Please Don’t Tell Me How to Write When You Clearly Can’t Write (Yet)
My hand is up here, when it comes to committing certain crimes of both youth and extreme inexperience. Happily, in some cases, those days are far, far behind me at least in some (but not many)regards. As I stare down 67 in a few months, I am neither young nor inexperienced. Again, only in some areas, but as it pertains to writing, I’ve got at least part of that nailed down.
Okay, one square inch, if that, but I digress.
One of the critical parts I’ve got nailed down is where I am as a writer. I’m decent at it, in fact at times very good, but I am no Pulitzer Prize-winner. In the face of true mastery, I am deeply humbled. Which is a good thing, because truly good writing inspires me and invigorates my commitment to improve.
That attitude is clearly not always shared.
Over the last few days I’ve been reading some very intelligent and insightful comments on a few pieces I’ve penned which have addressed the rather distressing trends concerning writers vs hacks on Medium. Medium peep Helen Bartley made a few more smart comments yesterday which, again, are worth sharing. Many of us hope to succeed in the broader writing world such as the fast-disappearing slick magazines and other outlets which pay considerably more than just Medium. However, their standards are just a wee bit higher than blather and publish.
Just because an article gets curated on Medium doesn’t mean you’re ready for prime time. Not in the slightest. It may mean pennies in your pocket but it is not final proof of writing competence.
Before I post her comments, here’s what I mean: If you read some of the articles about writing success on Medium, you’ll notice that those who are making a decent living writing have expanded well beyond here. They’re engaging in partnerships, they’re branching out, and they’re leveraging Medium to get them where they want to go. At the risk of using the same example too many times, I’ll note there that Shannon Ashley and Shaunta Grimes have found ways to collaborate, and expand their writing reach. Shaunta’s looking at a speaking career which for many of us, this writer included, is a natural sister to the pen and ink crowd. Not always, and it depends. But that’s another story.
They are also working incessantly. To wit, Shannon commented on an article in which I tagged her early Sunday morning, the middle of everyone else’s three-day weekend. We were both working very early. That’s just a part of what it takes. Their articles point out the need for editing and proofreading (try this), to say nothing of the time investment.
Leveraging, of course is one of the better strategies, using Medium and your commitment to both quality and production to touch other paying markets.
So, how to do that?
In my case, writing for Medium is just one way that I earn clients. To wit: I use the articles on travel to get the attention of my targeted clients overseas who need high-quality copy for their websites top sell their adventures. Many of them want me to write their stories, which gets them clients and raises their visibility on sites where I am writing for their target audiences. My writing solves a business problem (you have to be able to sell, and then, sell something that they need, not just your stats on Medium which are often meaningless in this context).
Note that I said high-quality copy. The travel business is awash with hackneyed junk work. Paying clients want original, thoughtful storytelling that doesn’t look and sound like a bunch of old fogies writing in their journals at the end of the day at the beach. There’s a lot of that out there. The challenge is to be fresh, original, thoughtful and funny. I may be an old fogey but my writing is evergreen, often hilarious, and unique because there are damned few fogies out doing what I do. That’s my angle, and I own that niche in the business.
So part of the message here is do what nobody else is doing. There are untold Medium writers punching out the same shit, and it’s awful. Nothing differentiates those folks. The topics are all the same, sound the same and offer the same advice. Ad infinitum, ad nauseum.
That’s a lot harder than it sounds. You may think you’re fresh and original, unless you read voraciously. That’s how you find out that what you think is an astounding brand-new idea showed up in ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia. We aren’t original, folks. Again: what works is a fresh TAKE on what’s already been said. I love fresh new voices on old topics, and again, happily, Medium is full of them.
As I wrote elsewhere, without the Red Pen of Editing Truth, it’s impossible to find out whether you’re grinding out crap or pay-worthy copy.
In that way, Medium is a lot more than a place where folks work out their angst, it’s a showcase for writing talent.
That’s (not) all folks, to co-opt a line from the immortal Porky Pig.
Editors read your stuff on Medium. They’re in the market for fresh talent. I got picked up for a print magazine gig because what I wrote and how well I wrote fit their needs. Doesn’t pay a fortune, but it’s yet another arrow in my quiver when I offer my services to big adventure companies. Why is that key?
That magazine is read by the very markets those travel companies are trying to reach. So not only do I use my Medium articles, I also use those articles picked up by outside editors to get the kinds of work that people dream about.
Bingo, folks. That’s my point. Medium in and of itself is just fine, but you work your butt off for eyeballs. As a way to leverage expertise to get other and better-paying gigs, it’s superb. That’s strategy. And boy can it backfire badly if you can’t write well.
Here’s where Helen comes in. Yesterday she wrote this about hacks:
…if one is pegged as such early on, there’s the risk of fading into the crowd of mercenary wordsmiths where earning credibility later will be a struggle.(author bolded)
Imagine linking someone to your piece on Medium as a way to show off how good you are. Your prospective client stumbles on your poor grammar, misplaced apostrophes like fleas on a junkyard dog, in all the wrong places, and cliched, sloppy writing.
