Get the basics down, test, edit, and let things sit

Michael Thompson
Aug 9 · 15 min read
Photo by Lindsay Henwood on Unsplash

Last month, I sat down with my accountant in Barcelona to wrap up my taxes. Prior to finishing them, I reminded her that I had earned $621 over the course of 2018 writing on Medium.

She looked at me funny, which I’ve come to expect from people here in Spain whenever I mention Medium. After asking me if I was a fortune teller, she inserted the figures into my ledger. She then assured me that failing to report minimal amounts like $600 wouldn’t bring the cops to my door.

I smiled and said something stupid like, “Better safe than sorry…” I then let her know that my taxes for 2019 may involve a bit more work.

Last year, I wrote 63 articles on Medium, which, at $621 in total earnings, converts to a little under $10 per article. When the dust had settled at the end of the year, I had received 159,000 total views, with my most-read article falling just short of 10,000 views.

As of August 1, 2019, I’m averaging 150,000+ views per month. Nine of the 38 articles I’ve written currently have more than 40,000 views each.

Not only that, but since January my follower count has jumped from 5,000 to 12,000, and my average fan count per article sits right above 650 fans.

I’m telling you this for two reasons: the first is because I truly believe that if I can do it, so can you. The second reason is that I’m freaking excited about it.

Until three years ago, I’d never written anything that didn’t involve a teacher yelling at me after I had finished it. I spent a bit of time in early 2000 writing comedy in Baltimore, but it didn’t take me long to realize I wasn’t very funny. For most of my life, writing was just something I did whenever time allowed it. I didn’t think much about it, and, honestly, I didn’t dedicate much time to it either.

That all changed at the end of 2016 when I made the commitment to write for an hour each day as a way to better organize my thoughts.

Fast forward to today: thanks to the Medium Partner Program, a platform that pays creators simply to publish ideas, I’m able to financially support my family of four while working a maximum of five hours per day. Not to mention my work has been featured in a healthy number of mainstream publications, like Fast Company and Crunchbase, which has done wonders for my coaching career.

If I had to start over again today as a new writer on Medium or if I were looking to substantially grow my following, these are the exact steps I would take.


1. I’d Ensure I Got the Basics Down Pat

Thomas Jefferson once said about style, “swim with the current.” Normally, I would say this is horrible advice. From my experience, the best way to stand out is by noticing the direction everyone else is taking and then doing the opposite. But when it comes to formatting your articles, you need to get the basics right.

Whenever you publish an article, take the time to find a quality image that reflects the essence of your text. Have both a title and a subtitle that hit (more on this later). Use the formatting tools Medium provides to make your writing easier for the reader to consume and enjoy. These “little things” matter. Plus, I’m willing to bet the Medium curators (the people who decide which articles receive widespread distribution) won’t read one word of your articles if they’re not packaged in a way that’s pleasant to the eye.

One easy trick I recommend is studying the articles from Medium-run publications, like Human Parts and Forge. Then, steal their exact formatting. This will take you all of ten minutes to learn, and it’s a mandatory step in getting lots of eyes on your articles.

By the way: I’m all for non-stock images, and I love it when I see an image that stands out. Just do yourself a favor by making sure you’re not the only one who likes it.

This leads nicely into the next point.


2. I’d Test My Ideas on Other Social Media Platforms to See if They Resonate With People Before Publishing Them on Medium

One of the main reasons for my success on Medium is my practice of paying attention to the specific ideas and sentences people highlight most in my articles. I then expand on these bits of text in other stories — even going so far as to use them as future titles or subtitles.

Having a three-digit catalog of Medium articles to draw from gives me an advantage over new writers, but using platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to find ideas that resonate with people can be just as effective.

The next time you have an idea for an article or a draft ready to publish, take a few minutes to share what you think is your strongest idea with the world to see if it “sticks” — i.e., captures people’s attention.

John Gorman, a guy known for breaking Medium on more than one occasion, uses Facebook and Instagram to develop his ideas. I’m willing to bet the feedback and engagement he receives play a big role in what he ends up publishing.

