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What Medium Wants From Writers
Medium's human curators and algorithms now prioritize GOOD WRITING. I've figured out what that means, and it matters no matter where you publish your articles.
Whether you write on Medium, Substack, your own blog or for a mainstream publication, as a writer you’ll be heartened to hear what Medium is looking for. This essay, a version of which I first published on Medium last week, is provided here as a bonus in addition to the weekly Wednesday newsletters.—Rob
Medium, the self-publishing platform, is undergoing a significant evolution right now. Big changes are underway in how the company evaluates stories, promotes the best, and demotes the fluff and the crap. So what does this mean for us non-fiction writers? Specifically, what does Medium want from us? Until now, that hasn’t been entirely clear.
But as a reader, longtime writer and now publication editor on Medium, I’ve finally figured out exactly what Medium wants. The company’s emerging vision, stated in bits and pieces across various posts on the site and in social media, has seriously gelled of late, and it is great news for both writers and readers. And it’s not rocket science.
In fact, it couldn’t be simpler.
Medium wants exactly what readers want: Good stories.
That might seem overly simplistic at first blush. But it’s the key insight you need to grasp as a non-fiction writer (I do not post fiction on Medium, so I can’t speak to that side of things). What the company wants, what it asks of topical experts, journalists, bloggers and other non-fiction writers hoping to get one of those all-important curation Boosts, is nothing more nor less than a data-driven proxy for what readers seek and desire, combined with what the platform is uniquely positioned to deliver.
I’m going to break down why this new direction really is that simple, then lay out the slightly more complex set of factors that go into conceiving and creating a good story, and explain how a good story on Medium can differ wildly from a lot of the good stories (and bad stories) in mainstream media and on other self-publishing platforms.
Storytelling versus “content”
Hints of Medium’s new direction have trickled out for many months. It came into clearer focus in a June 1 FAQ about the Boost program by Ariel Meadow Stallings, Medium’s director of publisher growth. Note that publishers of selected sites, myself included, have been invited to nominate stories for boosting, though we nominators have no decision power over the final curation, which is done by Medium employees. From Stallings:
The stories nominated must all meet Medium’s standards for Boost distribution. We encourage nominators to amplify stories that feel like feature stories: constructive, well-crafted, memorable, original, and written by a credible author with relevant experience.
If you remember only one word from the above, let it be this one: memorable.
Then, in a July 18 update on the Partner Program, it became abundantly clear that significant changes throughout the entire publishing platform — from human curation to algorithms to writer payment schemes — are aimed at further promoting high-quality, insightful and useful storytelling with an emphasis on quality and deep personal experience and/or in-depth research and reporting. Simultaneously, these efforts will de-emphasize rapid-fire quantity, click-bait and easy-to-generate content (I despise that word, btw. I write stories, not content. You should too.).
Note: A version of this article first published on Medium, but the company’s new direction is inspiring, and the principles of good writing that I lay out apply no matter where publish, so I wanted to share it with Writer’s Guide paid subscribers, too.
Among the significant changes: Stories that get Boosted (which is done at least in part via human curation and offers a story greater visibility in various ways) now earn at a higher rate than those that don’t.
It will take time for Medium to perfect all their systems, invest in the human resources to make all this happen, and have the capability to discover a larger fraction of the deserving writing that springs up daily. But gradually, a higher number of good stories will get a higher percentage of eyeballs at the expense of the lower-quality stuff.
So, again, what’s a “good story?”
From the July 18 post, written by Medium employee Buster Benson:
We want to incentivize more original, high-quality personal stories, hidden life wisdom, and deep knowledge that’s locked up in our collective lives. This is ultimately what members tell us they have come to Medium to read about.
That’s a big hint at what Medium, the corporation, sees as its special sauce: The lived experience of its writers.
“We redesigned our recs [recommendations] system to focus on human stories,” CEO Tony Stubblebine wrote on Mastodon back in June. “That can mean a lot of things [but] it means less summary and less clickbait and more people bringing their own lived experience to the topic.”
That’s not a new thought from him, but the intentional focus on “lived experience” and “less summary” is telling. People come to Medium to read stories, not to look up reference material or see the news. While that may not be a 100% accurate characterization of every Medium reader, it appears to be the going philosophy.
So what, exactly, is lived experience?
Benson’s post, and some of the other writing guidelines posted by Medium, might give the impression that Medium puts higher value on personal tales and first-person than on, say, writing anecdotes about others, or doing your own reporting, citing studies, or quoting experts. That’s not the case.
My take is that Medium leadership and curators prize your knowledge and abilities, the smarts and experience and wisdom you can bring to a quality piece, no matter the style or voice in which it’s written. If you care about something and know a lot about it and/or do the research, then digest it all and present it in a thoughtful way that inspires, entertains or motivates readers — that’s what matters.