Folks, you and I only get one shot. That client is going to retreat from your story, having now discovered Medium if they hadn’t already, and start shopping for quality work, which resides elsewhere on Medium. Plenty of it, in fact. You romanced the client; the client dumped you for real writing talent. That’s harsh, man.
Just as harsh as when I had a photo of myself (aging but still cute) with an (aging but a LOT cuter) ex- Broncos cheerleader on line. I shared it with a guy on Match.com. He asked for the cheerleader’s phone number. Of course he did. I set myself up for that. I still guffaw about that. Look, she was a jerk, but I can’t compete with a washboard stomach and the perk of a professional NFL cheerleader any more than most of us can compete for work at quality magazines with what most of us post on Medium.
Helen goes on to point out:
But publishing how-to stories by those who, themselves, have yet to learn how-to, is a disservice to those who sincerely want to become better writers.
Having made this mistake many times over in my twenties, because I so desperately wanted to appear as an expert when internally I knew damned well I wasn’t, I have empathy for the condition. Happily for my sake at the time, I wasn’t claiming writing expertise so I didn’t shoot myself in the combat-booted foot. I chose other areas to advertise my rookie status, which caused me umpteen public face-plants, which is one of the prices of hubris.
Back in the 1970s, face plants were nowhere near so public as they are now, with the Internet blasting us all over Creation. Mistakes writ large, as it were.
Which, to my mind, argues more discretion rather than less, but that is most certainly not the case. LinkedIn is just one example of just the opposite.
In the same way that a series of not-very-thoughtfully curated photos of youthful drunken debauchery posted on Facebook can come back and bite you and me in the butt during a job interview, poor writing on Medium can do the same. To Helen’s point, above. People know how to Google you.
So let’s take a sidestep and look at an organization that would look terrific on a resume: The American Society of Journalists and Authors.
Here’s what it takes to be considered a professional member of ASJA:
- Six articles written on a freelance basis published in national publications. Regional publications do not count for professional membership. If you submit shorter articles (fewer than 1,000 words or so), submit more articles. It’s best if they are from variety of markets, rather than all from the same place.
- One nonfiction book with a second under contract to qualify. Book chapters don’t count here: they are considered roughly equivalent to long articles. Ghostwriting and collaborations do qualify, if evidence (such as a contract) is submitted to support your role as writer of the work.
You can see from this that most Medium writers who write solely for Medium do not qualify. The bar is excruciatingly high, and not a lot of folks are going to make it, hubris or no hubris.
To make my point further, here are their requirements for the lower-level Associate Membership:
- Five published articles from regional or national publications. Articles can be from either national or regional publications. Unpaid articles and clips written while on staff also count towards associate membership. Articles or posts on a personal blog cannot be used for membership.
- One book published by a major publishing house. Self-published books will not be considered unless the applicant can demonstrate individual quality of the book via sales or reviews.
Again, those who write solely for Medium do not qualify. You see what I mean. In precisely the same way that the National Speakers Association only offers membership to those who are making a living either in part or in full by speaking professionally, the ASJA requires proven professional credentials.
This separates the men from the boys, the girls from the women as writers.
If you want to be good, you have to work with people who are better than you, first, and whose skills you don’t possess, such as trained editors and copywriters. To find one try starting here. Only a true fool, especially at the beginning, edits his own work. It is actually very easy to hire help. However if you are hung up on the belief that if Medium regularly curates your articles, and that this means that your shit don’t stink, then there’s no helping you. I’ve regularly found glaring errors in curated articles- including my own, let’s be fair here- so curation in and of itself is not the Good Housekeeping Stamp of Approval. For Medium, it is, but the bar has been lowered and continues to drop as many of us have been watching. Which is why I am seeing a flow of excellent folks to greener pastures, where they, as do I, hope to be held to a higher standard.
If you’re not producing world-class writing, please stop offering advice, listicles and how-tos when the Podunk Free Press wouldn’t print your review of the local MickyD’s.
I Googled “how to make money writing on Medium” and in 0.86 seconds, got 766,000,000 results. This is the tsunami wave that you and I are up against. The emphasis on making money vs. learning how to write well so that you can earn a living because you’re good at it is overwhelming. For good reason. We all need hard cash. But to get cash, and more of it, and better assignments, we all need better skills. That most certainly includes this writer which is why I have two superb writing coaches.
That said, we’re all going to do what works for us. Mediocrity and crap writing does get picked up, curated and distributed across topics. You can and do make money. Hey, if that’s all you want, have at it.
But kindly please don’t punch out endless articles about how to write, when your grammar is execrable, your spelling is embarrassing, and you Clearly. Cannot. Write.
Again with generous thanks and thunderous applause to those thoughtful writers who have offered comments, critiques, thoughts and feedback because they care about their craft, want Medium to keep the standards high, and continue to offer a stage where we can strut our stuff and expand our reach to other worlds of writing.