I’ve been writing on Medium for 6 months now. After 160,000+ views, 1,600+ followers, 2 viral articles, and some EPIC flops, I’ve learned a ton about being a writer on Medium and building an audience from scratch.
After reflecting on the past half-year, I wanted to share what I’ve learned about writing on Medium, building community, and growing an audience. Basically, the things I wish I had know when I first started.
Before we jump in, it’s worth stating the obvious that everyone’s experience and situation writing on Medium is going to be different. Which means, of course, not everything I say here may apply to you and your specific situation.
To help clarify this, here are a few things about me and my writing that you should know before you read or take to heart anything I have to say.
- When I started posting to Medium in early January 2018, I began by re-posting articles I had already written over the past few months for my personal blog. These got essential zero traction because I only had a handful of followers on Medium at the time (like 6).
- In mid-January, I published a story called The Secret to Becoming an Annoyingly Productive Early Morning Person. I was approached a few hours later by an editor (thanks Jordie Black!!!) for The Startup and asked if they could re-publish it. I said sure. Not really even knowing what that meant. It went viral almost immediately. This got me 200+ new followers in just a couple days. 😳
- I continued posting a story per week. Then in mid-February, another story I wrote called What I Learned About Deep Productivity from a 30-Day Digital Declutter made the front page of Hacker News and went viral. This got me another few hundred followers literally overnight. 🤯🤩🤪
- I mention these two episodes not to brag, but to point out that I got lucky early. Within my first month writing on Medium, I had 500+ followers. This obviously helped all my later stories get a lot more traction but is not typical!
- I write in topics that are popular on Medium: Personal Development, Psychology, Self-Improvement, Productivity, Mental Health, and Writing (on Medium). If I were writing about traditional Native American pottery, my experience would be different.
- I started off here as a competent writer. I’m not a great writer, but English is my native language, I was an English major in college, I spent close to a decade in grad school reading and writing, and I happen to enjoy writing. All of this was a big leg-up for me getting started writing on Medium.
- During April, I experiment with writing a story every weekday. Outside of that, I’ve averaged one story per week.
- Most of my stories are long-ish, like 2,000–3,000 words.
Take all that for what it’s worth and keep those points in mind as you read the rest of this article. I hope they give you some context for the advice I’m about to give.
6 Lessons After 6 Months Writing on Medium
1. People Matter Most
Genuine success (and enjoyment!) as a writer on Medium comes from cultivating quality relationships. That obviously means building relationships with your readers by responding to responses on your stories, for example. But it also means cultivating friendships and partnerships with other writers and peers.
It’s difficult to overstate the value of just a handful of fellow writers who are seriously interested in you and your work. There are lots of strategic reasons for this (See #4 below), but more importantly, having true friends and peers on Medium gives you a sustainable source of encouragement and motivation for your writing.
They say consistency is king, which I think is true. But it’s a lot easier to persevere with your writing and stay consistent if you’ve got loyal fans and friends supporting you at every step.
Slow down and take the time to initiate and build friendships with your fellow writers and peers. When you find someone else on Medium in a similar or related area, with similar follower counts, whom you admire as a writer, don’t let them go! Take the time to read all of their new stories and respond thoughtfully. Share their work with your newsletter or social media followers. Be a friend and start building relationships!
2. Big Publications Matter a Lot Too
For a new writer struggling to get started, being added as a contributing writer for a top Medium publication is a big deal.
This can take some time and persistence. One of the reasons I hesitated on doing this for a while is because it’s kind of boring. Writing new stories and responding to my favorite writers’ stories is fun and interesting. Researching and pitching publications is boring. But then again, so is brushing my teeth.
Not everyone has to write for The Mission or The Startup, but it is important as a new writer to find a publication with drastically more followers than you and write for them. Views aren’t everything, but you do need eyeballs on your work, plain and simple.
- Follow their editors on Medium and social media.
- Study the stories that do best there.
- Think about how your unique experiences and expertise might make an interesting angle on a common topic of interest in that publication.
- Read the submission guidelines and follow them respectfully.
- When you pitch yourself, be friendly but concise.
