I recently reached the milestone of averaging $1k/month on Medium and wrote a guide to explain how I was doing it.
Since this guide was published on Medium itself, I skipped the contextualization part. If you have never been on Medium, you’ll be a bit lost.
It’s nonetheless a good article that will help you learn how to generate engagement online through writing.
I was surprised when I earned my first $100 on Medium.
I discovered this platform in 2019 and only planned to use it as means to channel traffic to my blog.
But then I started earning a few cents, then a few dollars, then recently, hundreds.
I’ve discovered a few things about writing and engagement along the way that I wish to share here.
Why Am I Doing This?
After all, it’s only going to make me more competition, right?
Writing online isn’t easy. When you measure the ratio earnings/hours invested, you get to a really, reaaaaalllllllllllyyyyyyyyy low number.
Elon Musk could write a detailed guide on how to build SpaceX, but if you’re not determined to invest the next twenty years of your life into it, you will fail — and SpaceX will remain competition-free.
That’s the same thing here.
Few people will ever work hard enough to achieve their goal, especially with writing, where results aren’t big compared to the efforts invested.
There are also other reasons that motivated me to write this:
- It helps me establish some credibility.
- I want to make this platform more interesting: it’s not “Medium” that sucks. It’s the people that write on it. So if this article helps raise the level, good!
- I genuinely love teaching stuff.
- This knowledge shouldn’t be hidden behind a $199 Teachable course or worse: a free 5-day email course (aka sales funnel)!
This article is long, so make yourself a cup of tea, sit back, relax, and enjoy the write.
BTW, here’s the proof of my claims:
The Social Science of Online Writing
Online writing is a social science: we know there are a few stuff that works, but the key to the secret recipe of virality remains hidden.
Before you write at all, you need to understand why people read stuff in the first place.
And there is only one answer to that question.
People read to solve a problem.
Most of the time, that problem is boredom.
That means that whatever you write needs to be engaging. It needs to generate interest. It needs to be valuable (yes, it’s always the same thing…).
So how do you generate engagement?
By assembling three key ingredients, namely (by order of importance):
- The right topic
- Some sort of value
- The right writing style
1. The Right Topic
The topic depends on the platform you’re on and on your audience.
If you’re writing for a car magazine, people are unlikely to be interested in the latest version of HTML.
Everything, to some extent, is interesting, but not to everyone.
You’re lucky because Medium is a wide platform.
The way I see it, the website is divided into three core sectors, each split from one another.
- The political/woke sector: I don’t know them well as I am not interested in that.
- The self-help sector: Tim Denning, Darius Foroux, and cie, the sector that I know well.
- The hard knowledge sector: this one is itself split into two parts, with, on one hand, people that write about tech, programming, etc (don’t know them well), and on the other, people that deliver serious content about economics (Concoda), fitness and masculinity (Neeramitra Reddy), psychology (Nick Wignall), business (Scott Galloway), media (Caitlin Johnstone), travel (Sara Burdick), relationships (Annie Wegner), or history (Andrei Tapalaga, one of my favorite writers here). Sex to some extent, can be considered hard knowledge, especially when the writer writes from experience. It’s difficult not to click on titles like “What happened during my first threesome” (my Medium feed eventually transformed into a porn website so I had to mute all of these people).
The most thriving sector is by far number one. You have two things that indicate it.
- Medium’s own publications almost only revolve around (US) politics and wokeness.
- The number of comments on each of these articles.
- The section “what we’re reading today” which is always about politics (and always cringe).
Everything is interesting to some extent, but not everything is equally interesting.
As highlighted here, politics is an easy pick when you want to drive traffic because it generates outrage, and outrage generates clicks.
The main problem is that it doesn’t generate value. Just cheap entertainment (full disclosure, I use this strategy too but I try not to abuse it).
Pushed to the extreme, politics eventually drives people out of the platform and the platform dies.
Now, you can easily make a living as a political writer. Start on Twitter, invade the comment sections of big political accounts, and watch your number of followers grow.
Politics is an engaging topic, but it’s not the only one.
Self-development is yet another engaging topic.
