An Exact Breakdown of My First $2,000 Medium Story

Apr 13, 2020
A photo of the author, created by the author.

 

This article is different from every other “look how much money article” on Medium.

I’m going to be brutally honest with you. Luck is a major part. It’s easy to read these articles and think there is a formula to success when there isn’t. There are no Medium millionaires!

I certainly didn’t expect the level of success I achieved and it’s not due to prodigious skill. I won’t mislead you to think otherwise.

What I can do is show you my exact journey because I broke a lot of the laws people believe about success here. My goal is to make this an article that writers bookmark and keep returning to for reference.

It was only my second ever article on Medium which makes me an anomaly. Lightning can strike!

This is my viral article:

Here are the stats today:

 

Screenshot by author
 

I’m going to give you everything about this story.

I am packing the information in, so feel free to skip ahead to the parts that speak most to you:

  • What I didn’t do.
  • My background.
  • How I crafted my story.
  • Timeline after publishing.
  • Key lessons.
  • Wrapping up. 

 

 

What I Didn’t Do

Like me, you might see a lot of struggle porn on Medium. People who’ve made it always like to emphasize how hard it was and how hard you have to work to be like them.

It’s not 100% true and gives me a sense of imposter syndrome.

I didn’t do any of these:

  1. Slave away for years earning nothing.
  2. Quit a 9–5.
  3. Block out many hours each day for writing.
  4. Email people ten times a day.
  5. Pretend I didn’t want to make money.
  6. Pretend I didn’t care if people read my articles.
  7. Write for the sake of hitting a certain number of articles.

There are exceptional writers of Medium who do regularly write stories with massive engagement. What you must remember is they all had different journeys. There is no one path to glory.

If I ever reach this stage, I’ll have had a monumental boost from a single lucky early story. I don’t think this is a common path judging from other articles I’ve read.

If you have tens of thousands of followers, how you write and promote an article is different from how a beginner would. Unless you’ve made it big, assume readers don’t know who you are and don’t really care. They want the article they are reading right now to give them something. Even among writers who I am big fans of, if their headline doesn’t interest me then I won’t click.

 

My Background

Before starting to write

My day job is in consulting and Medium is a way to express parts of me outside my career. I have zero professional writing experience and I am not going all in as a writer any time soon.

I didn’t join Medium to write. I stumbled across a few links and found them interesting. I hit the paywall a few times before deciding I would get a membership. I only used Medium for reading for months.

I responded to stories and found myself slowly building an unintentional following. All of this reading gave my subconscious a good basis in what articles do to capture the reader. Writing responses was like dipping my toe into the water and I received strong engagement.

Eventually, I saw more and more stories about Medium and I got curious. I read a lot and like to debate ideas. I believed I had valuable knowledge to share.

My fledgling writing career

I set myself the target of writing one article by the end of 2019. I knew the first would be the hardest and I procrastinated for a long time.

Eventually, I published this article which was curated in Politics. It made a grand total of $2 before I started writing my viral piece. I only had around 200 followers at this point. You’ll probably agree this article hardly set the world on fire or would lead my followers to believe I’d get 13k claps on my next article.

The important takeaway is I was new and I really didn’t know what I was doing. Experienced writers will use their skills in the long term to do better than new writers. For any single article though, you cannot rule out that it will hit the big time, so write every article as if it could!

 

How I Crafted My Story

I approached my article with a beginner’s mind. I wasn’t burdened by knowing how Medium worked and the best way to do everything. I was open to complete failure.

Subject

I had a large list of potential subjects as part of my delaying tactic for doing the hard bit (actually writing). Most were triggered off the Medium domain either in books or in the news.

The idea for this article came from an Instagram story. A Karate instructor I followed had explained why Zanshin was important. This made me write down the other mindsets I knew already to my list of potential subjects.

I think a large part of the success of my story came because I am fascinated by the subject. I can and have talked about these concepts for hours in real life. I know the subject matter of the post in great depth.

From my own reading on the site, I know people love self-improvement on Medium and my subject matter fitted in perfectly. I combined depth of knowledge with a willing audience.

Headline

The title is “4 Japanese Concepts to Transform Your State of Mind.” Many Medium writers recommended the CoScedule Headline Analyzer to make good headlines. You put in the headline and the tool gives it a score. This headline scores a lowly 66 whereas 70 is the minimum to get a green circle!

Luckily, I was naive and didn’t know this at the time. Everybody always tells you how important the headline is. Yet very few make $1,000s every article.

There is science behind headlines but it is not as simple as getting a high score on an algorithm and seeing riches pour in.

This headline indicates a short listicle about a unique topic. The use of “transform your mind” tells the reader there will be lessons they can take away from it.

One good test is to look at the popular section of Medium. If you put these through the CoSchedule Headline Analyzer, a lot don’t score so well.

Subheading

I did not spend a lot of time on this. I thought it was clever and it correctly implies what you can learn from this article isn’t commonplace in the West.

