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Why Did My Story Flop?
There are so many reasons a story can fail, and so few guarantees for success
When a story you’ve worked hard on gets dismal readership, it’s incredibly frustrating. I know this well. None of us is immune. This is true for bloggers, freelancers and staff writers. It’s true no matter what publication you write for, or where your story posts. But if you self-publish (on Substack, Medium or your own dot-com) you see the disheartening statistics and, perhaps, a direct effect on your already tiny bottom line.
Don’t freak out.
I’ve come to think of my results, as measured by visits or any other metric on a given story, as divided into thirds: ⅓ of my articles do well eyeball-wise, ⅓ do OK, and ⅓ stink. Life in online publishing has always been this way, based on the statistics I’ve analyzed while overseeing multiple publications in science, health, technology and business going back to the late 1990s.
In newspaper days, we typically had no idea how well-read any given story was. We just flung what we thought people might want to read into the paper each night, figured it’d be lining a bird cage or used to wrap fish wrap the next day.
Knowing all that can help you take your lumps and write on, I hope.
How easily a story can fail
In no particular order, here are some potential culprits:
The topic, exciting as it seems to you, is deemed boring or mundane by other people.
The topic is fine, but you didn’t suss out that compelling, original angle.
People are on vacation and just not reading much.
Headline misses the mark.
The piece is too long. Or maybe too short.
Sub-par execution of the details, or lack of detail, or too much detail.
The curator gods, Google’s search engine or whomever/whatever pulls the traffic strings doesn’t see what you see.
You read that right. It can sometimes be an editor’s fault when a story of yours doesn’t soar. Trust me—I’m an editor!
And yes, I’m being purposely obtuse. That is the point. You never really know. I will, however, cover several of these topics in greater detail in upcoming essays and guides.
Meantime, take solace in the possibility that all five people who read your supposed flop of a story loved it. That’s a win!
Pick your battles
About those lousy edit jobs. When I edit stories, I aim to improve them, of course, but I’m imperfect, too, using experience, objective rules and guidelines, and a heavy dose of informed subjectivity for many of my edits and suggestions. Sometimes I just outright screw things up.
I count on writers to tell me when I’m bonkers. And on Medium, where the writers I edit work with me, not for me, I do all my edits as suggestions, so the writer can accept or reject them, and I sneakily put all the responsibility on their shoulders by reminding them: It’s your story—I’m here to advise and mentor, but you are free to craft it however you prefer.
That’s not how things work at a big fancy publication you might freelance for. You may have little to no control over what happens to your story after you hit the send button on the draft. Because they are paying you. And they own your story.
But if you feel strongly that an editor has mucked up a great lede or putzed with a perfect paragraph or wreaked havoc on a heavenly headline, and you’re fortunate enough to have a look at it before publication, speak up.
You may not be the decider, but you can and should advocate for what you think is best. Just don’t become a pain in the ass. Editors don’t like pains in the ass. Be polite and respectful. And if you’re getting paid regardless of the end result eyeball-wise, temper your frustrations at least enough to live to write another day.
I hope this sets some realistic expectations. Given such a long list of ways a story can fail, and an indefinable, imperfect list of ways to guarantee success (with a thick atmosphere of subjectivity hovering over it all) you cannot expect every story to win the Eyeball Lottery. My advice: Celebrate your successes, try to learn from your ho-hum results, and don’t get too wrapped up in the statistics.
And subscribe to this newsletter. Because I have lots to say on how to make at least a third of your stories succeed.
This week’s quick tip: Let quotes shine
When you quote someone, give the quote prominence. Let it breathe. Let it lead. Let it shine. One simple way is to put the attribution after. There are exceptions. But a quote—if you are bothering to include it—is presumably pretty interesting. Who said it is important but usually less interesting to readers (unless you scored an interview with Taylor Swift or Benjamin Franklin). When the quote is a zinger or just super important, set it off in its own paragraph, to give it the visual attention and space it supposedly deserves.
“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.”
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