It encompasses a large chunk of sub-topics, such as:
- Business and entrepreneurship
- How to go from loser to winner
It is everything publications like “the Ascent” or “the Mission” used to represent.
These topics drive engagement because they promise to make your life better with very few efforts (which is why most of these articles are bs, but I don’t want to digress).
The perfect example is the bible of the self-dev Medium bro: Atomic Habits. Atomic Habits is a book that promises enormous results with very little effort.
When you read the book, you realize that the promises do not hold, but too late, you already bought it, or, in this case, clicked on the article.
Everyone wants a better life, more fulfilling relationships, and more money, so writing about these topics is the right first step.
The main problem with self-dev today is that everything has already been written about it.
Unless you can come up with a brand new solution (How meditating in the metaverse helped me solve depression), a brand new problem (5 health problems you expose yourself to by wearing your VR headset for too long), your own experience, or a new outlook (why meditation doesn’t work for everyone), there isn’t much left to write about these topics.
In fact, if you pay attention, you’ll notice that the self-dev writers often write the same article over and over again, just in a different way (something David O. admitted doing, props to him for being honest).
Consider that everything has been said about basic self-help since the 1950s with the books “The Magic of Thinking Big”, “Psycho-Cybernetics”, and “Think and Grow Rich”.
The new stuff usually comes from specialists in the field (Eg: Benjamin Hardy who demolished Myers-Briggs in “Personality Isn’t Permanent”) that genuinely know what they’re talking about and bring something actually new.
Today, you can no longer write about self-dev if you don’t go out of your bedroom.
You need some hard knowledge.
Which brings us to the last sector: hard knowledge.
Hard knowledge (history, economics, sociology, tech, anything that requires prerequisites and a deeper understanding than most people have) is the most fulfilling way to write and generates significant engagement because:
- It’s usually new: tech, for example, is always new, so content about tech has never been said before.
- It’s usually valuable
Hard knowledge is the reason why people tell you to specialize on the Internet.
You can be an expert in psychology, petroleum engineering, finance, or urban planning.
But you can’t be an expert at all of these, at least in theory.
In practice, I have found out that it matters little. I’ve written about economics, culture, psychology, politics, philosophy, and no one ever told me “anD whO ArE yoU tO saY THis?”
The reason is that I know what I am talking about when I write about it because I’ve already spent weeks reading about it — that’s the difference between writing about hard knowledge and basic self-help.
Everyone can write an article on basic self-help, and everyone did, which is why it no longer works. It’s like if a virgin ran a bootcamp on dating.
Who’s going to buy that?
Now, how do you choose a specific engaging topic for your article?
Well, there is no secret: you have to look.
I use Medium, Twitter, and whatever the mainstream narrative is speaking of to find out which topics generate engagement, and which do not.
Jordan Peterson, for example, generates a lot of engagement at the moment, which is why I narrated my experience at his book tour event.
Now, how did I know that?
- The Jordan Peterson articles on my Medium feeds have thousands of likes and several comments.
- Lots of activity around Jordan Peterson on Reddit
- He got his account suspended on Twitter recently.
If you’re not paying attention every time you go online, you can also do basic research.
Youtubers never make videos prior to researching the topic. A video is long and tedious to make, so they always make sure it’s going to hit before they publish.
Several tools help you do that, but the best is to simply plug your topic into Medium, Twitter, Reddit, TikTok, or Google trends.
Personally, I don’t do that pro-actively. When I see a topic that’s good for engagement, I write it down, but I don’t try to confirm if the article I want to write is highly engaging or not.
I write more for pleasure than money. I already have enough people putting up barriers in my life for me to add additional ones to my writing.
I write what I want, often bomb, sometimes succeed, and I am super happy with it!
Now that you got your topic, let’s have a look at what we mean by “adding value”.
2. Some Sort of Value
You create value when you give someone something that helps them solve a problem.
If you write about the books you never want to see in a listicle anymore, few people will read this because few care (few cared that I failed the carnivore diet too, see below).
But if you write about how you built a $10 million company after you got fired from your job…then this is something else!