The bottom line is as old as the pen: Write what you know. And if you don’t know, research it before you write about it.
How Medium is different from mainstream media
I very much appreciate that lived experience is a core tenet — a value proposition — for Medium and its writers. It varies significantly from the prime motivators that drive a majority of media companies, which typically wrap their value proposition around things like breaking news, quick-turnaround reporting by a talented team of journalists, perhaps a rich trove of informative but straightforward reference articles, maybe video. All good, but different. And then there’s the bad: Mainstream media can be easily swayed to lean into content (there’s that word again) that brings in ad dollars, regardless whether customers want it.
I spent years in mainstream media, from the writer’s chair to the C-suite, and while intentions are nearly always good among most individuals — especially among writers and editors — and media execs often do actually care about serving customers, the driving forces can frequently be destructive.
Medium’s philosophy, as I see it, is fundamentally driven by what generates new subscriptions. The customers are driving the bus.
And the bus seems to be humming along, as Stubblebine pointed out recently:
In his keynote address during Medium Day on Aug. 12, Stubblebine re-emphasized the importance of a writer’s lived experience, their own personal expertise, and the fact that everyone has some — valuable life lessons given their profession, hobbies or otherwise. That lived experience, when put into writing, stands in contrast to fake stuff, the content out there that tries to beat the algorithms.
“Every single person is an expert in their own life,” he said. “We’re trying to help writers share the real stuff. Real wisdom.”
Then he emphasized what happens when you are able to effectively share what you know, what life has taught you, with readers:
“Your wisdom becomes their wisdom,” he said.
Beyond and behind the writing
Writing is just Step 1 in writing. Step 2 is editing.
It’s no secret that a lot of articles on Medium could use some editing, for scope, clarity, accuracy, flow, tone and typos. So I was pleased to hear Stubblebine, in his keynote, reinforce Medium’s commitment to supporting publications, where editing happens. Benson’s earlier post also alluded to the importance of editing:
Tell your story rather than churn out content. Take the time to go deeper, research longer, edit more.
We writers can edit ourselves, and we should, but the best writing will always emerge with the help of good editors. So it’s no surprise that simultaneous with all the other changes, Medium is encouraging the creation of new niche publications to be launched by seasoned editors and topical experts who can then become nominators for the Boost program (actual boosting decisions are made by Medium employees, by the way — boost nominators can only suggest).
If at all possible, get some editing help. Put on your thick skin, get over yourself, and ask for help. Writing for a Medium publication that offers editing help (some do, some don’t) can be a great approach. Short of that, bug family and friends. Ask them to look your story over for typos, stupid sentences, confusing passages. Ask them to be honest and harsh.
No writer doesn’t benefit from editing.
As you edit, make sure your story is no longer than it needs to be. How long is that? Every story is different. But one invaluable role of editing is to trim fat, to get a story focused, with a strong outline, a strong throughline, and no distracting tangents. We writers tend to wax on. Editors wax off.
Oh, and don’t dismiss Step 3 in writing, when you’re writing on a self-publishing platform: producing. Craft your presentation with a strong main image, clean formatting, limited boldface and italics, no extra distractions. People come to Medium to read words, IMO, not to see how many distracting production tricks you can pull, how many formats you can use to present a simple quote that’s already set off by, um, quotation marks.
Implicit in all this is another key to conceiving, crafting and polishing a good story: It takes time. That means something different to every writer, so I can’t offer a prescription. But if you’re flinging content into the wind every day, don’t expect much of it to fly very high. Prolific output may be prized and even required on a mainstream-media news site (I know, I’ve done it) but that’s not what Medium readers want.
Time well spent
Stubblebine, Medium’s CEO, was an editor of successful Medium publications before he became a Medium employee. It’s his job to focus on metrics. But I’ve never heard a media company CEO talk publically so much about words and so little about numbers. Still, he shared two really interesting statistics in the keynote.
Boosted stores are 3% less likely to be clicked on by any given reader, but twice as likely to lead to a reader becoming a paid member. That means people aren’t being lured into sub-par “content” they don’t enjoy, but instead are finding stories that move them, perhaps more selectively, but ultimately in a way that benefits the entire community of writers and readers and the company as well. The takeaway advice for you, the writer:
“Make readers feel like their time was well spent,” Stubblebine said.
A good non-fiction story for Medium then—in fact any good story anywhere—is some combination of original, thoughtful, informative, compelling and useful storytelling that moves people, rewards their time investment. It derives from a writer’s special sauce — lived experience, otherwise known as knowledge and wisdom, combined with skill and effort. It is well-written, well-edited, well-produced. And from my experience as both writer and editor, it packs a healthy dose of insight or surprise — anything but the usual. It is, in a word, memorable.