- Be persistent but don’t be afraid to move on if the rejections just keep mounting. It might not be a good fit right now. You can always try again in a few months.
3. Going Viral Is Dangerous
I definitely don’t want to be that guy who complains about something most people hope desperately for, but…
There are downsides to going viral, especially as a new writer. For me, the biggest was that it gave me a taste of overnight “success” and made me crave more. Like, immediately. This craving for more virality was not good for my writing: I began trying to fit myself and my ideas into topics or formats that I thought would make my chances of going viral increase. Spoiler: bad idea.
Not only did these stories not succeed (readers are surprisingly good at picking up on when you’re not being true to yourself), but I didn’t feel good doing it.
Plus, after some close inspection into my email subscribers, a big chunk of the followers I got as a result of my viral articles were not particularly engaged readers, whereas the followers I’ve gotten since then are far more active and engaged.
If you’re into this writing thing for the the long-haul, do your best to resist the temptation to “try and go viral.” You can’t make it happen, and trying will probably only decrease your chances and make you feel worse. Every time I feel the pull to “write a viral story,” I re-focus my attention on Lesson #1 above and try to go read and thoughtfully respond to one of my favorite writer’s stories. This usually grounds me and reminds me of why I’m doing all this in the first place.
4. Be a Memorable Responder
Besides building genuine relationships with my fellow writers, becoming a really good responder is one of the best ways I’ve found to get more exposure for my stories and therefore more followers and email subscribers.
Specifically, I try my best to be a memorable responder.
Writing quality stories that people remember is a good way to gain followers and expand your readership. But an even more powerful method— at least early on — is to make your responses to other people’s stories memorable.
We’re all naturally inclined to prioritize and remember our own writing more than that of other people’s. After all, it’s ours! By leaving a really interesting and thoughtful response on someone else’s story, you’re leveraging their built-in enthusiasm and memory for their own content and implanting yourself into their consciousness and memory.
By taking a genuine interest in someone else’s work, you’re forging a powerful connection between the two of you.
Even a few people who really appreciate you and take the time to read your work can have a huge impact.
Imagine if you had just five people who routinely read almost all of your work and clapped generously for it? That means every piece you publish will almost automatically get 200+ claps! For a new writer, that’s epic!
And it’s all because you took some time to respond thoughtfully, interestingly, and memorably to peoples’ work. With a little effort, you can build a relationship that has the potential to realize an exponential return on that investment.
If you’re a new writer, take the time to identify 5 of your peers (people who write in a similar topic and have similar numbers of followers) whose work you admire and are genuinely interest in. Each day, take a story by one of these people, read it carefully, and leave a really thoughtful response. Do this for a month, and you are going to have at least a few really committed supporters. Rinse and repeat and you can see the long-term power of being a memorable responder and building relationships.
5. My Ego is the Enemy
Ryan Holiday is right, as usual.
My stories tend to underperform when I try too hard to be clever, especially if it’s at the expense of being clear.
The trouble with cleverness is that it’s all about the writer not the reader. We try to be clever to make ourselves feel good or come across a certain way. But whatever the motivation, the attempt to be clever in our writing usually ends up obscuring our message and putting more work onto our readers.
This is especially true of headlines. The one story I put the most time and work into in over the past six months failed miserably, in large part because I gave it a cryptic headline that I thought was clever and pithy. But from my readers’ perspective, it was vague and forgettable.
Before you publish a story, always re-read it with this in mind: How will this come across to a potential reader? Get in the habit of writing from the perspective of potential readers: Write clear headlines, don’t use too much jargon or unnecessarily large vocabulary, and be helpful.
6. Spend Time Every Day Deliberately Generating New Story Ideas.
Having a steady supply of interesting and exciting topics to write about is a hugely underrated part of writing success.
Of course, having a regular writing routine and habits is good, an editorial calendar is nice, and keeping a notes file in your phone called “Potential Medium Article Ideas” is itself probably a good idea.
But there’s one thing I’ve found that makes the biggest difference in having a steady stream of interesting ideas to write about: Spend a little time every day deliberately generating new ideas.