The first topic is not valuable at all. The second topic is definitely valuable because making money is valuable.
Let’s give a more scientific definition of value.
You deliver value when you do something people are too lazy to do themselves.
Uber Eat delivers value because people are too lazy to cook AND get out of their house.
The next-gen Uber Eat will deliver pizzas directly to you in your bed by drone, but I digress.
My way of delivering value is to write takeaways, book takeaways to be more specific.
I read books everyone is interested in but that no one reads because it’s not easy. I summarize them, then build an article based on their main takeaways.
And hop! Not only does Medium distribute it (most of the time), but publications love it too!
Now everyone that wanted to read the book but did not can get the main idea in 5 minutes.
This 5-minute article likely took me 30 hours of work.
I had to:
- Read the book
- Summarize it
- Write the takeaway article
See? If you want to make a lot of money, writing isn’t it. It’s hard, and most of the time you earn peanuts.
There are millions of entrepreneurs earning millions. But there aren’t millions of writers earning millions — just a few hundreds, at most!
So if you want to get rich fast, go sell beer or chocolate instead.
As we can see, adding value depends strongly on the topic.
“These three positivity mindsets will increase your productivity”: -> no value. Too broad, too old, nobody cares.
“I work with Ray Dalio. Here’s what he thinks about where America is headed”: tons of value.
3. The right writing style
I’ve read some engaging and valuable articles awfully written.
I’ve also read magnificently written articles empty of any substance.
Ideally, you want both: great style + great knowledge.
I’ll summarize the best writing tips I have been collecting for the last two years below.
- Don’t use the word “thing”
- Use a variety of verbs
- Always use verbs as specific and as clear as possible
- Always use verbs to describe actions
- Appeal to the senses (hearing, smell, touch, sight, taste)
- Explain yourself as simply and as clearly as possible
- Be specific. Don’t write “wanna lose weight?” Write “how to lose 2 kg in 3 days”.
- Write from the reader’s perspective -> use “you” a lot (easier for them to understand)
- Be evocative, cut flab, craft imagination using a variety of literary devices, metaphors, analogy.
- Write something that your readers can take away and practice in their lives.
- The best conclusions bring to the surface an important point that has been there all along.
The main idea is: put as much meaning as you can in as few words as possible.
BTW, the genocide against adverbs and the passive voice is not good advice.
And please, don’t imitate other writers by “writing fast”.
Find your own voice instead.
Here I’ll show you my articles that did well, and the techniques that they used.
In the next section, I’ll point you toward a few Medium writers you can learn a lot from.
If you choose the right books, you can earn quite a lot.
Look at my article on Ray Dalio’s book. It made me $666 so far.
I also wrote a takeaway from Jordan Peterson’s book tour event, as I said above.
Then the takeaway from the book “Everybody Lies” made me also more than a hundred dollars, and a reader did a podcast episode on it.
Dan Bilzerian made some money too, but not as much as I expected.
The best thing is that each of these is reasonably evergreen, and will keep on making money every month.
Writing takeaways is very easy, but it takes time. You also need to read cool stuff and go to cool events.
But be careful, as nothing is guaranteed, as you can see below.
I thought flow was still fashionable, but seems like it’s not.
2. Myth, Mistakes, Misconceptions
This concept comes from the copywriter Jim Edward. Basically, these are articles where you explain why and where people have been mistaken.
People loved the Psychology of Money, so I read it too.
I quickly understood that it was just Nassim Taleb rehashed. I was apparently one of the few to know that because…I am one of the few to have read (and summarized!) Nassim Taleb’s entire Incerto.
So when I told people they had read mostly stolen content, they got interested, then angry (lmao).
James Clear also made a few mistakes. They didn’t earn me much, but it’s better than nothing.
This one was one of the first articles that earned me more than $100. I didn’t know what I was doing at the time, but it seems that writing rationally against a mistake everyone has been making for centuries (marriage) attracted a few clicks.
It might also be that the fact that I highlighted how marriage benefitted primarily men over women, which is a rare take.
I didn’t write this for the clicks. I made some research then drew my own conclusions.
