A Photographer’s Guide To Writing On Medium
If you’re reading this, it’s probably because you like photography and writing — which makes us immediate friends. I like those things too and have been fortunate enough to end up as one of Medium’s featured writers, specifically on the subject of photography, which I care about like it’s one of my children.
My relationship with Medium goes back to the first day they launched and I recognized that they were offering something different and deeper. I liked the prospect of it a) because it seemed like a place for a person with a deep passion to express it and b) because I’m more of a longer-form guy. Composing Tweets and captions is fun, but rarely satisfying for me. And on the other side, journalism in its traditional form had become formulaic and I found myself being able to predict the entirety of an article from its headline — especially on photography. There was a hole in the market for a place to create and read about subjects I cared about in new and unique voices — and Medium filled it. I jumped in on the subject I care most about and have found it to be satisfying and rewarding.
I also like that Medium is a place where the idea of being a good writer is encouraged. This was the environment I grew up in, so it feels both challenging and familiar to me. My mother was an editor and in our house, quality writing was expected and a deeper look at things was encouraged. I prefer environments where a well-worked on piece has a chance to see the light of day based solely on the merits of the content and where a certain editorial expectation exists. The best journalism, in my opinion, has come from this kind of editorial process. Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, Harvard Review… these were the publications that rotated spots on our coffee table in my younger days and I enjoy Medium for having the insight to create a new kind of editorial voice in a world that needed a new model.
So, if you’re reading this, perhaps you’re a writer seeking a home for your own thoughts? Or are looking to see the approaches of some other writers on Medium. The following is generally my approach to writing. I’m a photographer and visual artist, by trade, but I take writing just as seriously. Also, as you’ll see, I’m a believer in at least attempting to do thoughtful work. Photography is a category that is easily done lazily. There is more than enough benign advice out there — which I’d venture to guess is also the case with your subject of choice — the hardest choice in writing is the one that takes you down the longer, rougher road of trying to say something that hasn’t already been said a million times. I hope some of this is useful. As always, spice to your own tastes.
I have many things I’d like to write about. I’d like to write about parenting, for example. And I’d really enjoy doing movie reviews, too. I think I could actually write pretty well on both fronts. The problem is that I know I couldn’t do it every day. And the reason I couldn’t do it every day is that I actually don’t know enough about either, despite having opinions.
Having opinions about the things you love is just a starting place. Being able to truly write about a subject emanates from a place of deep working knowledge. And, in my experience, audiences can tell when you’re not writing from deep working knowledge. You might get a handful of great articles out there on subjects you care about but don’t know about very well, but more than likely, your muse will leave you eventually.
If you look at the people who write op-eds in the NY Times, for example, they are always people with deep working knowledge of their subjects. When Paul Krugman isn’t penning articles about politics, I assume he’s teaching or consulting on the topic. And this isn’t just a way to write intelligently, it’s a way to stay inspired to write intelligently. When it’s your life work, it tends to be the thing that gets your brain firing the fastest. And that leads to more ideas which, in turn, leads to more articles.
I can write every day about photography, mostly because I do photography every day. And while I’m doing it, things pop in my head in direct relationship to the activities I’m engaged in. So, my daily activities, in essence, are the fuel for my articles.
You need an energy source that is powered by your own activities, the way solar panels are powered by a light that already exists. Ask yourself where that warm light of inspiration comes from in your life and put up your panels to ensure you’ll continue to get new ideas every day. In my experience, having kids is not actually the light of inspiration you think it is, but being a child psychologist might be. And likewise, loving movies doesn’t necessarily generate ongoing ideas — for me, it tends to need to be activated by the actual watching of a movie, which I just don’t get to do enough to offer anything ongoing.
There must be something else that continually forces your mind to actively think about and/or critique the subject you choose every day. Adjust your panels to your own sun.
Find Your Editor.
I despise email. Hate it. I worry at the end of my life, my tombstone is going to read: Read His Email. Missed His Life. I mostly left my career in advertising to pursue photography so I could avoid answering a bunch of backed up emails I hadn’t gotten to. But despite this distaste for emails and the incessant Pavlovian ding of stress, I read every email that comes from Medium. Because within those emails is the editor’s voice. And the clues to where to take the writing.
The editors at Medium are basically telling you what works for them and the topics they want to see covered, either directly or inferred in their choices that make it into their emails. In a recent Medium Partner Program email the Writer Spotlight on Robert Roy Britt also linked to his roundup of writing tips and the last paragraph of the email featured an article on How to Be a Better Writer, by Gareth Branwyn and those two articles got my mind moving on what I might have to say about that subject and that lead to this piece. Maybe Medium enjoys writings about writing? It would make sense, it’s a community of writers, after all. I hadn’t thought of myself as a person with advice beyond photography, but here we are. I’m divining ideas from the voice of our editors.
In this way, Medium has offered up the opportunity to be part of a community and they seem to actually want us writers to be successful by providing ideas and inspiration for what they like and what works. If you haven’t already found it, more information on joining the Partner Program is here. Your Daily Digest will fill in with topics you’re interested in and selections curated by the Medium staff. I suggest following the subject you write in specifically so you can see what your own audience sees when they get their Daily Digest.