My friends Tom Kuegler and Brian Pennie use Twitter and LinkedIn to do the same thing. Like John, they pay close attention to how people respond to what they share, jumping at the opportunity to write full pieces about the things they post that end up starting conversations.

Plus, if you keep an eye on your most popular (highlighted) phrases, you can promote your new articles on other social media platforms by leading with sentences that you know are backed by “social proof.”

Most people finish writing an article and then hurriedly hit the share button, which only shows something like, “I just published ‘6 Ways to Build Stronger Relationships.’” However, leading with your strongest idea that grabs people’s attention and linking your article can seriously boost your engagement.

The text in the tweet above was highlighted over 350 times and stands out much more than simply sharing your article.

Yes, this will take time. But as with any endeavor worth doing, the people who tinker and test the most are usually the ones who end up doing well for themselves.


3. I’d Wait a Week to Publish Every Article I Thought Was Ready to Go

Like any business, the future of Medium is uncertain. However, what Medium editors have made crystal clear is that they’re looking for quality articles (and I seriously doubt there will be any changes in the future to this approach). There are people like Shannon Ashley and Ayodeji Awosika who have the ability to churn out quality article after quality article at an alarming pace. But these people are the unicorns of Medium — and I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a horn sticking out of my forehead.

Quick aside: Don’t forget that most people you admire on Medium have been writing for years, and the fastest way to lose motivation is by comparing their middle to your beginning (thanks, Stephen Moore, for that one).

To ensure what you’re submitting is of the highest standard, take your finger off the “publish” trigger and then wait one full week before sharing.

The reason for this is two-fold:

  1. As human beings, we routinely miss and overlook things. Coming back to an article with fresh eyes a few times before publishing it will increase the chances that you’ll spot your mistakes.
  2. Our ideas need time to breathe. I can’t count the number of times I’ve let an article sit and, after returning to it, I either expanded on an idea or tightened up a loose sentence, making the piece much more coherent in the process. Often, the sentences I further developed became the very parts of the articles that led to the most engagement (highlights or comments).

I’ve published roughly 150 articles over the last 30 months, and not once after pulling the brake and forcing myself to wait a week to publish did I think to myself, “Shit, my changes have made this article worse.”

Never forget that patience is the silent confidence that separates what gets talked about and what doesn’t.

If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll likely realize the only person putting pressure on yourself to publish at a fast pace is you. So give yourself a week-long break, and line up posts that you 100% stand behind.

If waiting a week is too much to ask, pay special attention to the next point because, without a doubt, it has played a huge role in my Medium growth so far.


4. I’d Pay an Editor to Work With Me

One of the few things I did right when I began writing was contracting an editor to assess my working drafts. My reason for doing this was simple: I was new to the writing world, and I had no idea what good writing looked like. For a couple of hundred dollars and a few hours of my time, he taught me tricks that took him a lifetime of studying to learn.

In addition to the grammar lessons he taught me, he showed me, one, how to properly use transition words and, two, the dangers of overusing the passive voice. These two lessons gave me the tools I needed to make my articles much more action-oriented.

If I were to start writing on Medium today, I would put a few bucks aside and invest every dime I earned from my stories back into my writing by working with an editor. This may not be how you imagined spending your earnings, but when it comes to reaching your goals, it pays to invest in yourself.

Plus, if one of your goals is to get on Medium’s radar for their in-house publications, this is a sure-fire way to get an edge. From my experience, editors like nothing more than opening up a draft and realizing a big portion of their work has already been done for them.

Quick but very important aside: Many people advise others to forget about the money when writing, and I agree. People can smell a fraud a mile away. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use it as a motivator to create the best work you possibly can.


5. I’d Spend an Inordinate Amount of Time Getting My Title Tight

Last month, I spent an entire afternoon staring at a title that wasn’t quite right. Every hour or so I would take my computer up to my wife with my latest revision and ask her for her opinion. Her eyes told me everything I needed to know: it was good but it wasn’t great.

