Style Guide for Better Humans
Use Behavior Science to Write Articles That Change Lives
We have two fundamental rules:
- We only want advice that the author has personal experience with. For that reason, our authors are either academics, coaches, or aggressive self-experimenters. The good news is that you are, by definition, an expert in your own experience and there are always other people like you.
- The point of our articles is to change lives. We don’t accept thought pieces, philosophy or news. All pieces should be one part inspiration and one part clear, detailed advice.
If you can achieve the above, your article will stand out against a sea of free personal development writing based on both trustworthiness and effectiveness.
As an author you have an opportunity — really the most amazing opportunity — to completely transform someone’s life.
How much value can you create for them? Many readers are paying Medium $5 a month. Can you do better than providing $5 worth of value? Can you provide $100? $100,000? If a person reads your article and practices your advice for the rest of their life, will they live one hour longer? One year? One decade? Will they experience an extra hour of joy or maybe an entire year of joy? Will they quit their job and build a company that provides joy to a million people?
This style guide is about writing articles that lead to positive impact in people’s lives. To get there, we’re going to use some behavior science — these are lessons learned through my work (Coach.me), through working at prestige media publications (O’Reilly, David Pogue’s Missing Manuals), and by talking to the most influential writers in personal development (Tim Ferriss especially).
Consider this a tutorial to help you reach the next level as an author.
#1. Follow Medium’s Style Guide
The Medium folks are writing a long form version of a style guide for you. It’s not ready. But I can tell you some common guidelines you’re going to run across.
- Pick a cover image that supports the article.
- You need rights and attribution to all images you use. Most authors pick images that are under some sort of Creative Commons licensing through a service like Unsplash or Pexels or Flickr’s Creative Commons search.
- For headings, use Medium’s heading styles (big T, little T). Don’t just capitalize the words and bold them.
- Don’t sell your own stuff. The readers paid to read your article, not buy your product.
- Use Medium’s official list styles. Don’t try to format your own.
- All images need attribution. If you use Creative Commons Zero, just tell me that when you submit the article.
- If you are being paid for the article, skip all that footer call-to-action nonsense. No “please recommend” or “please follow.” The Medium Members difference is that the readers are already paid — and so the content doesn’t need to and shouldn’t feel like content marketing.
- Use Medium styles semantically. That means don’t style something as a quote unless it’s actually a quote.
- When you are done with your draft, please do a separate editing pass. Here is our tutorial for becoming a great editor of your own work — use this as a guide before sending us your draft.
None of that has anything to directly to do with behavior design other than trust. You’re part of a cohort of writers who are being asked to reach for a higher standard of writing. Executed well, readers are going to come to your article with more trust than they would otherwise. Consistent formatting is the superficial indicator of trust worthy content — don’t sabotage trust with sloppy formatting.
#2. Please try to frame your article in terms of who the reader will become rather than what is currently wrong with them.
My rule of thumb: “Don’t ever say that you’re trying to fix people.”
Yes, some people do need fixing, but that’s not our job. Or rather, it’s not our job to point out their flaws. Most people are plenty aware of their flaws.
What the reader isn’t aware of is what’s possible through hard, smart work. That’s your job as an author. Another way to say this is “connect with the reader’s fantasy of who they want to become.” That fantasy is the motivational driver for all the work they are going to have to do.
Simple example, you could write the same article with two different headlines. One is about what’s wrong and the other is about what they a person could achieve.
How to Stop Multi-tasking
How to Achieve Radical Focus
All my quantitative data on page views and qualitative data through reader responses is that this one change is a huge win — it easily helps you reach twice as many people. And often it can be done 100% through how you frame your title and intro.
#3. Give empathic tutorials.
We’re looking for specific advice that takes into account the real challenges that the reader is going to face.
Consider the following three ways to teach a reader Stephen King’s technique for prolific writing:
- Stephen King writes every day.
- Stephen King sits down to write at 8am everyday and doesn’t get up until he’s completed 2,000 words.
- Although Stephen King’s goal is 2,000 words, the key concept here is consistency. To adopt this technique for yourself pick a set starting time and a target number of words. Your writing target should feel like a light challenge, not a struggle. If you do struggle, simply adjust the word count down.
