I’ve been publishing (occasionally) on the internet for 13 years. Recently, I’ve witnessed a major renaissance in writing longform content. Perhaps best exemplified by the sudden rise of personal newsletters.
To a degree we’ve come full circle, having exhausted all options via video and audio to get an idea across — just to get back to the most streamlined, purest form of output.
There are phenomenal guides and podcasts out there:
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Certainly lots of wisdom in these essays. The most important quotes for me:
- Avoid guessing what readers want. Instead, be a proxy: Selfishly entertain and surprise yourself, and you’ll entertain and surprise many of them too.
- the eureka moment in writing comes when I think “It’s possible no one’s said this before. I’ve contributed something new to the world”
- You’ve already spent 10,000 hours working on the craft you know about. And you’ve already probably spent 100 concentrated hours consuming, reading, and listening to podcasts that you can recall in your short-term memory about the topic to even consider writing. The truth is the 10 hours it takes to write something is already dwarfed by this sunk cost.
- Writing on the internet is a career fast-track. Each article is a sales pitch for your knowledge on that topic. It’s an always-on broadcast of who you are, and an open invitation for other people to create personal and career opportunities for you. It’s a Serendipity Vehicle that can grow automatically, independently of your efforts.
While these are great ressources, I want to push back one two suggestions.
Questionable Advice I: You need to own your Home
Don’t write on Medium.
Look, I get it. Writing on Medium is an easy way to pick up readers and increases your chances of going viral. But the costs exceed the benefits. Medium is terrible for SEO. You don’t own your content and the platform makes it difficult to turn one-time readers into loyal ones.
The more you can use platforms you own, the better. Rather than writing on Medium, do the work to build a personal blog. That way, you can have a central place to point people to.
Actually I agree. But you should never underestimate network effects — which are happening exclusively on the closed social media platforms.
I am all for an indie web that creates such connections while leaving each contributor its (technical) freedom. But unfortunetaley that’s not the reality we live in.
Most people only read bestselling books. That’s what makes them bestsellers, after all.
The web keeps pushing the top 40 on us. It defaults to ‘sort by popular,’ surfacing the hits, over and over.
Mass markets and math being what they are, it’s likely that many of the ideas and products you consume in your life are in fact, consumed because they’re the most popular. It takes a conscious effort to seek out the thing that’s a little less obvious, the choice that’s a little more risky.
The simple result is that you won’t get read.
You could argue that good content makes its way to the top (eventually). I’m not sure if it is that fair. I think there are more individuals out there who “deserve” to be read, but aren’t discovered (yet).
Here are some stats Benedict Evans shared on his blog. The first years he basically had not much of an audience.
You can publish, yes, but you won’t be seen. So, I spent two and a half years blogging regularly before my traffic picked up, and that was with a lot of work and a lot of time on Twitter as well. Blogging has never been easier but getting read has never been harder.
Content isn’t king, it’s tablestakes.
And that’s why I think you should try to leverage every network you can see fit. I’m certainly not happy with everything that Medium does…
…but have you noticed the green color on some names I mentioned? Those users will get a notification — basically a modern Pingback.
Having this sort of identity mechanism can help not to drown. It also makes your content more relatable. Maybe you’ve read about the experiment I’m trying on twitter.com/PodLinks. In every snippet I mention the speaker and the podcast. It’s fascinating to see that around 95% of speakers are already on Twitter — maybe the best informal social graph you can imagine — only rivalled by LinkedIn. Tapping in it can be a fountain of viral growth.
But the real benefit of using Medium comes with the chance of being featured. Evans again:
[Medium] is trying to be a discovery and distribution network — a solution. In that, Medium is something of a pair to Buzzfeed.
You see, posts can be recommended by Medium’s staff in a certain category and are then shown prominently on the site.
These are my roughly 50 articles I’ve written on Medium with the amount of views. Guess which post got featured on Medium’s frontpage:
- LinkedIn articles
- Long-form copy on Instagram next to an image
- Short posts on Twitter
- This one is really crazy: you could write a long-form article as a comment on someone’s post who has a big audience (someone like Gary Vaynerchuk)
I can second that strategy from own experience: A response to a famous persons tweet gets more engagement than my own tweets. Last month one photo I uploaded to Google Maps got seen by 50,000 people — try that with Instagram, let alone your own blog.
You could see it as a temporary growth boost: With enough Social Capital you can and should move on. Otherwise you become another Howard Stern (which is not really a dramatic situation to be in, but you get my point).
Here’s the kicker: It’s a lot of work to get users on your article. Statistically, the first thing that happens is that the user will close the tab without reading. Only a fraction will read your content for free— consider what an effort it takes to also be paid for it! The original sin of the web, indeed.
Questionable Advice II: Pick a Topic and stick to it
You want to be known as the best thinker in a skill or a topic. A Personal Monopoly is the unique intersection of your knowledge, personality, and skills that nobody else can compete with. […]
Once you’ve found your niche, write about every aspect of it. […] Don’t be a trend chaser.
Maybe I should have used the awareness on my Wearables post to put forward only stuff about Wearable computing. From a purely business-driven perspective that may be the right thing.
Another interesting option: There are highly active groups of people who dwell in every detail of their passion — examples include CrossFit, Tesla or the Keto diet. But the one with the biggest following is Apple.
The unquestionable king among the Apple universe of writers is John Gruber, but he links out regularly and often. A strong force with 100,000 daily pageviews and an active community. (There is a reason the term “fireballed” got coined.)
- Ben Thompson caught his lucky break for Stratechery when John Gruber linked him extensively in 2013 which allowed him to go full-time.
- The same happened three years before for asymco and Horace Dediu.
- Neil Cybart got also linked to several times and managed to turn attention into a SaaS business, demanding $20/month for full access — despite writing only about Apple.
Of course, all three were writing why Apple was underrated at that time.
This is not to downplay their individual articles and contributions, I highly value them all. But be aware that getting known in the internet involves help from others.
asymco’s main theme switched from Apple earnings analysis to micromobility a few years ago — a topic that’s needs broader attention and the blog helped to get it. But I would say it’s at least one factor in this downward pointing chart:
So, you can go deep into one topic only — but be aware that not every topic is equal and that your interests are surely not limited to one topic.
The thing is, I like tech — not only tech made by Apple. I have posts about politics, productivity, hardware, marketing, UX or this post about Writing. At the end of the day I’m a human, I contain multitudes. (Platforms like Medium are already doing a good job getting you the topic you are looking for by sorting posts by topic, not by author.)
Personal blogs are not merely business-driven, at least not for me. If it were the case I would have stopped writing a long time ago. What motivates one to write for years or even decades with not much of an reward?
I want to put things that are in my head out in front of the world in a structrured, thought-through way. It’s selfish, because it helps me to get better in english, to get better in thinking (writing is thinking) and to get my individual view of the world out. And of course, it it happens, I’m proud when somebody values and/or shares my work.
So my advice boils down to this: Don’t make your writing dependant on reciprocation or — as they say — some sort of feedback loop. You will be disappointed that there maybe is none. Only 1% of your readers (not viewers) will contribute — and not all of these contributions will bring you forward.
Expecting feedback will block you from continuing, which is the last thing that should be happening.
On the contrary, write about what is on your mind, in the content type where you can justify your work (Twitter is great for beginners), and publish it wherever you see fit.
…and write like nobody is reading.