As a writer, I find myself getting into slumps where I don’t write anything at all. Contradictory? — There will be eighty different half-finished pieces in my drafts. I’ll have a late-night epiphany while trying to go to sleep or in the middle of a shower about what would make a good post.
But then I never write the posts. Eventually, those supposedly great ideas just disappear, and I grow old and whither away and die, and never publish anything. The end.
Organizing & Boosting Your Written Content with a Purpose-driven Schedule
Summary: As a freelance writer, it can be easy to think only in the short-term — Start utilizing a calendar the way big-name publishers do in order to consistently produce high-quality content for a more engaged audience!
Introduction: The Reason for Using a Calendar
When you want to get serious about writing and creating content, one of the more important principles to both sustaining quality and readership is consistency.
Loyalty from an audience comes from consistently publishing high-quality content, with the sheer amount of information available, it can be easy to lose readership when you lack proper planning and scheduling.
Summary: The beginner on Medium must know that there are three things essential to a good piece of writing: 1) Purpose. 2) Visuals. 3) Community.
The new year has just arrived, how exciting! My very first post on Medium was about the New Year, and I also wrote out my Resolutions for 2017. However — after two years of writing on Medium, I wanted to instead focus on helping others with tips and tricks I’ve come across and have found helpful.
Despite Medium’s minimalist design, it can still be a bit overwhelming to dive right in. If anything, the fact that there’s only a blank page in front of you just makes things even more daunting!
There are a number of factors that you have to consider when you go from a blank sheet of paper to a finished product that deserves to be published. I’ve already detailed my personal writing process, so in this article I’ll be focusing more on the specifics of writing and publishing on Medium.
I’ve found that there are universal rules for good online writing, and they can be summarized as such: Starting out with a clear purpose and idea, followed by executing that idea well and making the work visually appealing, and finally, taking the time to reach out to the community at large. I’ll be going through each of these separately, as well as giving examples of using them within the article itself! (A little meta, right?)
Purpose: Starting with Meaning
If you begin writing with meaningful purpose then you’re already ahead. Bad writing isn’t caused by having a bad idea — it’s caused by having no idea. Starting with a plan is easier than jumping right in, crossing your fingers and hoping for the best.
Consider the audience. More than anything, a good writing plan involves empathy. You have to be able to step out of your own shoes and figure out why other people would spend their time reading your work.
You should also note that you can’t appease everybody, and trying to write for the lowest common denominator also ends up with rubbish. Get specific about the demographics you’re looking to write for.
Solve a problem. When you figure out your audience, you can then figure out what they’d be interested in reading — or you can make an educated guess, at the very least. What’s a solution you’ve found that you’d think others would benefit from knowing? Don’t be afraid to take time to research in order to create something that’s truly informative and entertaining — this gives you a cutting edge when so many others are simply rehashing what’s already been said.
Craft a thesis. Once the audience and subsequent topic are figured out, next is the task of writing your own article on the matter. It’s seriously easy to get caught up in any sort of topic and end up with a list of a million ideas to write about and get overwhelmed once again. The trick to avoiding this is to limit the scope of the article to a thesis idea you can summarize in a single sentence. For instance, the one I used for this article is at the very top of it!
Focus on keywords (tags). This sounds like a marketing suggestion, but it’s much more than that. Similarly to crafting a thesis, being mindful about the associated keywords of an article can help specify the scope and help you focus on what needs to be written. While Medium does allow you to choose up to five tags per article, I suggest narrowing the focus to just two or three, and then filling in the rest with whatever ends up being written.
Visuals: Make Pretty Things!
When it comes to how your writing is displayed — visuals are both irrelevant and the most important part. You’d think with the limited number of options that Medium has for presentation that this would be a walk in the park — but it’s far from it!
The Writing Itself
Before anything else, the writing must be formatted correctly. No matter how good an idea is, it will never go anywhere beyond your brain if you can’t communicate it.
Let the words breathe. Whitespace is your friend — break up paragraphs and sections liberally. Have a varying amount of words in each sentence. Use bold and italic styling when it’s helpful.
