Lessons from the Competition Winner that All Writers Should Pay Attention to
Or otherwise — how to win the online writing game by lack of mental constraints
So, the first of its kind writing competition on my favorite blogging platform — Medium came to a close recently.
And the results surprised a lot of people. What surprised me the most was the patterns of winning, not the outcome itself.
When reviewing the winners and the feedback for them from the community and the panel — a few important lessons came up. Age-old lessons, might I add but lessons that can be easily forgotten when you are playing the hamster wheel game of making content for an algorithm.
So, I just wanted to enable anyone reading this to take a step back and see the bigger picture. Hopefully, get inspired to make a change in their approach to online writing, too.
What can we really learn from this competition?
Don’t be afraid to break the rules
I started writing on Medium about 14 months ago.
Even before publishing my first article I already knew the rules of the game — what it takes to make it on Medium; how to go viral; how to format and how to structure your article for curation (back when that was a thing).
I drew my inspiration to join the platform from the likes of Tim Denning, Zulie Rane, and Shelby Church, who were either superstars, on the way to become one, or one-hit wonders with massive audiences.
All I knew is I didn’t know how to get there but was going to test out a bunch of different things, play by the rules, and see what format, style, and topics stick.
Randy did something different — she threw the rules out the window.
No appropriate formatting, no credit for images, no standardized approach to structure for ‘curation’. Randy didn’t enter this competition so she can make money out of the algorithm. She did not expect her article to go viral, she didn’t care for the rules of Medium, curation, or anything else.
She didn’t care for the platform and its inherent structure, algorithm, rules, opportunities, limitations, or history.
She entered this world for the competition and the competition alone. She entered for the win.
I’m sure the judges — some of which also being new to the world of Medium, received a bunch of very formulated submissions. I can imagine Randy’s piece was like a breath of fresh air.
An emotional, shaking, heartfelt telling of events.
Not a formulaic, highly polished story that adheres to all the platform-related, arbitrary rules we are conditioning ourselves to every day when writing here.
And here is why this is important for anyone, who will continue to write on Medium — we need to understand that the rules we hold ourselves subjected to are total bullshit.
Countless times, bloggers on this platform have broken the rules and have received great success — whether it is through creating their own publications, publishing daily short-form stories, internally linking articles, or just writing stories with zero formatting, structure, or adherence to online best practices.
Some have achieved success through even more insidious and unethical means, but I’m not going to dig deeper — if you’ve been on the platform for more than a hot second you know the people (or *cough* publications) I’m referring to. But let’s not go there.
The important thing to remember as a writer online is that you shouldn’t write for an algorithm you do not understand the structure of.
You should not become a slave to some arbitrary rules system that only exists in hear-tell communities.
It’s like playing a game that you don’t know the rules of. It feels like the rules are changing all the time, and it feels like you are losing. Anytime you feel like you get confident in knowing how to play this game — it flips on you. But the problem is not in taking part — the problem is with tieing your self-worth as an online writer, or even your livelihood and becoming financially dependent on playing this game of beating an algorithm.
You might rig it. You might achieve some success through good-hearted, honest hustle. But you might also waste your time, being the hamster on the wheel, pumping out content that follows these arbitrary rules, hoping you get your three seconds of fame at some point.
To me, when I think about the most successful writers on this platform, they are all good storytellers, they are passionate, and they don’t play by the rules.
Create a masterpiece once and benefit from it forever
Being a content creator is not easy. Being any form of creator is not easy. The hardest part is the shift you do from consuming to creating, and the longer it takes in one’s life to make this shift, the harder it is to sustain.
But where I feel most people’s efforts plunge is that they create something — share it with the world, and never revisit it.
Well, Randy took a different approach — and this is part of the reason why she won.
She had a winning mindset with regard to her own work. She wanted the story to be seen and heard, regardless of the original format, it was intended to be in.
Rework, reuse, recycle.
What many would consider an unfair and unethical entry into the competition, makes perfect sense from a business standpoint.
Hear me out.
Any successful content creator rants about repurposing content for different platforms as a way to reach the highest potential audience for your brand.
Any successful content creator will also tell you that via repurposing you are allowing yourself to give your content a new life by reformatting it to the new audience or platform you are introducing it to.
It's much easier to do this than to come up with original ideas on a daily basis, and much quicker if you are trying to make a living off your content creation. Not to mention that it is immensely more scalable to pursue this approach, regardless of being seen as unethical from an onlooker’s standpoint.
There is also a few data-driven case studies of this working, across the board with different social media. In a blog post, I read that Benjamin Hardy was able to get 20K Medium followers subscribers in 6 months by copy-pasting all of his blog posts on the blogging platform.
Recently, the same phenomenon was repeated with Medium writers flocking to News Break to make a quick buck.
Create once and help it live forever — in new communities, through new platforms, and fresh outtakes.
Choose your battles wisely
If, you are aiming for big cash and believe you are a serious storyteller — why not seek writing competitions across the internet, throughout the world even?
If you are a blogger, seeking to make Medium, Vocal, NewsBreak, Quora, or whatever other platform you side hustle, then really — why do you think you can compare your storytelling abilities with people that do only that?
Can Randy write successfully and consistently on Medium? I doubt it. That is not why she entered the competition. She might capitalize in some way or another from her newly found audience here but she might just ghost everyone and never be heard from again.
And that, my friends, does not invalidate her success.
So, the lesson here is — choose your battle and know your strengths.
Tim, Zulie, and Sinem are not winning writing competitions, yet they are banking on Medium big, on a monthly basis. Randy is not doing that, but she is telling moving stories, with which she can enter into writing competitions.
Don’t try to be the jack of all trades — be a master of one instead. Focus and don’t let yourself become distracted with the opportunities, because frankly — they are endless. And that is just the world we live in.
If you do want to pursue writing competitions, journalism, writing for big (non-Medium) publications, blogging, content for affiliate marketing, and freelance content marketing for organizations — that’s ambitious and great but you will likely not be successful or even good at all of these things, even though there are opportunities for success in each of these writing niches.
Chose smart, focused goals and map out the specific skills needed to achieve them. Aim to win one thing, not all at once. Rinse and repeat this process. That is the way you can grow organically and measurably, instead of relying on overnight success.
I’m sure many of you have some thoughts about this situation and some might even have some pretty strong opinions about it.
As the person, who will read all (if any) comments on this article, I respectfully ask you to refrain from discussing Randi Ragan in a derogatory manner and be kind and respectful instead.
Please show the respect and kindness that you’d hope for if you were in her shoes.
~p.s. In the process of editing this ramble, I came across these commentarries by Jay Sizemore, Alvin Ang, and Elizabeth Dawber and just wanted to share them with my humble audience. Different, yet honest and worthy takes on the situation, containing some aspects of a nuanced discussion, with which I agree.
The Winning Essay of the Medium Writer’s Challenge Should Have Been Disqualified
It did not meet Distribution Standards
The Medium Writer’s Challenge is a Massive Let-Down
Piss-poor communication and suspicious winning entries put a damper on what could’ve been a great event.