3. Politics/Hot topics
I try to stay away from these but I have so much fun writing them that it’s difficult!
Behold my highest-grossing article.
The funniest part is when people fight each other in the comments or take everything I have written super seriously despite the fact I explain the article is (half) a joke.
But my first real viral article was summarizing The Great Reset.
Ironically, I care little for these incompetent idiots, and don’t lean on the conspiracy theory side of things (that doesn’t mean I don’t think for myself either though).
I read the book because I wanted to know how close Klaus Schwab’s predictions had been. And since I summarize every book I read, I posted the article first on my blog.
That same week, my website was catapulted from ten viewers a month to 1000 viewers per month.
On Medium, it’s my most popular article.
The reason why I earned so little was that views mostly came from outside the platform.
Side note: you can easily make a living off the WEF and Klaus Schwab alone. But let me tell you, you’ll mostly attract some pretty weird people!
It was upon writing these that I understood the business of things like QAnon or Alex Jones. I doubt any of these organizations have ideological motives.
I think they’re just in the business of generating money through traffic, and the easiest way to do so is with conspiracy theories on highly sensitive and “outrage” topics like the Clinton, aliens, pizzagate, etc.
Of course the actual lies of the establishment (operation Paperclip, toppling third-world governments, inflation as transitory, people committing suicide in prisons, etc) don’t help either.
I am not saying these people aren’t shady, anyone doing politics definitely is.
But there is a difference between investigating (bellingcat) and inventing (infowar).
4. Clickbait Satires
I don’t have much experience with these, but I guess they can work if you manage to express a general unspoken sentiment, something Nat Eliason did brilliantly some few years ago when he wrote about Gary Vee.
Let me tell you the story behind this article.
One day, I clicked on the article of a Netflix engineer that had quit his 450k job. People in the comments were outraged, so I thought I’d capitalize on that.
I basically rewrote the article the guy had written by making it 10X worse.
The results? Everyone loved it (and I even got a like from Tim Denning :P)
This type of article calls on two ideas.
- Catharsis: It’s a Greek concept that means that people are relieved of their traumas when they watch them replayed in theater, for example, or simply “in their head” during therapy.
- Positioning: marketing concept that explains that you should say what people already think, as they will listen to you.
Since people thought this writer was way over his head, that’s how I wrote my parody.
Now, it doesn’t always work.
I subsequently wrote the same type of parody imitating these writers that write about “how to make 6 figures as a writer”, but it completely bombed.
Pure listicles don’t work anymore.
People just click on them to get the names of whatever things you assembled into the list, then leave.
You need to mix your listicle with something else like politics or hard knowledge, but even then the result is pretty disappointing…
Even reading 52 books didn’t cut it.
Hard knowledge can help you out.
It’s not much, but it’s more than I thought it’d be.
This one completely bombed too.
This one too.
Too specific? Maybe.
They can work if you mix them with “hard knowledge” or “positioning”.
I wrote this when I learned and researched FIRE for a project at work.
I thought that the whole idea was so sad that I decided to write about it. Lots of people went mad, a few congratulated me, and most people liked it which showed I was saying out loud what a lot of people thought for themselves.
Most of my other rants bombed.
Maybe I could have made more money had I talked about the vegan diet instead.
No one cared about my degree either (obviously).
And no one cared about the books I never wanted to read ever again in a listicle.
And then sometimes, you have articles that do well and you don’t really understand why.
This article was about how Guillaume Pousaz built a tech company (checkout.com) without knowing how to code.
I wrote a series explaining how twenty billionaires earned their money. None of the articles made more than $5, except for that one.
I guess the “don’t know how to code” was the part people wanted to know about.
This article did better than I thought it would.
Other Medium Writers to Look up to
The Best Writers
In my opinion, two writers manage to hit the nail in almost every single one of their stories.
These are Sean Kernan and Ayodeji Awosika. Notice how neither of them has niches yet write interesting content that teaches, entertains, and makes you feel better overall.
I can’t really say what it is that makes them so good. Let’s just say they have it.
You will gain a lot by reading 10 or 20 of their stories.