When it comes to more technical advice, it’s far more wise to refer to one of many well-established style guides— and then be consistent with it.
Beginnings are Everything
Nothing is more important than what’s at the top of your post. The title, subtitle, and introductory paragraph are going to either make or break the interest of any potential readers. Make it as interestingly honest as possible.
Don’t make an initial promise you can’t keep — you’ll get clicks but end up with no reads and a reputation for misleading people. In fact, don’t make any promises at all. Be upfront and state explicitly what you’re article entails from the beginning. If people are interested in reading on that topic, then they will. And if they aren’t, then there isn’t any point to trick them into doing so.
Having visuals is incredibly helpful when trying to draw readers in. A large header image at the beginning of the article will usually suffice — but there’s more that can be done! It’s easy to get creative with the limited options that Medium gives you.
For instance, I use custom designs for my separators in my articles as opposed to Medium’s default ones. I then pair these designs with a free typeface called Amatic SC from Google Fonts that I think matches it well. You can see examples of this at the bottom and top of the article! If you consistenly use the same designs and custom fonts in your work on Medium, it can really help boost your personal branding.
TIP: A cool and obscure feature on Medium is the ability to hyperlink images directly. This is done by clicking on the image to focus it, then using the shortcut ctrl+k (or cmd+k). This is a simple yet powerful way to utilize visuals as ways of directing people elsewhere beyond the article you’re working on.
Footnotes & Citations
If you’d like to get advanced with your work, don’t hesitate to create a footnotes section at the bottom. It’s easy to use a superscript generator¹ in order to improve the readability of your articles by removing hyperlinks altogether. However, this is more of a personal preference.
TIP: When you’re pulling a whole bunch of different sources and images, it can get a little confusing. You may need to write-in placeholders while you work on something else. Medium little-known feature known as TK², where if you write TK anywhere in a paragraph, there will be a little indicator on the left-hand side of your article that the section needs additional content added before publishing.
: TK is a publishing abbreviation used as a placeholder in editing to mark information not yet included in a document, which is “to come.”
Community: Building Good Things Together!
More than anything else, the simplest way of finding readers that are sincerely interested in what you create is this: That you, yourself, must become sincerely interested in what others have to say.
The Tag Method
Each day, there are a multitude of tags that have a spectacular amount of great content created by new, unknown voices. The current Algorithm™ might try it’s best to show you the best on your front page, but that’s often work by people you already follow and other viral stories.
In order to actually find new stuff, this is what I suggest: Take a daily search through the latest of whatever tags you find the most interesting. — For Example:https://Medium.com/tag/writing/latest Just replace ‘writing’ with whatever other tag you want to search with. This will display an unfiltered list of the newest content of the specified tag.
Now, because this is not curated, there will most likely be a lot of spam and junk you’ll have to sift through in order to find the diamonds in the rough. But trust me — it’s worth it. I’ve found a lot of really great writers and work this way.
The Beauty of the RE:
When I find a good article, the place I go right after reading it is the response section. An exciting and under-utilized aspect of Medium is having the capability to create full-length article responses.
Short and positive comments are nice to get — especially on something you’ve work a long time on — but nothing solidifies your position as a writer more than getting into the weeds about different viewpoints. Don’t be shy about having a differing opinion and starting a dialogue with the author — just make sure that you can back up your position!
Another good way to reach out to other writers is by paying them homage. For instance, one of my own works that I’m most proud of (Zen of Housekeeping) was inspired by a piece byJosh Spilker. Again, don’t be afraid of creating a response to somebody else, regardless of if it’s positive or constructive criticism.
Reaching Out to Publications
A popular method of finding new readership is by publishing your articles in an already established publication. But how do you get involved with a publication?
Well, a good place to get started is a little secret weapon that I’ve discovered — it’s called Smedian,a community of Medium writers and editors. Once you sign-up and link your account, you can request to become a writer for any number of publications that are currently connected to Smedian.
Start writing with a strong purpose. Consider the audience before anything else. Brainstorm ideas that you can research that this audience would be interested in reading about, that are both informative and entertaining. Narrow the scope of the article by crafting a thesis and focusing only on a few keywords.
