How to be a top writer on Medium
Sharing some secrets
Medium recently placed me within its category of top writers in journalism. I have been on the platform since August 2014 writing pieces like this:
- Re-inventing TV News or just consigning it to crusty wire box — how television news was and what could be done to reform it
- How VICE Magazine has become the voice of a generation — a general analysis of Vice comparing it to previous forms within the BBC.
- And #EpicFail in Journalism and what ways can we fix it. Journalism’s failure following Trump’s win in the US election.
The acknowledgement came as a surprise. Perhaps it’s nothing more than gaming by using “journalism” tags I thought, though this tweet from @medium says otherwise.
I share this acknowledgement billing with journalist Mike Cernovich best-selling author of Gorilla Mindset, Story hunter @Storyhunter, and @damianradcliffe — A Brit professor in the US, with a rich journalism pedigree 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.
Firstly some context
All of this though conceals a very ordinary me, or someone trying to overcome adversary. You’re dyslexic intoned my chemistry lecturer. I knew that. I could recount Einstein’s theory with glee and could even visualise how it worked, but despaired how I would use my Applied Chemistry degree when 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 Achebe.
What I did
Firstly, there’s the Steal like an Artist approach. I tell students how I would cut out newspaper articles, lay them out and read them as if they were poetry. I would 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. I sat it on a spoken word rap artist recently on his way to perform for the BBC. His free-styling and lyrical dexterity influenced ‘Being Brilliant’.
As a burgeoning journalist, 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.
I read about 5/6 books a month. Stephen King On Writing makes the point in this here listicle. Write, I was first told, just for the sake of writing. 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 a video I made of author Hari Kunzru @harikunzru who was invited to share his thoughts at an evening hosted by publisher’s Penguin. Some great tips here.
I’m a cinema journalist — someone who creates factual videos and news films around the style and language of cinema. My lack of grammar training and literals conveniently went unchallenged working in television. It’s quite common that and I still get it wrong. Apparently, the late AA Gill of the Sunday Times said he was terrible when it came to grammar and punctuation and he left that to his assistant.
Writers whose passion is kinesthetic visual storytelling often avoid writing streams of texts.What I see is therefore is my catalyst, and travelling, travelling anywhere and everywhere, presents a canvas for me to story tell and write — from Egypt, Syrian border, Russia to China. Experience , writes Mckee in Story can be over rated because imagination, knowledge acquired from books and technical craft from studying are as good a substitute. That said experience and visualisation is my get out of jail card.
After this post, I’ll be marking dissertations on the media and here I‘m 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.
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. What’s there to be said about content? 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.
Stephen 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,..). This is the KISS principle or the idea to write simply and be your own worse editor. You’d have noticed if you came to this post yesterday, I have rewritten if after some reflection.
One of my favourite books is Kazuo Ishiguro and Remains of the Day. His writing is imbued with emotion. From a neuroscientist’s perspectives it lights up the cerebrum like a Christmas tree — something I teach to students.
As a black Brit, I’m particularly chuffed 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.
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.