Seems obvious, but I’m always surprised when I hear how many writers don’t do this and continue to struggle with writer’s block or not knowing what to write about.
Adapt James Altucher’s Become an Idea Machine methodology for Medium stories specifically. I try to take a few minutes every day and deliberate come up with as many ideas for Medium stories as I can. I don’t worry at all about quality. I just generate ideas. Usually I end up with 10 or 15 ideas in the span of 5–10 minutes, one or two of which has potential and then goes into my Potential Medium Articles List. But more importantly, the habit of regularly and deliberately generating new story ideas stimulates my creativity such that I seem to have more spontaneous ideas for stories throughout the day.
Wrapping Up (Lesson #7)
I know a lot of people out there get there panties in a bunch whenever anyone posts another Here’s What I Learned Writing on Medium story. And that’s fine.
But I think writing these stories about my own writing experience on Medium has been helpful. They help me as a writer because they force me to step back, get some perspective, call out my own bull shit, and see more clearly what’s working and what isn’t.
And based on the response I’ve received to these types of stories in the past, they seem to be genuinely helpful and encouraging to a lot of other folks out there, especially brand new writers looking to get started.
Anyway, I hope these few thoughts have been as at least a little bit useful and encouraging.
Writing on Medium and starting to build a little community of fellow writers has honestly been one of the most gratifying things I’ve done in a long time. There are so many wonderful people here with so many unique, helpful, and interesting stories to tell. It’s been an awesome six months.
There have been a number of writers whom I learned a lot from, but I’m especially grateful to the following awesome people for being so encouraging and supportive to me during the past few months. Without their support, insights, and encouragement, writing on Medium would likely have been just another thing on the internet that I tried for a little while and then forgot about.
- Maarten van Doorn — One of the most thoughtful responders and question-askers I know. I can’t wait for each of his new stories and responses to my own. He’s your friendly neighborhood philosopher!
- Jeff Barton — Jeff writes about life, personal growth, and mental health (also running and lots of other stuff) in a powerfully ordinary way. Jeff springs right to mind whenever I hear the phrase “honest writing.”
- Tom Blair—I still remember the first time I encountered Tom on Medium. He had just responded to one of my stories with a compliment followed by “Max Claps, brother!” Tom taught me the power of being generous on Medium, especially as a clapper and responder.
- Enrique Fiallo—Everyone needs a friend who’s not afraid to tell you how it is and give you honest feedback when no one else does. Henry’s got a rare knack for being surgically incisive in his criticisms and genuinely warm in his encoragement.
- Tim Rettig—Tim is my inspiration for consistency, persistence, and hard work as a writer. He writes in a wonderfully personal way about his own struggles and successes.
- Liz Huber — Besides just learning a ton of practical stuff from her articles, Liz has always been a consistent source of encouragment and positivity in her responses to my own work. Plus she gave me some killer feedback on my new book about building an audience, for which I was really appreciative :)
- Prakhar Verma—Prakhar writes consistently pragmatic and substantive pieces that always make me want to raise the bar for myself. I think of him like a running buddy who pushes you do go harder and further than you thought you could.
- Eugene K. Choi—Much of my “People Come First” philosophy of writing on Medium was inspired by Eugene. One day, out of the blue, he sent me a Twitter DM and asked if I wanted to chat by phone some time. So we did and had a great chat and keep in touch regularly.
If you’re new to Medium and want some kick-ass people to follow, these guys and gals are the best! (They also happen to be really good writers, so if you’re trying to hone your own craft, study what what they do.)
Finally, to anyone who’s reading this but hasn’t made the leap to start writing yet, I’d really encourage you to just go for it. No matter where you are or what you’ve got inside you waiting to be expressed, there’s a really good chance you can find your people here… your tribe.
Just start writing and reading and being friendly—I think you’ll be amazed at what happens.
🙋♂️ Hi, my name’s Nick.
I’m a clinical psychologist and author who writes weekly essays about personal growth and psychological mastery. I also write sometimes about audience-building on Medium. Get my Personal Daily Writing Checklist: