’s author Hari Kunzru @harikunzru who was invited to share his thoughts at an evening hosted by publisher’s Penguin. Some great tips here.

And, write, write about anything, is a common piece of advice. However, whilst experience can be over rated, writes Mckee in Story, because an imagination, knowledge acquired from books and technical craft from studying will help, experience and visualisation is my get out of jail card. I made this to express my working habit towards collaborating.

You see first and foremost I’m a videojournalist, or a cinema journalist — someone who creates videos and film around the style and language of cinema. My lack of grammar training was conveniently concealed by my exploits working in television and online. It’s quite common that. Writers whose passion is kinesthetic visual storytelling and so don’t have to write streams of text. What I see is therefore is my catalyst, and travelling, travelling anywhere and everywhere, presents the canvas for me to story tell and write — from Egypt, Syrian border, Russia to China.

In her acceptance speech Viola Davis, clutching her prized Emmy statue, spoke about opportunity as a key determiner to a career and even success. @medium is that statue because it provides the opportunity for me to write, which has brought this spotlight— for which I’m grateful.

And as a black Brit, I’m particularly pleased because diversity of thought and person is an issue I feel strongly about in sharing ideas and mixing with students et al. Politics, at the moment, is tilting the axis of customs and what is acceptable. “What has Journalism ever done for you?”, was my last post. It would, perhaps, have some value to find new spirits and sources of writing — as illustrated in the video above.

I can see the fridge from here. Time to go.

Dr David Dunkley Gyimah leads the Digital and Interactive Storytelling LAB at the University of Westminster

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