Amazingly enough, they don’t have that many followers compared to other writers that don’t write nearly as well as they do.
The Best Writer for Engagement
The best writer for engagement is Jared A. Brock.
Look at his likes and comments. That guy goes viral every time he writes something.
Unlike our two friends from above, Jared is niched down and is really good at what he does.
- He got the right topic for engagement (politics).
- He delivers value.
- He writes well.
Jared is one of the few people I disagree with but still read.
His pieces are thoroughly researched, well organized, backed up with sources, and he uses a lot of bold, italic, and bullet points.
He handles every tool that helps him generate engagement and as a result, engages every single time.
I assume he is one of (if not *the*) writer that earns the most here.
Look at his followers! He doesn’t have many compared to Sean or Ayodeji. But he has WAY more engagement.
1. Calling out People.
You can criticize what people do, but you can never ever criticize who they are.
Calling people out works well because it generates outrage and gossip, the most toxic content online. But the gains are only short-lived.
You will lose credibility and your reputation. And people will feel sick after reading your content.
For example, I began writing an article calling out Umair Haque. Then I changed the title and called it “No More Apocalypse Porn” with his picture as thumbnail.
Now I am wondering if I should even publish it.
Chances it goes viral are 8/10, but I am not sure this is the type of content that will make the world a better place, or help me improve my reputation as a writer.
I also wrote an article calling out the German state. It was a big, big rant in which I was inferring that the country hadn’t changed since 1939.
I submitted it to a pub, then took it down the next day.
Calling out people is the equivalent of selling crappy beer: your customers get drunk, but have a hell of a hangover the next day!
Don’t do it.
Exceptions: enormously rich, famous, or important people can be called out because in a weird way, “it seems only fair”. Concoda, for example, makes almost a living out of calling out Elon Musk.
I find it amusing and refreshing, especially in a world that worships him. But overall, it’s not super useful even if he’s written stuff I ignored (Musk never founded Tesla, for example).
If you’re taking this route, try calling out people that everyone hates (Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, or Larry Fink come to mind).
Calling out Keanu Reeves is a certain way to get yourself ejected from the Internet.
And beware of calling out victims even if they’re victims of their own doing. It’s something for Quillette, definitely not for Medium.
2. Being too negative/outrage
I’ll admit, that’s something I have a hard time not to do because I love generating attention online, and that outrage is easy to use.
For example, I really want to write articles like “The Top 5 Worst Countries in Europe” or “Why Brussels Is the Worst City in the World”…but does it deliver value?
No. It helps me get rid of my own negativity by pouring it out onto someone else.
Not good. Not fair. Not ethical.
What if I wrote instead about how Medellin went from most dangerous city in the world to one of the safest in South America?
No one cares that you missed the plane the same way no one cared that I failed the carnivore diet. When you complain, you appear as a victim.
Don’t use your writing to pour out negative feelings.
That’s what Twitter is for.
If you lie, you will be caught, and your reputation will be destroyed.
Actually, doing the exact opposite of lying will have the opposite effect: people will read you and respect you for being true to them and true to yourself.
For example, one of the most poignant articles I ever read here was the story of a woman who had accidentally killed an elderly person by running into him with her car. She didn’t try to blame the accident on someone else. She went to the police, went to court, and pleaded guilty.
So much honesty still gives me chill when I think about it.
You’ve learned that engagement is created with three ingredients:
- The right topic
- Some sort of value
- The right writing style
You’ve learned that all topics are interesting to some extent, but that some are more interesting than others.
You’ve learned that on Medium, you can write about:
- Politics/woke topics
- Hard knowledge (tech, science, social sciences, sex, relationships, etc).
You’ve learned that the way to look for engaging topics is to be mindful of the things you see online, or to do research using Medium, Reddit, Twitter, the mainstream narrative, TikTok, or Google Trends.
You’ve learned that to be an interesting writer, you need to have an interesting life by doing things everyone wants to do but that no one does (learn how to dance, get rich, attend Tomorrowland, have children, travel the world, read Thinking Fast and Slow, skydive, grow their own food, etc).