But most importantly, understand where your subject is going within the context of who you’re writing it for and who is publishing it. This is not just about your expertise, it’s about being part of the voice of Medium — most readers come to Medium.com, not your profile page — just as people who read the NY Times, don’t go just to read Paul Klugman. If you have a sense of who is looking at your articles when you publish them and how they fit within the larger category you write in, then you are probably doing well. But I also recommend seeking out editorial suggestions. In fact, Medium editors are way more hands off than other editors, so it’s actually on us writers to divine their hopes and desires for good writing. And, in fact, Medium writers are happy to give you their thoughts, if you ask. Perhaps I’m lucky to have my mother’s voice constantly in my head, demanding a re-write — but there’s an editor in all of us that is pushing us to be better, if you look for it. It might be in your inbox.
Be Part of the Highest Common Denominator.
My favorite articles to read on Medium are ones where I first, foremost and, if possible, exclusively feel the writer’s passion for what she/he is writing about. If I at all sense that an article was written with an agenda for popularity or earning potential, I won’t click — or if I do, I won’t finish or clap for the article. And while this is personal preference, it is also my hope that, overall, the Medium ship stays on a course toward quality and deep thinking — so my advice here is not about trying to create a singularly successful article, but about holding yourself to an ongoing standard — which I think will create long-term success for you and for Medium.
I believe in the idea of a highest common denominator. Which is the same as a lowest common denominator in that it seeks commonality among us, even populism, but it differs in that it approaches it from an expectation that we can also relate on more considered discussions, too. And it is from this approach toward life that I write my headlines and articles. Click-baiting is a lowest common denominator approach to headline writing — who doesn’t want five weird tricks that will help us live longer? But we can also attract people to read our articles by finding a provocative idea. Click baiting is easier, but finding the thought-provoking concept makes you a better writer. And that emanates out of your expertise. One of my top articles is one called There Is No Value In Beauty. Yes, it’s provocative — everyone assumes a value in beautiful things and the headline is challenging to a sacred cow. But the article is really a commentary on Instagram and the value we assign to pictures of beautiful places we go to and post about in social media. It asks questions about the profession of photography in a world of traveling influencers which, if you really are into photography, is a subject you’re probably aware of and interested in, as I am. I thought deeply about that headline and about the subject and where I stand on it, assuming those who came in would be as thrilled by a deep discussion as they would be by a simple observation.
I could have easily just titled it, Instagram Is A Sea Of Sameness and gotten the article done in half the time and, likely, gotten a fair amount of claps. Aiming for the same result in terms of success but through a more thoughtful approach elevates you, Medium and, who knows, maybe society.
It’s Just Like Starting Over.
Let’s be honest, none of us write outlines before we start writing articles — that’s part of the enjoyable freedom of writing what we’re passionate about. But proper structure to an article goes beyond your section headers and is really more about how you lead a reader from one thought to the next, hopefully adding up to something larger than the sum of its parts. And rarely does an article just pour out of us in that way. So, what we have to do is add in some sensical structuring to our ideas at the back end. And that’s best accomplished with a bit of emotional removal. Which is why we edit.
By the time I’m done writing any article, I’ve probably read it upwards of 30 to 40 times, each time changing up sections and clarifying thoughts. I’ll eliminate paragraphs that feel too self-aware or emotional in an attempt to stay on point and have better flow. Each pass offers a finer point and usually a painful deletion.
Also, if I’m in the middle of a paragraph and go get some trail mix and then come back to my computer, I start all over again from the start. I find it helpful to be in the flow of the article, from the POV of a reader, as I make my edits.
I’m quite certain you have some version of this, too. I think most writers do some kind of ongoing self-editing as they write. I only mention it again here to reinforce that part of you that obsessively goes over and over your own work. Don’t let that part go.
Imagine A Very Interested and Educated Reader.
Too many articles, in my opinion, are a single thought. You know them because they are generally described, or alluded to, in the headline. And when you read the article, the entirety of it either satisfies or backs up that singular thought. As a reader, this become a “no duh” and, essentially, is not much more than an expanded-upon Tweet. This, to me, is part of the problem with the Internet and the 8 million constantly streaming little pollen wells we fly around to endlessly. My hope for Medium remains as it always has, that we are creating a place for people to do deep dives on subjects they care about. If we agree and believe in that, then it’s on us as writers to work beyond our first thought and foray deeper into the mines of our knowledge, offering four, five or six more within the same article.
Personally, I believe as writers we should write to the exact consistency with which our ability to write really well on subjects leads us. We could all write more often with less good content. In photography, maybe some daily affirmations or a How I Got The Shot every day with some camera settings listed and a quick story about the day. But for me, I keep in my sites a very interested and educated reader with deep desires and hopes for their photography and I imagine disappointing them with a half-assed article, simply to get some kind of daily quota in. And that keeps me on a more focused writing path.
Imagining a deeply-interested reader focuses us as writers to provide real value in our writing — and to not waste their time. To pack enough stuff into each article that it might warrant returning. We didn’t throw out our New Yorkers growing up — they went on the shelf, to be referred back to, used as inspiration or re-quoted in a conversation or paper later on. Wouldn’t Medium be a great place if all our work withstood that test of time? To get the best from your writing, write for better readers.
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