However, in a moment of magic that can happen only when you face the resistance head-on, and without even thinking about it, my fingers went to work. Seconds later, I glanced upon a title I was sure would hit.

Two weeks have since passed, and the article is set to easily hit 50,000 views. So far, the piece has earned enough money to allow me to pay my mortgage for the next four months. It would have been five months’ worth of payments, but I rolled the dice with my editor by offering him a split on the article on the condition that he removed his minimum payment requirement — it looks like he won.

Advertising legend David Ogilvy famously said, “When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.” I couldn’t agree more. If you want people to read your articles, you must motivate readers to click on them. In order to do that, you need to make your titles attractive to the eye and enticing to the mind.

One tactic that works well for me is making my titles rhyme (Ways to Be More Likable By Saying Very Little — Timeless Advice on How to Live a Good Life). John Gorman has the unique ability to make every one of his words sing. I’m not there yet as a writer, but I know I can muster out at least a few words that flow.

Quick aside: Three months ago I received a comment from someone saying they get excited every time they see my name on Medium. This was a sign to me that I had made it as a writer. But this only happened because I had taken the time to write titles that had convinced her to click on and read my articles, which then allowed her to get to know my thoughts and feelings.

From my experience, you only need one big article to really get moving on Medium, so if you have a story that you believe has real legs, sit on it until you’re convinced it has a title people won’t be able to help clicking on. (This is another place where testing your ideas on other social media platforms can give you an edge over other writers).


6. I’d Devour Everything I Could About How to Tell a Good Story

Creating a loyal following on Medium is all about building connections with your audience. Hands down, the best way to accomplish this is by telling good stories. Everyone loves a story that takes them out of the mundane present and transports them to another world. Stories are the threads that bind us together as human beings.

When it comes to kicking off a post, engage your readers immediately by sharing one of your stories with them. From my experience (and this took me a long time to realize), the best place to start is by publishing the stories you’re scared to death to share.

I wish I had understood this when I first started on Medium. If I had, I would have devoured everything I could have got my hands on about the topic. I was excited to share my ideas, and I worked to get them tight. But, time and again, I shot myself in the foot by ignoring the need to bring the reader into my world by actively showing why these things mattered to me.

Creating a list of relationship tips is good. Kicking your post off with a story about how you grew up shy and had a hard time making friends has the potential to move it to great.

One way to begin is by creating a Word doc in which you record your mini-stories or the mini-stories of people you admire. Currently, I have 100+ mini-stories/introductions saved on my PC. This may sound crazy, but I have faith that a day will come where each and every one of these narratives will find its way into a post I publish.

Another way to get started with this is by asking everyone you meet to share their favorite story with you. If you ask one person a day for the next week, I’d be very surprised if you don’t come away with at least one solid story that resonates with you and that spurs ideas for a future post.

Quick aside: A few months ago, I recorded a three-minute video on LinkedIn about something that happened to me earlier that morning. Later that day, I went home and wrote out the video in text form and then published it. The article currently has over 700 fans and 13,000 views. I also wrote a post about my experience recording the video. I grew up stuttering, and I have a huge fear of being in front of a camera. Expressing that vulnerability allowed my words to connect with a lot of people. This article, too, has hundreds of fans and 10,000+ views.


7. I’d Make Sure My Conclusion Left the Readers Inspired

In the movie Charlie Wilson’s War, Congressman Charlie Wilson recalled that, during the Soviet-Afgan War, the United States “fucked up the end game” by helping Afghanistan defeat the Russians but without helping the Afghans rebuild their government and schools thereafter. The American government spent millions of dollars sending the Afghans weapons and giving them support to help them win the war, but the former didn’t send the latter a dime to help them build a brighter future.

When it comes to gaining a following on Medium, the same logic applies. Don’t spend hours and hours writing a post and then skimp on the conclusion. The conclusion is your chance to engage your readers and to start a conversation that lasts.

