When Survival Depends on Audience Engagement

Be prepared to improve your writing or perish

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

No two writers are the same.

Far from being an homogeneous breed, we may use the same word to describe what we do but this is about the only thing we have in common. When I moved to the US, I was surprised at the number of people calling themselves writers. Back in Europe, a writer is someone who publishes books.

Also, a journalist is just that. This is how we describe ourselves when we’re being vague, or as reporter, editor, sub-editor etc when we’re precise. Not as writers. Nor do marketers or copywriters use the word to qualify what they do. The distinction between commercial work that empowers capitalism and creative work is always clear.

Not so in America, where profit drives everything.

Here, the evil spawn of capitalism, journalism, and creative nonfiction known as “clickbait” abounds and worms its way into everything.

Spend enough time on this here platform and you’ll likely have to wade through much wriggly wordage before you get to the good stuff. What’s more, many popular stories are but filler that regurgitates popular opinions without any new ideas, or indeed much heart.

And yet, this kind of copy does well in financial terms. Many readers prefer to embrace the comfort of the echo chamber to the somewhat startling discomfort of discovery and disagreement.

In America, entertainment always seems to take precedence over curiosity and the search for knowledge. You could read something that rattles you to your core about how another human does human and have it alter your views. Or you could read about why, say, online dating sucks and feel all fuzzy inside because you can relate. Even though the piece taught you nothing new about the topic or the person who wrote it.

In this context, some of us are nothing more than glorified typists even though we call ourselves writers.

Maybe “writer” sounds fancier?

I had made mine Medium’s tagline — words matter — a long time before joining the platform.

Then again, words are my job and vocation/affliction, none of which would be possible without a lifelong, abiding belief in the power of language.

Medium’s motto is pithy and does a good job of capturing the essence of the platform.

But a website declaring that words matter is no guarantee that all the words you find on it will.

The level of effort, heart, and insight varies widely from one user to the next and is dependent on message and the delivery thereof. Even a solid message doesn’t guaranty engagement if the formatting goes awry, there’s no picture, and the headline is a wash.

When no care has been taken to eradicate spelling and grammar mistakes, it gets worse.

There’s one notable exception to this last rule: many non-native English speakers write here, too. And do a splendid job with the kind of learned and thoughtful fluency monolingual folks can only dream of.

Alas, if you choose to try and follow your thoughts to see where they might lead instead of churning out clickbait, being a pro might not help you either. There’s always a risk that what interests you and what you feel strongly about won’t resonate with anyone else.

To this end, I set myself the goal of reaching just the one person with every piece.

Because I write a lot about the tyranny of living with a brain that keeps trying to kill me and being too cash-strapped to be well, a single connection means my work is done.

As isolation and an eroding sense of self are defining features of major depressive disorder, solace is everything. To have the chance to provide it to another human is a gift, to move them to tears something I’m never prepared for but it happens, too. Depression is unspeakably painful and silence kills, but words can offer relief.

And yet, I too am in it for the money. Medium is mostly how I’m rebuilding a life that works, word by word, after depression grounded me for the last five years and annihilated my livelihood. And I turned to Medium because there were no barriers to entry; I could get to work right away and start earning.

This means I spend my time thinking out loud rather than crafting pitches that often end up in a dark hole. Or chasing payment after a piece has been published. On one occasion, it took a magazine an entire calendar year to pay me. Because this is how glamorous professional writing can be. You work non-stop but money remains elusive, and by the time it turns up you’re already broke and in debt because it took ages to get paid.

Here, payment isn’t (yet, and may never be) commensurate with professional fees in my case but it happens, regular as clockwork at the end of the month.

To someone in as desperate a situation as mine, this is hugely helpful.

With writing as with everything else, reward is commensurate with effort, consistency, and quality.

Keep at it, iterate, learn from what works and what doesn’t, and eventually something will stick. You don’t even have to tap into the zeitgeist to drum up engagement as niche formats like poetry and original thinking are at home online, too.

When you’re prepared to stay the course, experiment, and not let stats faze you, you can create a modest momentum as long as you also interact with others whenever you can.

Much like writing, mindful interaction takes up a significant amount of time.

If you only feel strongly about calling yourself a writer but not about the work required to become one and reaching out to other humans, you will fail.

Some folks have crashed and burned in fits of self-importance and dragged others down with them. They believed themselves to be better than the rest of us but feedback failed to support that belief so they lashed out. At the algorithm. At the platform. At its staff and creator, while a little humility and extra work could easily have fixed their issues.

Because we’re all in this adventure together. The internet has leveled the playing field and, to some extent, is doing away with traditional media gatekeepers. This means showcasing more diverse voices from all walks of life as people who never had any say before can now write alongside those used to being listened to. And more often than not, an unknown can generate as much if not more engagement that someone with a book excerpt.

This gives me faith in the future of media and democracy.

It also gives me faith in the future of writing as a profession that may someday come to allow the majority of those who practice it to make a living wage. Or at least some impactful supplemental income if it’s a part-time gig. Depending on your circumstances, impactful can mean an extra $50 a month. And yes, this is achievable with a little work.

What’s more, if you are serious about writing to affect social change, Medium allows you to leave no reader behind. When you share a friends’ link to a locked post, anyone can read it and share it.

Instead of revenue, your reach grows as your work finds new readers in unexpected places. To me, survival is predicated on achieving modest financial self-sufficiency at some stage but that’s only the half of it. When you’ve been cut off from the world for years as I have, the potential for meaningful connections with others is priceless.

Sometimes, audience engagement can be a random act of algorithm that catapults you into someone else’s orbit and them into yours.

A meeting of the minds follows, your writing changes, your creativity becomes a meteor hurtling through the space and time continuum, and you thank the robot overlords — and emotionally intelligent design— for upending your life.

Because everything always comes down to people.

Why else would we write?

I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

The human condition is not a pathology・👋ASingularStory[at]gmail・ ☕️ https://ko-fi.com/ASingularStory

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