Embracing Your Writer's Inner Weirdo: Cross-Platform Writing
Navigating the various mediums
I am currently trying to carve out a side-hustle as a writer.
In addition to posting on Medium, my primary other outlets are Vocal, and Elephant Journal. I also submit the occasional piece to The Mighty and Tiny Buddha; the exposure both offer is very useful, but, as but neither pays me, I'm not going to talk about them today (you’re both lovely, and it’s not personal).
In the long-term, I hope I can make something from Medium, but it's early days (I really don't think the $0.09 I've made so far warrants much of a discussion). So, Elephant Journal, and Vocal - as that's where most of my cash flows from, and this is an article about writing as a side-hustle, it's these two beasts we'll explore.
And they, like all platforms, are very different beasts. A fact that I was incredibly slow to appreciate. And one that you need to if you ever want to make any money from all the diverse platforms.
Because that central fact is key: They're all different. To maximize your success, you've not only got to exploit their respective differences, you've got to learn to happily swim in them, and gladly accept their limitations.
I didn't, and I sunk.
I first posted on Elephant Journal. For those of you who don't know the site, it's all about 'the mindful life.' Simply put, imagine Vocal but only with the Psyche, Motivation, Longevity, Swamp, and Humans sub-sections.
At the beginning of 2020, having just had a breakdown, and with a deep interest in mental health (and the way that impacts on your inter-personal relationships), I seemed a perfect fit for Elephant Journal. And I was.
From the very beginning, I did well.
Not just in terms of 'views' but also financially. Elephant Journal rewards its writers via its 'Eco-System'; the top ten most read, commented upon, and shared pieces each week are ranked, and receive prize money. The fifth piece I posted was not only promoted as an Editor's Pick, with over 7k reads, it also ranked 3rd on that week's Eco-System: I was paid $150 for the honor.
On its own, it's not a life-changing amount of money but it was the first time I'd ever been paid for my writing. Trust me; that $150 was hugely significant because, with it, I could legitimately call myself a professional writer (albeit one who only earned tiny amounts).
A few weeks later, the same thing happened again; I placed on the Eco-System once more. To date, I've now done so six times. My articles have earned me $800 in total, and have generated over 50k reads. As a side-hustle, I'm more than satisfied.
Flush with my (relative) success, I turned my attention to Vocal; if I could be successful on one platform, surely I could be so on another?
Yeah - didn't happen.
My first pieces didn't sink without a complete trace, but I wasn't making the splash I had hoped. Why? I was doing well over on Elephant; why was no one reading my damned stuff on Vocal? Why?!?
I continued to write but suffered the same infuriating lack of progress.
To be perfectly frank, I was on the verge of quitting. I didn't need Vocal. Most of all, I didn't need the hassle of wasting time writing pieces no one read. I write, primarily, for me - some pieces are genuinely cathartic, and I honestly couldn't care less if no one read those; just composing them serves a purpose for me.
However, we all want some recognition. Even a tiny bit. I was getting none.
Bored with being overly earnest, on a whim, I entered the Spooky Shorts Challenge.
The story I wrote was done so in a few hours. It was - I won't deny - a bit weird. It was deeply symbolic (the main character was basically me after I left the psychiatric ward), but, as I wrote it, the story did head off in a few directions even I wasn't anticipating. I don't consume much horror these days, but my teenage devotion of Stephen King, and James Herbert has left an indelible mark - I guess I'll always have a fondness for the macabre.
I was happy with the story. It was good. It was also nice to write a piece of fiction having focused exclusively on non-fiction. I entered it in the Challenge. It came second...
Hang on; second?
Yep; second, for which I received the very handsome sum of $500 in prize money.
So, all of my well-meaning pieces about mental health had a combined readership that could comfortably fit on my sofa, but my (ever-so) weird horror story soared? Hmm...
Embrace Your Inner Weirdo
I didn't stop writing about mental health, but I began to focus those pieces more towards Elephant Journal where they continue to do well. For Vocal, I began to focus (almost) exclusively on the Challenges alone.
Why? Initially, this was superstition; my daft, little horror story worked - perhaps lightning could strike again? It did - I later came third in another Challenge. But, although the prize money, and extra tips, are lovely, they're not the most interesting aspect of all this. What truly matters is that the Challenges force me to think outside the box.
In short, they allow me to release my inner weirdo.
