Write for the ‘Readers’, not for Other ‘Writers’

Nearly two years ago, I was on Instagram, trying to build a community and client pool for my photography business. I did everything the platform gurus told me to do. Nothing worked for me (personally I think it was either bad timing or wrong personality). So I gave it up for good (I mean the platform, not my photography). But wait. That’s not the story.

One day, in December 2020, just before giving up on Instagram, I sat down, exhausted, forcing myself to face reality. This wasn’t working. I was putting so much effort everyday and there had been zero results as far as building a business was concerned. What little community engagement I had was limited to a few scattered likes and comments. Something was very wrong and I wanted to fix it. Or move on.

©boiledbeanstudio Photo by the author

So I took a deep and investigative look into everything — my community, my work, presentation, style, content, effort, results, goals and skill growth. Here’s what I found:

My audience was mainly other photographers!

I had no businesses, publications, potential clients, customers, genuine fans or serious learners willing to pay for my courses or services among my followers.

What brought my followers to my account?

Some were there for the inspiration and ideas for their photography. Some liked hanging out with other photographers and it didn’t specifically have to be me. Some had become followers out of sheer habit. A few big accounts had followed me back just to reciprocate my long term loyalty with kindness. They didn’t have the time or inclination for connection beyond that — they were already saturated. Some followers were there for the free mentoring/tutorials I offered. On the whole, none of them were buyers. None were interested in going beyond the initial curiosity either.

Everyone was there to sell.

I was in a market full of fellow creators — all of us shouting ourselves hoarse at the same time. There was a cacophony of voices- all declaring our “special” skills and services — except none of us were special. Most of us were doing and saying nearly the same thing. In the same way. Using the same formats. And no one was buying. Even the few that wanted to invest money went to big names. I wasn’t a big name. I still am not.

“Global” is a large field to play — a little too large for me.

The global talent pool was too huge and the competition too fierce and overwhelming. The distraction of shiny new people,tools and services was too much for anyone’s attention to stay in one place for two seconds. Only a genius could hold attention for longer than that. I wasn’t a genius. Just an ordinary creative always striving to do better and better and provide quality service.

Global community is no one’s community

It’s hard to make real connections when the community was too large and too distracted. That’s not how anyone connects to anyone else. Connections need small, local and real communities. With regular interaction.

Based on these insights, I made up my mind to call it quits. I realised one big truth that day.

I had allowed myself to be misled. I had allowed my content and approach to be shaped by the engagement (or non engagement) of my fellow creators. I had no idea who my real “buying customers” might be. I had no idea what they liked or where they hung out. I had not been myself at all on this platform and that had cost me time, effort, real growth and heartache.

Everything I had understood so far about the business, market demands, my own style and capacity depended on inputs from people vying for the same things as me. It was either too subjective or else tainted by kindness. It was not the best nor the most reliable way to understand or collect data about my world. I never knew if people liked something because of kindness and fellowship or whether it was really good.

I didn’t really blame anyone. I finally understood how things would be on the platform and that it was perhaps too late and pointless for a do over. I didn’t think I was well suited for the platform anyway. So I left but I decided then that if I ever used any other platform, I’d do it all differently.

A few months ago, I was ready to put myself and my work out on LinkedIn and Medium. To my surprise, I recognized so many old familiar patterns of behaviour — in the platform, content and in my fellow creators. I became immediately cautious. This time, I wanted to avoid the traps. I slowed down and became deliberate and conscious about my content creation, themes, ways of engagement and response. I started observing and noting down my findings. Soon I had many insights about how things work on these platforms as well as how I myself had changed as a content creator. I am sharing them here — just in case it’s useful to someone else here.

The most engaged users of these platforms are usually the creators/contributors themselves.

And they are all basically looking for the same things that I am. So the motivations for engagement will therefore be mainly to create and nurture their own audience. So their engagement and responses may not always be the best or the most reliable source of data to understand my own reach or possibilities, especially in the beginning.

The first few followers/audience members are likely to be fellow-writers.

Perhaps that’s how the algorithm works, I don’t know. So it is very easy to develop a sense of loyalty and trust on the early engagers. This may lead to depending on them and their work early on to understand trends, popular themes, other popular writers. In principle this is fine. But it may also lead to becoming unduly influenced by subjective experiences and opinions. And just as with anyone else outside the community, not everyone is 100% reliable or trustworthy. It’s best to take time and play around and get as much first hand experience as possible. That way, I can take useful inputs from others and yet base my own further exploration, topics and strategy on reasonably objective and also personal goals and needs.