You’ve learned that you shouldn’t:
- Call out people
- Be too negative
And you got several role models to be inspired by (Andrei Tapalaga, Sean Kernan, Ayodeji Awosika, Jared A. Brock, and all of the others we talked about).
All that is left is the conclusion.
Maybe everything you’ve read is false.
Maybe I’ve been lucky this whole time and I have no clue what I am talking about.
Maybe none of my articles will ever make another $.
In the book Siddhartha, the main character, which seeks enlightenment, has a conversation with the Buddha at some point in the story.
He tells him he does not want to follow him. The Buddha, after all, didn’t become enlightened by following someone else — he became enlightened by himself.
As a result, Siddhartha thinks that the way he’ll reach Nirvana is by doing it by himself too.
That’s a good principle to follow.
Take all advice you can, but always with a grain of salt.
Read what other people write, but don’t forget that ultimately, they only give you tools to help you carve your own path — they’re not the path itself.
Don’t copy. Don’t follow the guidelines by the letter. Try stuff. Explore.
One of the best writing tips I ever got came from Tim Denning. It said “to be an interesting writer, you need to have an interesting life”.
Few ever wrote truer words.
Steph Smith explains that being an interesting blogger isn’t so much about writing well. It’s about writing about your unique and interesting experience.
That is, it’s about having a unique and interesting experience!
If your life is boring and you have nothing valuable to add, the first step to becoming a better writer is to upgrade your life!
People that get PhDs, travel the world, build companies, win sports competitions, dance, sing, or read a lot of books are interesting because they’re uncommon.
People who order Uber Eat every day, play Doom after work, watch sports on Saturday afternoon and Netflix on Sunday night, are boring.
I didn’t know any of what you’ve read when I started, so I tried different stuff and explored.
With time, I figured I could write about books. I didn’t know it would work. I discovered it by accident.
That’s what I (mostly) write about now, not only because people read it, but because I enjoy it too!
I also had another advantage, something I haven’t told you yet.
I never believed I could make it.
Yes, it’s an advantage, let me tell you why.
I am not an English native speaker. I’ve never won any competition of anything anywhere.
Each kid won at least one trophy at some point.
In fact, I’ve lost and failed 99% of the stuff I’ve ever tried to do.
Because of it, I came to expect failure. It’s sad, but in a way, it’s liberating too. You’re free to try anything without any stress, without any constraints, because you have no expectations.
I liked writing enough. I didn’t mind not having an audience.
Writing for the sake of writing was enough fun. I’ve never put into my calendar that I “had” to write.
In fact, I was cleaning up my calendar in order to write.
What’s the purpose of a side hustle if you’re not having any fun?
You need to have fun writing. You need to be pulled by it, not pushed. If you need a 30-day writing challenge or an alarm on your phone to get yourself in front of the screen, give up!
I am really sorry, but I am not going to be the one saying that “eVeryBoDy caN beCome a WrIter” because *Jordan Peterson voice* that’s a lie.
Not everybody can write and if you’re saying so, you presuppose that writing is easy.
You need at minima the will to write, interesting stuff to say, be mindful of your truth, and be enough of a free-thinker to bring it forward.
Your audience will feel if you’re writing things you don’t believe in or that you’re not supposed to.
Truth, ultimately, may just be one of the most important components in a story.
When they read you, your readers feel the emotions you’ve laid on paper.
They will know if you’re lying, or if you’re not in touch with yourself.
Consider that however you feel when writing is how your readers will feel too.
If you’re bored, forced, or scared, that’s the rendering you’ll give. That’s why passionate, volunteer, and courageous writers do well.
And that’s why writing is one of the most satisfying things ever. It forces you to think, to reflect, to learn, and above all, it forces you to be true to yourself.
Truth is capital. Readers will know if you don’t tell the truth.
You don’t want to disappoint them, do you?
These books have taught me valuable stuff.
- The Art and Business of Online Writing by Nicolas Cole
- Positioning by Al Ries and Jack Trout
- Copywriting Secrets by Jim Edward
- Doing Content Right by Steph Smith
For more articles, head to auresnotes.com.
Photo by Karina Tess on Unsplash
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