How I Grew My Audience From 0 to Tens of Thousands of Views Quickly
Fourteen tips on political writing.
I only committed myself to consistent writing a few months ago. Without an audience, I was able to grow my viewership from virtually nothing to tens of thousands of views in a short period of time.
I spent the last day thinking about what I’ve learned. Retrospection, if you will. How am I different know than when I started? What are some tips or tricks I would give myself a few months ago?
Here it is.
1. Know the soupe du jour.
The soup of the day is vital. What do people want to read about? Early in the coronavirus pandemic, I noticed any article I wrote that incorporated the virus saw huge viewership numbers. Know what is in vogue, understand the zeitgeist.
Even if you don’t write specifically about a trending topic, like the coronavirus earlier this year, try to write about secondary or even tertiary aspects of it. Maybe not a health or science article about “everything we know about the coronavirus” but “the political implications of the coronavirus relief bill.”
In the lead up to the most recent election, any polling analysis or state-of-the-horse-race update saw big numbers. Know what is on your reader’s minds.
While you should be aware of what people want to read, don’t sell out either. A deep dive on an esoteric side issue can still generate interest if properly researched and written. Instead, try a hybrid approach, like taking a current issue or topic and viewing it through the lens of your specialty.
2. Avoid arriving at the same conclusion with different articles.
Each article should have a separate thesis. “Republicans did this during the Obama years, but now they’re doing this during the Trump era! What hypocrites!” That was my mistake early on in my writing foray.
If you follow politics closely enough, you tend to become partisan. Avoid ending each article with Republicans=good or Republicans=bad or vice versa with Democrats. Instead, try to offer unique insight as to things larger than one side seeking power or being hypocritical.
(Confession time: I do keep an eye on a few big names on this platform, and they have mastered this technique. Each article is one of about seven ideas, like “Trump=corrupt” or “Trump=racist.” The only thing that changes is whatever happened in the last news cycle gets implanted in the introductory paragraph. It’s recycled laziness. But hey, attract a large enough following and feed them the same story daily, disguised as insight. Works for the big shots.)
3. My golden rule.
Remember — reading your work is voluntary. No one is forcing someone to read your thoughts. Therefore, be interesting or people will stop reading!
Medium has a nice feature in the “stats” section where it gives you both the number of people who clicked on your story and the number of people who actually read it to the end. The “read ratio” is a useful tool when examining previous works to see how you can improve. Longer articles will always have lower completion rates, but occasionally I’ll post an article with a particularly low read rate — like 20%. I go back and read these articles of mine and sure enough my words became boring.
Even I couldn’t finish some of them, and I wrote the damn things!
There’s a good rule of thumb to follow here. If you’re voluntarily writing something interesting, and at some point the project morphs into more of a homework assignment type of feel, then something went wrong. Adjust the story, and don’t be afraid to scrap it altogether if it isn’t salvageable.
If it’s boring to write, it’s surely boring to read.
4. Avoid rabbit holes.
My favorite anecdote in history is the story of Diogenes of Sinope meeting a young Alexander the Great. It’s fascinating, insightful, and explores two of history’s most colorful characters, who through sheer serendipity, managed to cross paths at the same time and location.
(I won’t spoil the story, but if you are interested, I wrote about it here.)
While I was thinking about this encounter, I wondered if there were other famous encounters in history. What other historical figures crossed paths at the same time that we don’t think about?
Then I started reading about how this particular meeting between Diogenes and Alexander was famous in the Renaissance! Scholars debated, painters painted, and historians questioned. Then, at some point in the 19th century, the famed encounter stopped being taught. As a result, very few people know about the meeting today.
Now I’m thinking about why some ideas or teachings lose favor over time. Conversely, why do some things gain significant historical attention centuries later?
Days passed. I wanted to write about a simple meeting between two people. Now I have 18 tabs opened to famous historical encounters, medieval interpretations of the two meeting, and why some ideas lose favor over time.
The problem was rabbit holes. I lost sight of the core mission. Too easily distracted, I allowed my mind to meander aimlessly.
Curiosity, in the right dosage, is required. But too much curiosity can derail productivity. Remember what you’re writing about, and if a separate idea pops up along the way, make a note of it and move on.
5. Consistency is everything.
Write. Write. Write.
There is no more valuable asset in political writing than putting out material consistency. You will not grow your audience if you do not write. “Publish or perish,” as the saying goes.
Not every article will be a home run. Not every word will slice with equal precision. But keeping momentum and churning out pieces is the only way to expand your following.
There will be down periods, naturally. Work, family, friends, and life in general tend to disrupt writers. It’s the bane of our existence. But it’s important that a few days off doesn’t transform into a few weeks off. And then a few months off. Next thing you know it’s been a year since your last article.
6. Find a distinctive voice.
Your readers will grow to anticipate a certain type of writing after awhile. Are you funny? Serious? Interesting? There is something of a tone in your work that is separate from your underlying views of liberal, conservative, Marxist, socialist, nationalist, etc.
I tend to be more serious in my writings here, offering a center-left perspective on the day’s news. But as my friends know, I do enjoy using my humor and sarcasm when discussing politics. For that type of commentary, I have a podcast called “Politics Mostly.”
My audience here expects one thing, my audience for the pod expects something slightly different, and as a multifaceted individual I can satisfy both parts of my personality with different mediums.
7. Get on publications.
Each blog on Medium has different rules on how to become a featured writer. (Most don’t want passionate emails to the editors, though, so be careful.)
