One of my first articles on Medium made $10,000.
I got started on Medium by writing a few articles last fall, but didn’t have much of a grasp on how it all works. I started back up in early 2020 while on an extended trip and committed to writing a few articles each week. That small commitment to consistency has paid off many times over. One of my first articles published in 2020 just crossed the $10,000 mark — which has been particularly helpful to me in the age of quarantine. As I reflect back over six months of writing on Medium, here are a few of the things I wish I had known starting out last fall.
1. There are a lot of processes that determine which articles successful and none of them make sense.
There are a lot of processes that go into determining how successful an article on Medium is. Being a math and data guy, I wanted to fully understand how each of these algorithms worked before striking a single key on my keyboard.
- How articles are selected by curators for distribution.
- How articles are selected by publications.
- How articles are suggested to Medium members.
- How articles are ranked on Google.
- How the age of an article affects its likelihood of being found by Medium members.
- Why do some pieces catch on with Medium members and others don’t.
I did spend some time trying to answer these questions, but quickly realized that they’re mostly black boxes and that most of the information out there is merely speculation. In hindsight, any time spent researching these issues would be much better spent writing high quality content.
2. Quantity AND quality.
Some of my best pieces on Medium have done relatively poorly. None of my low quality pieces have done well. The takeaway is that only a subset of well written pieces do well. You can pull your hair out trying to figure out why some well written pieces do well while others flop (see point 1), or you can focus on pumping out a steady stream of quality pieces. Some of those will totally tank, which will be incredibly frustrating — but others will be incredibly successful. If you put out a steady stream of high quality content, something will eventually do well because of Yhprum’s law. The only way to ensure that some pieces take off it to write enough high quality content. So you have to focus on both quantity and quality.
3. You have to build a content environment.
Another reason you have to focus on both quantity and on quality is because the more content you have, the more your content will build on itself. Readers who like one of your articles are likely to take a look at your other articles; some will follow you and be more likely to read your future content; you can link between related articles you’ve written. My most successful article has brought in about two thousand followers. That’s two thousand Medium members who are more likely to read all my future articles.
This growing content environment builds on itself and makes each of your future articles more and more valuable.
Part of building an environment is building up related content that’s easy for readers to hop between. All of my most successful articles have links between each other. When any one article starts doing well, the others see an uptick in activity as well.
4. The value of articles lasts surprisingly long.
My most successful story has been on Medium for close to half a year and still brings in money each and every day. A lot of days it’s over $25. Build up a portfolio of a few articles with long tails like that and it becomes a living even if you take a break from writing new material.
In addition to the long tail, successful articles have regular spikes in activity where articles earn over $50 a day. Figuring out when and why this happens isn’t worth the time, but it’s worth noting that writing new content helps to “reintroduce” older content.
All of this is motivation to consistently put out a stream of quality content. Some of that new content will mature into pieces with long tails of value and will increase the value of old content and all future content.
5. Writing requires changing your relationship with time and money.
It is incredibly frustrating to pour yourself into a high quality piece of content that completely flops and only earns a few pennies. This comes from having a mentality of exchanging your time for money––something almost all of us have been conditioned for with hourly wages. Writing isn’t like that. And if you go into it with that mentality, you probably won’t survive a string of articles that don’t go well. That’s one of the reasons I took a break after writing only a few pieces.
I’ve had to switch my mentality to being more of an entrepreneur or investor. I’m building up a portfolio of intellectual property. Some of the pieces in the portfolio are going to be complete duds. Most are going to be pretty mediocre. But if I keep contributing to it over time, there are going to be some stellar performers. And they’re going to keep performing over time — even when I’m not activity writing and contributing to the portfolio. Those stellar performers ensure that the portfolio will keep returning dividends while I’m sleeping and over the weekend and when I’m taking breaks from writing.
That change in mentality has made all the difference for me financially. If I had focused on trading my time for money I would have stopped early on.
But thinking of my writing as an investment portfolio has made my writing time the most lucrative hours of my life.
6. Writing is really easy and really hard.
I’ve found that my experience writing on Medium has been incredibly easy and incredibly difficult. Everyone knows the experience of writers block, losing inspiration, and trying to find things to write about day in and day out. But anyone who has spent any time here also knows the effortless joy of experiencing their ideas come into existence on Medium’s beautiful platform. I’ve experienced that roller coaster on a daily basis and found it helpful to remember the easy times during the hard times.
Some of the points here have been particularly useful to me on the difficult days when the new content just isn’t flowing. It’s been helpful to remember that both quantity and quality count. If the quality just isn’t happening, just get something on paper and add it to the portfolio.
7. Am I a professional writer?
What is a professional writer? Someone who gets paid to write? If so, I am one. But imposter syndrome prevents me from adopting that label wholeheartedly. I think part of the reason is the beautiful simplicity of Medium’s model. It’s essentially just journalling — the struggle of trying to get some coherent thoughts and ideas down on the page. When you publish those thoughts (an incredibly vulnerable thing to do) there’s the chance you’ll get paid for them. No deadlines, no worrying about SEO or web traffic, no editors. It almost feels like you’re cheating at being a professional writer.
Over the past six months, writing on Medium has become an opportunity to get some thoughts out on paper — to wrestle with the words to express myself. And I’ve thoroughly enjoyed that process. I’d do it for free because it helps me refine my ideas. The money is just a little side benefit.