Cover photo

You may sense a theme with procrastination and this story. I spent a long time picking a cover photo because looking at pictures is way easier than writing for me. This photo was several pages into the Unsplash search but captures exactly what I wanted.

 

Photo by Sebastian Kurpiel on Unsplash

 

The photo I chose is rare and beautiful. It plays into the sense of elegance and mystery some readers will imagine from “Japanese concepts.”

Depth

I could have written far more about each of the four items of the list. In fact, I have now that I know there is interest. The child articles are all doing well in their own right:

  • Shoshin — Beginner’s Mind
  • Zanshin — Remaining Mind
  • Mushin no Shin — Mind without Mind
  • Fudoshin — Unstoppable Mind

Structure

As Niklas Göke says, listicles are an easy starter for writers. I don’t know how to structure long-form articles as well as him and one day I hope to reach this level. I was honest with myself about my limitations and was writing to set my foundations.

If you are writing in a way outside of your comfort zone then be aware it may take a while to get it right. Different styles of structure can do well, but you have to be confident writing in a compelling way in that structure.

Writing time

This article took me a couple of weeks to write. I would do a bit then have a block. Then I’d procrastinate and read a lot instead of actually writing. I was very unfocused.

I’m not suggesting you be as inefficient as I was. Be less hard on yourself if you are though. It may turn out to be a diamond in the rough.

Length

Casey Botticello’s Blogging Guide is a must-read for all Medium writers. In one of his articles, he used to data to work out seven minutes was the perfect length for a post.

I set myself this as a target. With a listicle, I knew I had six sections and tried to split up the word count. This meant I had a few smaller tasks and made it slightly less intimidating for me.

Evergreen

People could read this article in ten years’ time and still find value in it. This is really important for longevity. If you write about a specific moment in time, it curbs the ability to go viral.

Right now there are so many articles about the coronavirus. Will people still want to read this later in the year?

Writer’s voice

I’ve been praised by friends and readers on my writer’s voice. How can you mimic me?

I have no idea! I did not take classes or study literature. I write how I speak and see if it comes naturally like a conversation.

I read my article out loud several times to check. Whenever I stumble on my words, I take it as a red flag and update the wording.

Unique

I searched Medium and found nothing like it. Even on the wider web, there isn’t an equivalent to my article.

Simple

I didn’t try to overcomplicate things. I used every day easy examples.

No external sources and it was all based on my own knowledge. I could be making it up and no one would have a clue (I'm not).

I didn’t even use a grammar checker. I got a family member to read over it.

Publications

I didn’t understand the publications properly yet. I didn’t write this piece with a publication in mind.

I self-published not because of a grand strategy, but naivety.

Tags

I didn’t really understand tags either. I got confused between curation and top writer tags. I used a mix of both and didn’t pick well.

Email list

I was a complete beginner and I ignore most publication emails I get from Medium so why would people open a list from a nobody writer like me? Later on, this may make sense but I need to build a greater reputation first.

 

Timeline

Screenshot by author
Screenshot by author
Screenshot by author

 

First week

I got curated on the day I published in Lifestyle and Mindfulness. I was over the moon. Thirty whole views in one day! You can barely even see it in the chart now.

The following day I made $4.74 which blew me away. I had heard so many writers struggling and thought I’d never earn this much until a few more articles.

Then it dipped and I thought it was done.

I was approached by Cambium through a private note. I’d never heard of them. You probably haven’t either. Myth busted about needing a big publication. They had around 40 followers when I accepted. They now have 900 and I was by far the most read story.

Week 2

External views began taking off as other people were organically sharing it on social media. I had no social media strategy of my own. I was getting almost a thousand views a day! I reached $5 in one day for the first time.

The external views petered out, but now I was strangely earning more money and my internal views were increasing. By the end of the week, I was at $12 a day!

Week 3

The internal views kept flowing in. Every day was a large percentage increase.

$24. $30. $41.

Then out of nowhere $166 in a day! I was completely baffled. Clearly I must have made people’s homepages. I was now truly going viral.

At this time I was checking my Medium statistics hourly. I couldn’t believe it.

The next day brought 50% more views but less money. Damn. I think the article was pushed wider to people not as immediately interested in the topic. I had earned more in one day then my target was for my first three months.

February 2020

After this, I was consistently pulling in between $30-$40 for a long time. I was convinced this would never end.

This gave me $1,007 for February alone.

Other than sharing occasionally on Facebook, I was not doing anything for this story but it still motored on.

I published more articles during this month but nothing came anywhere close to the same success.

March 2020

In March I decided to make the most of the success.

The publication I had used seemed to be inactive. I wasn’t getting any views from the publication so I made a potentially controversial decision. I moved the article to The Ascent. My post aligned strongly with their values and I believed I could add value to their readers.

The next thing I did was write four articles on each of the four mindsets mentioned in the main article. Two of the four were double curated. I now had a mini-ecosystem of connected posts. Many people were clearly interested in the first article so I could add value to them.