There is just too much content specific to the platform itself.

Once a platform becomes popular and there are some people who have made a success of it, there is generally too much content on how-to “crack” the code of the platform. There is also a lot of material on how to game the system. And once again, I am drawn to these articles. While they are good in small doses to get familiar in the beginning, they have an addictive quality to them. It’s easy to fall prey to these kinds of reading.

This time around, I don’t want to limit my reading to these kinds of content. I don’t want to miss out on the initial playful stage of exploration and learning. I want to save most of my time and energy to spontaneously discover and follow the work of writers from diverse professions and areas of expertise. I want to read authors who express their work through writing and are not necessarily “writers” who depend on the platform response for their living. This kind of slightly meandering route is useful to get new ideas and triggers for my own writing. I don’t want to get too caught up by “how to make it on the platform”.

Once again, I feel the invisible (yet unmistakable) hand of the algorithm behind what I read and write.

And I don’t like that. If I want to go a different route this time, if I want to grow in a different way, I will have to let go of the algorithm. I can no longer let the algorithm be my guide or a fellow camper. I’d prefer to wander at will and bring my own intuition for snacking. I’d prefer to read, write and go where I please. It’s likely I will fall down or get lost — a lot. When that happens, I’ll just have to clear off the mud from my eyes and keep moving.

And then there’s the “Community trap”.

Having a community of mutually supportive writers (or content creators on any platform) sounds safe and helpful. In theory. But how useful it really is will depend on what this mutual support means. Is it “follow-for-follow”? “Clap-for-clap”? “Like-for-like”?

I do get the rationale behind this behavior. I really do — I’m not a complete ass. It’s a tough world for creators. And I understand the overall motivation and notions of community building. But if I am in a community where I receive initial validation in the shape of likes, shares etc., from fellow creators and writers, how will I know whether they really like my work or are being kind and supportive? Also, will I be able to keep up the expectations of having to return the goodwill and support every time? What happens then to spontaneous exploration and basic honesty?

Even though it is valuable and encouraging, there is something slightly undeserved about receiving validation from people whose main motivation is to unconditionally support a fellow writer. It’s a bit like receiving love from someone who loves everybody unconditionally. It doesn’t really say anything about “me” or my writing. So it is unwise to depend on such support data for clear insights about how well I might be doing.

It also doesn’t help me understand whether I have an audience outside of the community or whether my current skill set is sufficient to build one — even a small one. If I want to grow as a writer, this kind of clear feedback is important. While a support system and a feeling of being welcomed by the community is equally important, only clear data and self evaluation can help with a writer’s progress. Even the best of communities cannot sustain their support forever. Writers will have to prove their mettle to an external audience that doesn’t depend on the same platform for their living.

Based on these insights and on further introspection about my own changed approach to thinking, writing and life, I now write assuming that my reader is outside of the creator community. They are everywhere and could be anywhere. They may be reading fast or slow or just skimming. They may be reading on a bus, a train or in the loo. I want to write for them and cultivate them because they won’t care about me liking them back.

They’ll read my work or they will move on. They will like or share or ignore me at will. They, are what my clean data is made of. So I will pursue them. And if they don’t come, I know I have to keep writing. In a way it’s a harsh approach. It’s harder and lonelier. But in the end I think it is also less lonely. If there are readers (some of whom may even be medium or linkedIn writers) they will be there because I have maybe contributed a little bit to their day. Because I have cultivated my writing to make it useful for them in some way. Not because I have cultivated them.

That’s why I will have to steer clear of the popular agendas trends and playbooks. I will have to lie down in the dirt, with my ear to the ground and listen carefully to what my potential readers are saying or feeling.

I will have to play the long game.

Photo by author — the image shows a woman’s hands, palms cupping. There are beets in her palms. She is wearing a white knitwear and the fingers are curling around the beets. Light blue backdrop
©boiledbeanstudio Photo by the author

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Jayashree

Jayashree

Hello! I write on how to learn, grow, communicate and lead. I am no authority. I write as I learn about life. And I am always learning. I live in Berlin, DE.