Get creative with the visuals. Use or create a style guide for the technical stuff. Carefully write an interesting and honest introduction. Experiment with different images, diagrams, and fonts. Utilize footnotes and citations when working on larger, more technical writing. Stand out from the crowd.
Become involved with the Medium community. Go out of your way to search for stories from new and obscure writers. Take the time to write long, thought-out responses to articles that changed your perspective or that you disagree with. Reach out to publications when you feel ready.
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Focusing on only the important stuff is the most valuable thing you can do for yourself.
Summary: This article details why failure is a powerful tool for reflection, and necessary part of life. It then goes on to outline a powerful method to plan for future success by cutting out anything that isn’t essential to your own values.
Failure is Important
Last month, I had the idea to write an article each day for the month. How long did that last? Only five days. No matter how you look at it, that is failure. And it’s not just about the fact I didn’t manage to beat the challenge, it’s more about the principle of the matter. The fact that I failed to keep a promise to myself and others. Why did I let this happen? I think more broadly, it needs to be asked: Why do people do this — so often — in general?
Before I get into that, though, let’s take a look at the bright side of the situation. I managed to write two longform articles that I’m proud of:
The only reason those posts got written was because, for the first time, I had to churn things out. Challenging myself to write each day for a month made me think long-term and plan out a schedule. It made me think of different topics to explore and ideas to experiment with. In the past, I’ve truthfully just written when inspiration struck.
Not only that, but I joined the Medium Partner Program last month as well, which means that I got paid for these stories. It’s the first time I’ve ever been paid for my writing. And seeing that was a wake-up call for me. I was shown that if I put effort into my work and plan things out, then I could make serious side-hustle out of Medium.
That’s why failure is so vital — it means that you’re going in the right direction. Having a challenge creates a sense of urgency — a fire underneath your ass that pushes you to actually get things done. If you’re constantly comfortable in life, then you aren’t pushing yourself. You’re a plateau on the verge of decline. A lot of intelligent people would say that failure is a needed stepping stone on the path towards success — but I would disagree. They’re more like positive and negative currents of energy — both being equally needed and powerful.
I have had a lot of failures in life. I’ve made a lot of mistakes that I regret. But all of those actions and consequences have lead me exactly where I am today — with my words in front of your eyes. That’s a powerful thing.
That’s why I realize I need to try harder. I need to take larger risks and allow myself to be more open and vulnerable. I need to look beyond the day-to-day regime that I have in place. Getting serious not only means potentially profound failure — it also means finding and creating deeper and more meaningful purpose. With this article, I’m taking a step back to just sit and think. To adjust what I’m doing and revise who I am — and with the new year just around the corner, I think there’s no better time.
Creating a Focal Point
Back to the question I had on-hand: Why do people fail to keep promises they make to themselves? Sure, I made a compelling argument to the importance of failing at times, but success is endgame. Human psychology is a murky field still in its infancy, and there are a multitude of reasons why people say one thing then do another. We all have obligations and responsibilities — things that take our time and effort away from what we set out to do idealistically. As a self-improvement junkie, I’ve come across a lot of different answers to this question, and subsequent solutions. In this article, I’d like to contribute my own solution — write yourself a contingency plan.
What is a contingency plan? It’s defined as: A plan designed to take a possible future event or circumstance into account. As in, planning for the worst-case scenarios which, according to Murphy’s Law, are going to happen. Nobody else is going to help you figuring out a way to stay standing when everything else begins to fall apart. There’s no inherent manual for sticking to your goals when your willpower begins to fade.
After reading a lot of literature on the subject, I’ve boiled down what would make a good personal contingency plan into a single sentence: Create a focal point for yourself. What does that mean? It means: 1) Figure out your values. 2) Make them your first priority. 3) Cut the rest of the bullshit out of your life. The human mind is an amazingly capable machine, but with so much stimuli, it is spread far too thin. If you were to write out a list of each unique thing you did today — let alone today–you would have dozens of different tasks that require both willpower and brain-power.