My friend Danny Forest, VNP taught me this key lesson, and I have no doubt that it has greatly improved my engagement numbers.

If you watch a few TED Talks, you’ll quickly notice that the majority of the most-watched speeches link their introductions to their conclusions. The conclusions either refer to stories first mentioned in the introductions, or they drive home the theses of the talks. This is not a coincidence, and the approach is just as effective when it comes to writing. Connecting the conclusion to the introduction pulls an article together, making for a well-rounded argument.

In addition to linking the intro to the conclusion, I like to reinforce my strongest statement — or, for “listicles,” quickly summarize each point in one sentence — and then end the article with a line that makes people smile.

In a recent post, I pointed out that it’s hard to get angry at someone while you’re eating a piece of fruit. So, to continue with this theme, I ended my article with, “Eat more pineapples — they’re delicious.” I was blown away by the response. Over the next few days, I received seven messages on LinkedIn about that very line. This means that people liked it so much that they left Medium and then found me on another platform just to say hello.


8. I’d Forgo the Big Medium Support Groups to Join a Tight-Knit Group of Writers

During my first year on Medium, I wrote. And I wrote. And I wrote. And I wrote some more. However, over time, I began to feel lonely, and I wanted to connect with other writers. I tried my hand at some of the large Facebook groups that were floating around (and I’m glad I did, as I met some great people), but more times than not the main theme of the groups was helping support each other's articles. Whereas I was looking for help in terms of genuinely improving my writing.

As a result, I reached out to a few people whose writing I really enjoyed. After speaking with them, we decided to form a Slack channel where we could edit each other’s articles, provide helpful feedback (regarding titles, subtitles, images, etc.), and work together to grow both on and off Medium.

Investing time into getting to know other writers I admire has, without a doubt, been the driving force behind my ability to grow from 150,000 views per year to an average of 150,000 views per month.

My friend Nick Wignall helped me reshape a working title into one that has garnered over 200,000 views so far. My friend Maarten van Doorn challenges my thinking on a daily basis. My friend Liz Huber has taught me how to gain coaching clients via my writing. My friend Deb Knobelman, Ph.D. stopped me twice in the last month from running articles that could — and should — be better.

Each day, I take 20 minutes to edit articles belonging to other people in the Slack group, which has done a world of good for my own writing.

Each day, I ask them what’s working, what’s not, and what strategies we should implement in an effort to better navigate the future.

Most importantly, each day I get to spend time with people I truly admire. I am beyond proud to call each one of these writers a friend.

I’m in the process of writing a step-by-step guide on how to begin and grow an engaging Slack group. It’ll be a “we did this” and “here are the strategies that worked”-type guide, so stick around.

Don’t wait for me to publish it, though. If I were starting my Medium journey today, I wouldn’t wait a single minute longer to reach out, get to know some of my fellow writers, and ask if a few of them are interested in working together to improve and grow as writers. You’ll not only learn what’s missing in your writing, but you’ll also be surrounded by people traveling on the same road as you but taking a different path, which makes work a lot more fun.


Pulling It All Together

As I sit here writing this today, I still can’t believe that just six months ago I was struggling to break the $100-per-month threshold as a writer on Medium. Today, I can support my family of four through my Medium earnings alone, writing no more than one or two articles per week.

At the same time, however, I know I deserve this. I’ve pulled up my chair every single day and stuck to the commitment I made to myself to write for at least one hour per day — no matter what. I’ve paid attention to what Medium was looking for. I’ve invested time, energy, and money into improving my writing and to helping other people improve theirs. I’ve built win-win relationships with people I admire and care about.

In short, I’ve worked my ass off, and I hope the words above motivate you to do the same.

Three years ago I sat down to write.

Today I consider myself a writer.

If I can do it, so can you.

Better Marketing

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Michael Thompson

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Co-creator of 2 little boys with my dream girl - career/communication coach seen in Fast Co. INC, Forbes, Crunchbase - reach out @ https://mikethompsonblog.com/

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