Publishing through blogs within Medium isn’t great just because you get more eyeballs, but also because you get different ones too. Some of my most devout readers came to me from my publishings on smaller, lesser-known publications on Medium.
There’s also some good news here. Publications are almost always looking for fresh talent, so oftentimes editors will find you, you don’t have to find them.
When you do become a writer for a few publications, don’t send them everything. Be careful to only send the editors stories or perspective that fit their unique niche. No one wants to be that annoying writer who always gets shot down. Not great for the ego, either.
8. (Mostly) ignore the comments.
Don’t get caught up in the comments. Focus more on the quality of the work you’re producing and the viewership numbers.
Broadly speaking, comments fall into one of three camps: adoration, respectful disagreement/constructive criticism, and trolling.
Definitely ignore the trolling. For some, easier said than done. Personally, I choose to ignore all the comments, even the positive ones or the good faith ones. But that decision is yours to make, as I know some writers who enjoy a more intimate relationship with their readers.
9. A lesson from my first job as a writer.
I was still in college when I began writing for an online news publication. It was a great experience. My very first posting, which I was proud of, was eviscerated by a group of editors in an online collaboration. I remember how weird it felt to have others tell me something wasn’t good, but you get used to it quickly. Thick skin suits a writer well.
But my main editor was an affable German fellow. He told me something I never forgot, “Be first or be different.” That is the key to political writing.
If you’re blogging on a site like Medium, odds are you don’t have carefully placed sources in the power halls of Washington, D.C. While you can’t be first, you can be different, though. Offer a new perspective on something that was reported earlier in the day by one of the big guys. Or take reporting and make it opinion analysis.
What you want to avoid is just regurgitating straight line news a day later, without any additional information. What’s the point?
10. The George Will list.
George Will is a famous columnist for the Washington Post. He’s quite talented, despite being right of center. One of his quirks involves carrying around an index card at all times to jot down ideas for articles as he comes up with them.
This is genius. So genius in fact, that I myself have been doing it before I even knew he did it! (I do mine with a 21st century twist, though, and have a folder of bullet points in my phone.)
This is crucial for two reasons. First, as a writer, your mind often wanders. When it does, inspiration can come to you when you least expect it. Especially when performing a mundane task like driving, article ideas come to me. We often tell ourselves that we can make a mental note of an idea and come back to explore it later that day, but a majority of the time we forget hours later. Better to make a quick note of it.
Second, there are days where nothing jumps out to you as a political writer when you scroll social media or read newspapers. On days like this, I go back to the folder on my phone and examine the article ideas I’ve written down days, weeks, months, or even years ago. Then, it’s writing time.
11. Assume readership is competent.
I’m only including this because seasoned writers will often tell you the opposite. “Assume readers know nothing” or “Guide your readers slowly,” these writers say. Rubbish.
If someone is paying to read political articles on this site, assume that they are both smart and curious. Don’t be afraid to discuss theories or include hard data. If a topic is particularly niche, a quick primer is all a writer needs to inform the audience.
12. Adjust adjust adjust.
In the lead up to the recent election, I transitioned from generalized opinion pieces to election coverage. My ratings spiked. The election saw record turnout, and citizens wanted to read about the state of the race in the weeks and months leading up the vote.
This adjustment was good.
After the election, I kept talking about the election. About what we just witnessed. But something was off, as readers were ready to move on. Nobody cared anymore. The election and the emotional toll it took on pretty much everyone zapped energy and interest. My viewership flatlined, an experience I wrote about.
This (lack of) adjustment was not good.
We often think that Charles Darwin said, “Only the strong survive.” But he actually said something a little different.
“It is not the strongest…that survives…it is the one most adaptable to change.”
As a writer, especially in the dynamic field of politics, adaptation isn’t encouraged — it’s required.
13. Political writing is still writing.
Don’t avoid advice from fiction writers. While op-ed writing is distinct from plot construction, it’s still writing. Just a different flavor.
I’ve searched for tips and tricks on how to improve my efficiency as a writer, even though most insight comes from book authors.
The two best pieces of advice I can offer you, that are backed by actual science, are as followed: avoid distractions like your life depends on it and write during the same time every day.
Distraction is the death of creativity and the enemy of productivity. Shut off your phone when you write. I know a few writers who even print out material they need and then write on a laptop without internet to avoid surfing the internet.
Writing during the same time everyday helps keep you on schedule. It can even be for twenty minutes, depending on how busy you are. But just make sure you do it everyday. And make sure you write something, don’t stare at a computer screen.
14. Do you have what it takes?
Know yourself. If you’re the type of person who stares blankly at a computer screen when trying to write a civics essay, maybe this isn’t for you. If you are able to voice opinions on a wide array of issues, if you consume political news frequently, or if you have an itch that cannot be scratched otherwise, maybe this is for you. The only way to know for sure is to try.
My epiphany came a few years ago. I studied political science in college, and I was heavily involved in my department’s research efforts. Naturally, I began reading op-eds in the newspaper. One by one, day by day, my beleaguered eyes would gaze over the opinion section.
That’s when I noticed it.
I could have written that. This became a mantra for me. Fewer than 10% of all articles I’ve read left me thinking about a situation in a different way. Or challenged my preconceived notions.
These writers, although talented, didn’t posses divine gifts that were unattainable. Their writing was better than mine in terms of sentence structure, vocabulary, etc., — sure. And the sheer volume of their work output was impressive. I also concede this.
But when you strip away the fancy words, the obscure literary allusions, and the unmistakably bourgeoisie point of view, what are you left with? A core idea, dressed up and presented as novel.
But I know those ideas.
And you do too.