Discover more from Maarten’s Newsletter
How I reached 32K followers with a niche audience
Seven lessons from writing over 140 articles
This isn’t an overnight success story where I reveal a magical path to spectacular results.
No — this is the story of me sucking, persisting, still sucking, and continuing to persist until I leveled up as a writer. I still don’t consider myself a great writer, but I have absolutely gotten better.
Let’s start with the sucking, shall we?
After months of polishing and ruminating on my first article, I finally published it on February 21st in 2016. I was proud and believed the article was fantastic.
After publishing, I anxiously refreshed the statistics view on Medium multiple times per day. I was hoping to witness a massive surge in views and reads, given the amount of effort I had put in.
🥁*Drum roll*🥁 these were the views I received in the first month:
83 views. In a MONTH. Ouch!
Not what I was expecting after polishing my precious article to perfection. And back then, Medium wasn’t paywalled, so it was even easier to rack up an insane view count.
Reality hit me: nobody cared about my first article. Giving up would have been easy. But luckily, I didn’t. Even though all my initial articles produced the same pattern.
Five years later, I have 32K followers and have been in the top 1000 of writers on Medium for four months in a row. I have more followers than any other Agile and Scrum writer on Medium.
In this article, I want to paint a realistic picture of what it takes to build a large following on Medium. I want to share the most important lessons I’ve learned over the past 5 years through writing and struggling to build a following.
My goal is to help others achieve more success as a writer. Here are the 7 most important lessons I’ve learned on my journey to grow as a writer.
And of course, I hope you’ll end up publishing with Serious Scrum, where I’ll review your article to (hopefully!) make it even stronger.
1. Give yourself permission to suck
After I published that first article and it bombed, I gave myself permission to suck by reminding myself how much I liked writing that article. Others enjoying what I wrote would just be the cherry on top.
I was awesome at enjoying the activity of writing poorly.
The pleasure of writing kept me going. I would keep writing without having any readers because the act of writing brings me joy. And by writing frequently, I started sucking a bit less over time until others began to enjoy my writing too.
Permission to suck is important because perfection prevents you from shipping, and shipping is essential to leveling up as a writer. If you don’t write regularly and receive feedback from readers, you can’t unsuck yourself as a writer.
2. Don’t worry about being original
I am pretty confident that for every article I’ve written you can find someone else who wrote something similar and probably did it even better. I still often worry whether anything I’ve written is truly that original. But in the end, originality is all a matter of perspective.
Consider the challenge of classical pianists. Pianists perform a piece of music based on the same sheet music. Yet when you listen to two classical pianists playing the same piece, it can evoke totally different emotions.
Compare Glenn Gould playing the 3rd movement of the Moonlight Sonata with Wilhelm Kempff playing the same piece.
Listening to both, they couldn’t sound more different. One is robotic and technically perfect, the other is slow and full of mistakes (relatively speaking!). They are both playing exactly the same piece but giving it their own twist.
I know which one I prefer, and I bet you do too. Both are considered great performances by exceptional artists. At the end of the day, it is all a matter of taste.
Don’t worry about being unique, focus on being distinctive in your perspective. Try to tell the same thing others have written about in your own words. By injecting your personality and personal experiences into your writing, it cannot be anything but original and interesting.
3. Publish frequently (and keep on publishing!)
“First we make our habits, then our habits make us.” — John Dryden
My Covid-driven sedentary lifestyle of writing frequently didn’t do wonders for my belly, but it was awesome for my craft. Writing draft after draft isn’t good enough. You need feedback to get better.
By publishing, you can determine whether it resonates by reflecting on how readers engage with what you’ve written (views, reads, claps, shares, responses). When people give up on reading, you did not reach them, and you can learn from this.
Even publishing frequently isn’t good enough, you must publish often and reflect on what you’ve published. It’s like going to the gym regularly. Most people don’t stick with the routine, but to improve, you have to keep going.
Persistence over time will make you a better writer. The hard part is sticking to writing regularly. Most people quit. And like a working out, the longer you stick with your writing habit, the better your gains will be.
4. Test the waters through commenting on LinkedIn
Commenting on LinkedIn is a great way to see which thoughts resonate (and which don’t) without writing an entire piece.
Here’s an example of a comment I posted in response to an article discussing the value and merits of different Scrum scaling frameworks:
Scaling frameworks are a hot topic. Comments (or popular posts of others) are a good way of finding out what topics resonate with readers. Use it to your advantage.
Here’s a LinkedIn post I wrote after posting this comment. I could have also fleshed it out as a Medium post:
Test the waters. Write something small to see if it is a spark that resonates. Then, fan the flames from that spark into a big fire 🔥.