In March, the article pulled in $475. A significant drop from February but far more than I could have ever imagined.

 

Key Lessons

Luck

A writer could do everything right and never go viral. Or you could do a bunch of stuff wrong and go viral early like me.

Life isn’t fair. All we can do is try to put out valuable work to increase our chances.

There are two problems I think great writers need to avoid on Medium:

  1. Dunning-Kruger effect: This is the exaggerated belief in our own competency. Just because you have an article that goes viral, it doesn’t mean you are much better than you were in the previous 100 that didn’t. It’s easy to decide you know what made you successful in hindsight. I may never replicate the success of this story again but I will try.
  2. Inferiority complex: There are many great writers who haven’t yet broken through. In Facebook groups, they seem to question everything. Maybe your breakthrough will be in your 100th great article. Focus on being better and believing in yourself. Lady luck favors those who try.

Add value

You can see I didn’t know what I was doing when I wrote this piece. I did know what I was writing had the potential to add a lot of value to people’s lives.

If you can add value to people’s lives then the story will grow and you will benefit. I choose to be a force for positivity and it can lead me to success.

When you write with this simple goal in mind, you can’t go too far wrong. Nobody is reading to make you feel better.

Curation

Quite simply unless you have a massive following, you need curators to reach a wider paying audience. External shares are nice for validation but for income, curation is still king.

Even on the large publications, there is so much good content, it’s hard to have a long tail without curation.

This article was curated in Lifestyle and Mindfulness, two very popular topics.

Sinem Günel found a similar conclusion to me in her article where she was curated in Lifestyle. She is a great writer but only saw a massive success when curated in a popular topic with a great story.

Richie Crowley found a huge spike months after the original release. Fingers crossed in a few months’ time this $2,000 article becomes a $5,000 article spontaneously.

Publication

It is 100% possible to go viral without a major publication.

One thing I will never know though is whether the article would have earned even more if it started in a major publication. It is almost impossible to test this theory. Maybe I would be at $5,000 instead of $2,000!

Organic sharing

I didn’t have any real social media capacity to get this post going. A mark of a truly great story is when others do the work for you!

 

Screenshot by author
 

I’ve never heard of GetPocket but I have 1,600 views from there! I had a look and I don’t think I can use it as a strategy, but I’m willing to learn.

See if you can work out where the views are coming from. The people who shared may be interested in sharing your later articles too!

Write in a way that makes people want to share it with their friends and followers!

Read ratio and reading time

My read-ratio is only 23% and my reading time only one minute and 18 seconds. Don’t obsess with read-ratios. If your article is only read by people who love your work, you will have high read-ratios but not many reads.

People starting your article and not finishing it is natural. I do it all the time in my own reading. It doesn’t mean your work isn’t good and there are so many other factors at play.

Comments

In an article with nearly 80,000 views, there are only 43 comments. That is around one in 2,000.

Reply to comments if you want to — I like to. Yet don’t think it will have a sizeable impact on your number of views. The majority of readers won’t comment at all.

A minority of the comments are insulting to me in the article. I don’t take this to heart and if the same happens to you don’t let it either.

Following

I followed everyone who clapped or highlighted. They liked this work so they may like my future work. If they didn’t follow back then it’s not a big deal. Some people like to keep their following list small but I find my homepage generally shows me the writers who I engage with the most, not random articles.

Related work

This article puts me as second most read on The Ascent this year. Through mostly luck, I have an article with more views than many long time writers.

If you have success then capitalize on it. Whenever someone finds me they now have a bank of high-quality articles related to that niche.

Statistics are overrated

Read time to $ varied massively. There was a trend for a time for it to increase. This must be as people who access Medium less often are reading it. It makes sense for Medium to show these readers the uber-successful articles to engage them.

 

Created by author
 

I don’t check my individual article statistics at all anymore. A viral article will be obvious because of the notifications about claps and highlights.

The way this article grew may be totally different from the way my next viral article grows. I don’t delude myself to have worked out the system and don’t let anyone delude you either.

I know people love statistics though so here are a few charts to show the progress of the article:

 
Created by author
 

What I hope you take from these charts is the lack of any true trend. The number of views grows at different speeds throughout, and I’ve got no idea when it will suddenly surge again.

 

Wrapping Up

I hope you have enjoyed reading, and hopefully, unlearned some of the myths told about Medium.

I was transparent about my thought process by creating a $2,000 article. I didn’t know what I was doing. I simply wrote about a topic I loved and knew a lot about.

Next, I gave a blow-by-blow account of what happened after pressing publish. I hope this captures my surprise at the success and then ambition to make the most of it.

Finally, I’ve given some of the key insights I’ve learned. If you take only two things away from this article, let it be:

  1. Write something that adds value to your reader’s life.
  2. Luck is a big factor in success yet luck favors those who try.

Please throw all the questions you have at me in the comments.

Have a wonderful day!

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