#1 lacks specificity. #2 lacks empathy. #3 is what we’re looking for.
The rub here is: how do you develop empathy? If you’ve never tried the advice yourself or helped someone else try the advice, then I question whether you should be giving this advice at all.
Part of the trust we’re building is that the articles we publish work. You wouldn’t enjoy a cookbook full of recipes that had never been tested. It’s the exact same for personal development — nothing is more frustrating to a reader than getting psyched to follow advice only to find out that the advice is impossible to follow.
From a behavior design angle, clear, specific advice also helps remove inertia. Unclear advice leaves a lot of work for the reader. Getting clear and specific reduces the work that a reader will have to do to get started.
So take as much time as you need to write a tutorial that includes every detail.
#4. Demonstrate expertise.
In order to write with empathy, you’re going to need to have some expertise. We want you to mention this expertise explicitly in the article, even if it’s just your own self-experimentation.
More than that, we want the advice in the article to match your expertise.
One of our goals is to develop trustworthy content by demonstrating the source of expertise for all advice in our articles.
If you’ve ever read a personal development book you will notice that the authors sprinkle the book with a steady stream of social proof. That social proof isn’t there to sell the reader on the book — they’ve already bought it. Rather it’s there to sell the reader on themselves — the reader can achieve this goal because other people have.
If you have written an empathic tutorial, then you now have the moral high ground to sell the author on themselves. You know when, where and why the advice works. Now build the reader’s confidence by sharing where your own confidence comes from.
There are three ways to demonstrate expertise in an article:
- Try the advice on yourself.
- Help other people try your advice.
- Do original research, i.e. be an academic.
Hopefully, you’re writing this article because you already fall into one of those three categories.
#5. Match your advice to the source of expertise
If you’ve only tested the advice on yourself, then write a first person account: “This is who I am, these are the situations I was in, this is what I tried, this is how things worked out.”
Readers of your personal experience will understand that the advice you’re giving is not necessarily universal.
To give advice that goes beyond personal experience you will need to demonstrate thorough research or thorough experience helping other people. A lot of you are coaches, so you should have the experience to do this.
#6. How we do Citations or Footnotes
Some people like to write footnotes, like this  or citations like this (Harvard Business Review). Not us.
We love citations to research and outside resources, but we want you to link the text, like this. If your article is heavy on outside resources then you should include a References section at the bottom of your piece.
- Set the References section off with Medium’s section indicator (the three dots)
- Make the References section an H1 (the big T)
- Bullet each reference.
- Write each reference in the format: Title by Author at Organization or Title by Organization.
In the end, it should look something like:
#7. How to Edit (Paid Pieces)
Once you deliver a piece to us, it will go through three rounds of editing.
- We will make comments and send it back to you. We call this the revision. We do the best we can to work with you to produce the strongest possible article. Sometimes we have lots of comments — generally this is a reflection of a good piece which we happen to have a lot of knowledge on. Sometimes we have no comments.
- Our rewrite editor then does a pass to tighten up your piece. Rewrite probably sounds threatening. Mostly we’re just looking to cut extraneous words and sentences for tightness — read William Zinser if you want to really understand this. Occasionally we will do a heavy rewrite — removing sections and adding framing. In that case, and only that case, we’ll send it back to you for review.
- Last, we do a copy edit.
Given all that editing, do you need to do any yourself? Hell yes. Please do two things.
- Do whatever you consider your best job of editing a piece that you want to publish. We work with a lot of authors who aren’t professional writers, so we can fix a lot. But we’d always rather be starting with your best.
- Ask yourself what the main point of your article is and then cut everything else. The two most common cases of this are a disjointed article that should really be split into multiple articles and a lengthy introduction that spans multiple approaches to entering the body of the article. Just consider saving that stuff off for a different post.
#8. Delivering the Draft
We need you to add an unpublished version of the draft to the Better Humans publication with the word DRAFT in the title.
That combination of three things (unpublished, in Better Humans, DRAFT title) lets us do the editing and then publish when the article is fully ready.
Before you add the piece to Better Humans, we need to add your Medium username to our publication author list. Please share that with us.
The “Add to Publication” feature lives in the three dots menu when you are editing your piece:
Thank you for reading the entire style guide and we look forward to seeing your piece.