We all have more choices and information in front of us than ever before in human history. It’s far too easy to use the technology and potential knowledge available to us in an unhealthy and unproductive way. There’s an emerging trend of digital detox, the act of cutting out social media and the internet as a whole from your life. I believe there is merit to this. We all could value from taking some time to sincerely just sit and think. To hear your own voice instead of being bombarded with the thousands of the online.
Finding Your Values
From our own voice, we can hear our own values. What we truly deem as important — not to others — but to just ourselves. How do you do this in practice? Here’s what I suggest:
1. Clear Your Desk. Place things elsewhere for a period of time in order to have an empty, workable table.
2. Airplane Mode. All devices — even better if they’re put in another room.
3. Start a timer for 30 min. Even longer, if you think you’re capable.
4. Sit and Think. Trap yourself with just a pen and paper.
This is a similar process to free-writing as a meditation, or a mind dump, which I think is an additional important activity to do from time to time. However, this isn’t about figuring out what needs to be done in the next week or month. It’s deeper than that.
It’s about writing your mission statement — which I’ll cover in more depth in an upcoming post. Warren Buffet has an infamous exercise, listing the twenty-five things you want to do in life — then cross off everything except the top five. This is what I mean by your focal point — figuring out what you truly want to do — and then figuring out how to do start doing it while cutting out everything else without mercy. Every field of dreams needs a lawnmower.
In order to create ambitious goals and succeed at them, you need to think beyond 2018. It’s about the next five years — it’s about the rest of your life. Having a purpose — a deep-rooted why — connected to the actions you take daily makes it more difficult for you to give up and easier for you to follow-through. It also makes it easier to start again after a failure. This is how to keep the promises that you make to yourself.
My Contingency Plan
As per usual, I enjoy displaying how I personally use the information that I find myself writing about for others. Unlike a lot of other how-to columnists out there, I don’t try to compartmentalize my life from the advice I share. If you are to eat your own dog-food, or in other words, actually set out on the actionable and difficult tasks you preach, then there is a far greater depth to the authenticity that is displayed. With all that being said, here’s what I have devised for my own contingency plan:
1. Do Good Research. Before anything else, I need to learn and educate myself on important and complex topics. I believe this is important for both making better sense of the chaotic world I live in, as well as synthesizing a broad range of material into my own work, like this article. The most important thing to learn is how to learn well, which again, I’ll be covering in a later post.
2. Create Value for Others. There is an overwhelming amount of content being created constantly — most of it being taken for granted by the masses. In order to wade through all the noise, there are those that try to market themselves strategically. While there’s nothing wrong with that, no amount of good marketing can replace going through the effort of creating original and valuable work for people. More than that, though, I’m focused on keeping value above the fold. In other words, have the most important information at the beginning, instead of hiding it away and only giving it away in exchange for personal information, such as an e-mail address.
3. Stick to a Single Task. Due to the overwhelming amount of content being created constantly, it’s easier than ever to never truly focus on a single thing for a long stretch of time. And by truly focus, I mean not stopping every ten minutes to check something else. Putting your nose to the grindstone means absolutely everything else is put on the back-burner, at least for an hour.
4. Reach Out. A lot of people view writing as a solitary craft — and it is. But even then, community is everything. The entire idea of Medium is to have an established community of talented people that create good work that deserves discussion and feedback. Having others hold you accountable is far more powerful than trying to hold yourself accountable.
5. Cut the Bullshit. If I come across something that doesn’t fit in the above four actions, I won’t bother with it. Days are too short to let time be wasted. Attention is too limited and finite to allow for meaningless distractions. The human body is too complex and incredible to allow unhealthy foods or lack of physical activity to occur. Each moment, I need to be mindful of what I’m doing, and if I’m pushing myself towards my goals or pulling myself further away from them.
1. Embrace Failure. Recognize the importance of the path that mistakes and regrets have put you on, and the lessons you’ve been taught. More importantly, allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to walk into challenges where failure is bound to happen.
2. Have a Plan. Take a step back from the busywork of the daily schedule and truly think about what you would enjoy doing in the long-term, and figure out how to achieve that. Going a step further, figure out the obstacles in your way and determine how to achieve what you want even amidst a worst-case scenario. This is a personal contingency plan done right.