How Medium Changed My Writing Life
For good and for bad (though mainly good)
It’s come as a surprise, but using Medium has changed the way I think of myself as a writer.
For many years I wrote in fits and starts, stories and essays that I would return to over and over again. I kept them in drawers for long periods, not even ready to show to friends let alone attempt to publish. I had the sense that a perfect literary career awaited me if only I could remain patient and diligent enough. I had a portfolio that I was building, but despite the luminous future I believed I was storing up for myself, the work was largely unseen: a private and uneven collection I worried about, celebrated and despised at different times.
When the time came to send my writing out into the world, I found that winning professional writing commissions was hard work. I’d been writing privately for years, but I never understood that in the commercial landscape, timing and topicality are basic tenets of marketable writing. My vision of a writer of literary points-of-view was utterly naive, and it took me a while to realize that the ‘portfolio’ I’d been working on for years was little more than a ragbag of half-finished opinion pieces that had little chance of securing me a professional writing career.
Medium motivates to write with an audience in mind, and to finish what I’m writing
Shortly before finding Medium, I did begin to find some modest success with sending out work. I spent many hours hunting down the names and emails of editors to send pitches to, and literary magazines to submit short stories, and non-fiction platforms that might take up one of my over-worked essays.
My success rate was tremendously low, but with perseverance I found a few of my pieces were now appearing in print or online. What frustrated me was that I still hadn’t learned “the trick”. I was no closer to determining the mysterious art of getting published than before I started. I felt it was more luck than judgment that had taken me this far, and for this reason, the few breakthroughs I enjoyed did little to assure me of future success.
Then suddenly, I had a new lease of life.
I was tentative when I first began on Medium. I re-posted some old posts from my blog, and then, spurred on by the sense of how easy the platform was to use, steadily began to raid my back-catalog. It felt satisfying to see these pieces finally seeing the light of day after chipping away at them for years. But it also felt I was giving work away too cheaply and too haphazardly.
A far better approach, I began to realize, was not to use up my entire portfolio but to create new work especially for the platform. Then suddenly, I had a new lease of life. I was free to redefine myself as a writer again. And this takes me to the central aspect of my experience with Medium: that it encourages me to write new work and, above all, to finish them.
In this respect, Medium has given a new purpose to my efforts, providing the words I write with a destination, if I can put it that way. It offers a meaningful outlet in a way that cold-pitching never could. And this has given me certain assurances that, as a writer, I have rarely experienced: the guarantee of visibility for every word I write. Each time I plan to write a Medium story, I do so with the encouragement that the words will be read, perhaps by a few people, hopefully many more.
This feeling has given an enormous boost to my motivation. So enormous, in fact, that I sometimes worry that Medium has become too dominant in my writing priorities. But more of that later…
Since treating Medium more seriously I’ve found my ability to craft a finished piece has greatly improved; that is, the platform has given me a chance to think more about structure, how to lead a reader through from beginning to end, to avoid the “dead-zones” that might lose a reader’s attention, and to resolve the piece on a broadly conclusive note. I’ve also been able to consider my strengths and weaknesses with more clarity. I have realized, for instance, that when I write about topics I have some genuine knowledge about, the story fares much better than a piece I’ve written speculatively and with conclusions I’ve only guessed at.
Doubts & Reassurances
I still have my concerns, however.
It may not be a position universally held, but I remain terribly ambivalent about social media. I see its benefits, of course, but I also have doubts about the value of a global-wide cacophony of voices, all trying to occupy the same space; all of them, I sense, in unspoken competition to win at the dubious game of data-metrics, of clicks and claps.
Self-publishing too is an area I’m intrigued by but stubbornly wary of. The ease with which it can be accomplished — if not mastered — is an ongoing cause for suspicion. I suppose I still yearn for the validation of a traditional gatekeeper. Or if I can put it another way: as a consumer, my happiest reading experiences are still those that occur offline, in books and newspapers, the traditional media platforms that, unlike the internet, still seem anchored to a more stable reality.
Medium, however, manages to placate many of these concerns. The design of the writing console is, in my opinion, without fault. The lack of clutter in the writing space means that working on Medium feels like a private space where craft can genuinely occur.
The wider experience is positive too. Judging from the comments I receive, readers on Medium are genuinely engaged. Also, the presence of publications — and editors of those publications — give the Medium landscape something of the feel of a professional industry, where writers can build relationships and find themselves alongside a wide variety of other writers with talent and standing.
(A brief aside: My only concern with the new emphasis on publications from around the spring of 2019 is that stories are unlikely now to be plucked from obscurity — as several of my earlier stories were and elevated to ‘Featured’ status. Rather, they must now conform to the themes of the publications, which I think can perpetuate an ‘in’ crowd for which you may or may not qualify depending on your style.)
The curation process is, I think, one of the most attractive areas of Medium, simply because it provides a mechanism for writers to gain the first crucial uplift of validation.
Curation is modest in this respect — it cannot sky-rocket your story — but it does help. I’m pleased to say that currently around 80% of my stories get curated. This is after I went through a period at the start of this year when my curation rate dropped severely. In light of this, I decided to review how I was writing my pieces.
My sense was that the curation practice went through a tightening up process and that the selectors began to focus on stories that showed some evidence of authority and overall deliberation behind them.
My own background is in art history — I like to write about art and culture — and so tend to fare much better in these topics. Perhaps I do better because fewer writers are posting in these areas, but I also suspect it’s because I can draw on my experience built up over the years. I occasionally try out different topics and invariably these stories are passed over by the curators.
Nothing is set in stone. One of the great pleasures of using Medium is that you can experiment and learn with every story you publish, so your sense of what works and what doesn’t can evolve. That’s certainly been my approach.
The Writer I Might Become
I’m still taking stock. Undoubtedly, Medium has changed the way I think of myself as a writer. It has taught me that writing is so very much in the doing: in the making and the completing. It is better to be “out there” imperfectly than perfectly cocooned.
It has also taught me that an audience for my writing does exist, and that I ought to treat that audience in with consideration and respect in order to maintain its interest.
Medium will remain an important place for me, but I also want to guard against getting too drawn in. So after a year or so of writing fairly intensely on Medium, I’ve begun to raise my eyes a little and resume my search for opportunities in the wider world. Medium has been most instructive in this respect because I have come to understand how topicality and pertinence — ideas I’ve been able to experiment with through Medium — play a huge role in winning commissions. I’m pleased to say that I’ve managed to connect to magazine editors outside of the platform more successfully since utilizing the Medium than I had done before. So, things are beginning to happen…