5. Make your life easier by using tools
Tools help because they can illuminate what you can improve in your writing. Things like writing in an active voice, keeping sentences simple, writing without grammatical mistakes, and other technical aspects are where tools shine.
At first, I used Hemingway, which highlights sentences that are difficult to read and calls you out when you don’t write in active voice. When those rules became second nature, I didn’t need Hemingway anymore.
Now, I use Grammarly to check my writing and get rid of spelling and grammar mistakes.
I also use free images to make my articles visually more appealing. I use the following libraries:
Tools help but will only provide polish for what you are able to provide to them. It’s more a hygiene factor than that they will suddenly turn you into a great writer.
6. Be prepared to deal with critics
Here’s an example of a comment I recently received on one of my articles:
Ouch! That stings.
This comment was written with the intention to hurt, not to provide any constructive feedback. The whole point is to get to you. Don’t give them the satisfaction. Often, the best response is no response. I’m still working on letting it all go and sometimes do respond.
When I write, I take a stance to make people think and reflect on their current situation. It is inevitable my writing will result in friction and frustration with others. I’m bound to rub people in the wrong way and I’m cool with that.
You can’t please everyone, and that’s a good thing. If I don’t get strong reactions I’m doing something wrong, and sometimes those reactions are nasty.
7. Write with your heart and mind
At university, I learned to make my writing concise, logical and factually correct. The goal was to exercise the mind and be as objective as possible.
My goal now is to make you feel and think. I try to tell a story, evoke emotions, and share recognizable experiences. Concise, logical and correct are still important, but you need heart as well as mind.
How you tell a story matters as much as what you have to say. My writing process is as follows:
I come up with a title that feels inspiring and interesting.
I think about the hook. How do I write an opening statement that grabs the attention of the reader.
With these two things, everything else becomes much easier. When my own writing inspires me, I know I have a solid foundation to build upon.
My Medium draft section has a list of over 100 titles. I pick up what inspires me at that point in time. I don’t force myself to work on a specific article. I let my passion guide me.
By letting your passion be your guide, it becomes easier to inject your heart into your writing. When you feel something, it becomes easier to make others feel it too. I try to tap into that when I’m writing.
Here are some titles I came up with that I believe fit the bill of using heart and mind:
SAFe: when you don’t have the guts to do Scrum
11 laws of software estimation for complex work
A pretty burndown usually means ugly Scrum
How to deal with an absolute unit of a Product Backlog
Why most Scrum Masters are destined to fail
The only thing that matters when planning a Sprint
You might be thinking some of these titles are kind of negative, and that’s not how you roll. The point isn’t to be negative, a strong title sets up a tension you will explore. It contains a promise you will explore and learn something new. Surprise, delight, even visceral disagreement drive people to read. A good title promises all that.
Of course, you need to deliver something interesting, written with your perspective, otherwise it’s just a clickbait article.
One more thing — intro hooks are nearly as important as titles:
Why are we still releasing new features so slowly?” I was thinking about this a year after joining a fast-paced start-up. Every new feature was taking painstakingly long.
This was not what I expected. Start-ups should move fast. Especially if you are before product/market fit and still bootstrapping.
When I joined we had 3 development teams. One year and a multi-million seed funding round later, we had 9 development teams at our disposal. We tripled our development capacity, but new features were being released at the same pace. What was going on?
If you remember only one thing about this article…
Persist. Write on a regular basis. Make the time, especially in the beginning, and know that as you get more proficient, you will need less time. I can write a 5-page article(including reviewing and editing) in around 4 hours. My first articles took more like 4 days!
And this: all the tips and tricks in the world won’t matter if you give up on writing. It takes time to build an audience and become better at writing. Put in the work, and watch your skill and your audience grow.
They are two prolific writers who have published frequently over a long period of time. Compare their earlier work with their later work, and you will see a world of difference.
Nobody can promise you’ll be a big success, but I can guarantee you’ll become a better writer.
I had a teacher once tell me that I would never be a successful writer. I’m not sure what her definition of success is, but I enjoy what I do, I reach a lot of people, and I keep getting better. That’s the difference hard work and deliberate practice made for me.
Not convinced? Here are the writer stats in the Scrum section- on Medium:
The average Scrum writer on Medium only writes 2.15 articles. Take away the whales who write prolifically, and that number drops below two. So- write two articles, and you will exceed the average. Is that something you can do?
Start writing now, and don’t worry about anything else than persevering and shipping regularly. John Dryden has phrased it much better:
“We first make our habits, then our habits make us.”
― John Dryden
Stick to writing regularly. Everything else can and will flow from holding on to that habit over a long period of time.
Once that flimsy initial writing spark starts a fire 🔥, it becomes much easier to keep going.