Each contest required me to write a piece I would never have consciously chosen to write, just as I had with the horror story. They didn't just take me out of my comfort zone, they allowed me to go to places I didn't even know exist. Some of which are downright weird. But, as far as Challenges go, weird works.
In fact, weird works for Vocal as a whole.
One of the wonderfully paradoxical things about imagination is that it likes constraints. Limitations create a creative friction that actually allow you to be more inventive. Trying to find something original say within strictly defined parameters forces you to dig down deep (deep) down.
So, when it came to the Guilty Pleasures Challenges, instead of simply writing about what I'd been binge-watching on Netflix, I wrote about being pulled into the utter ludicrousness of Transfer Deadline Day, when soccer clubs talk a lot about signing players but where - in reality - nothing actually happens. It's both ridiculous and bizarrely engrossing television.
Trust me, there is no way I would ever had even considered writing about that before.
I didn't win the Challenge, but the $5 I got from being made a Top Story softened the blow.
Just as I kept doing what worked on Elephant Journal, I began to do the same with Vocal. I allowed myself to follow the (sometimes strange) path my imagination took when it came to the Challenges. Because that's what works on Vocal: Being Weird Old Me.
(Or, in your case, Being Weird Old You).
Whereas you can happily post yet another article on gaslighting on Elephant Journal, and still get reads, regardless of how many others have explored the very same topic that week, Vocal requires you to follow a different path, and be the one thing no one else can be: You.
You don't need to be the best writer; you just have to have something to say that only you can.
Granted, some areas do appear to work better than others. Pieces about writing, and - indeed - about writing for Vocal, do get promoted a lot. However, only the good ones do. The ones that say something different, that capture that writer's particular experience. If you want to try and be cynical, you can only write pieces about Vocal, but unless you've got something unique to say, they're going to be buried in Journal.
Like most writers, I spend an unhealthy amount of time writing about writing, instead of actually writing a novel, or stage-play, or screenplay, or poem. But I'll only submit such a piece if I think the piece says something new, something that I've deduced by myself and not just simply stolen from somewhere else.
Because those are the pieces that work. Not the ones that are a pale imitation of someone else: The stories when I'm being daft, stupid, (sometimes) indignant, weird me.
The Challenges help me. They force me to be that person. They encourage me to think of ideas I would never have normally thought of. I'm very lucky that my work has been made a Top Story a few times. But, with one exception, they've all been pieces written for Challenges, ones that 'Elephant Journal Christopher' would never have written, but ones that 'Weird Vocal Christopher' can write with abandon.
There's something in all that.
Embrace the Limitations - It's Freeing!
An added element, which took me a long time to realize, is that, given that I appear to produce my best work for the Challenges, there's going to be a wonderful lack of consistency. Some Challenges will suit me more than others, so quality is going to be variable. There's also going to a bewildering array of topics, and genres.
Am I going to be able to build up a consistent following given that I don't even know what I'm going to write until I see what the latest contest is? Probably not.
Someone might like the horror story about the man who wakes up to find a tiny ear nestled behind his main ear, but if they seek me out hoping to find more of the same, then my silly pieces about arcane Beatles' trivia, or Greta Thunberg, or growing up in the municipal armpit that is Aldershot, or getting drunk and trying to write a novel might just leave them perplexed.
The bottom line is that I'm unlikely to build a consistent following given that my work is so thematically inconsistent. I'm going to have peaks and troughs, as people dip in and out. Thus, the likelihood of making money consistently on Vocal is low.
So I stopped worrying about it.
If I did well in a Challenge, fantastic. Bonus. But accepting that the financial returns were either going to wildly vary or be non-existent, allowed me to just write.
However, by not thinking about the money, I've actually made more.
My rag-tag collection of stories and articles performed better when I wasn't trying to build a brand, and instead just focused on pouring my inner weirdo into each specific piece. On Elephant Journal, I am building a brand, each article is in some way an evolution of an earlier piece. Given my varied output on Vocal, I'm on a different journey: Each piece is a self-contained one. If it makes a splash, great. If not, there'll be another Challenge each week.
The freedom that comes from NOT trying to be consistent, from NOT trying to build a brand, has liberated me. It's actually made me a better writer AND more money.
Once again, constraints ended up being liberating. Go figure.
That scattershot approach simply wouldn't work on Elephant Journal: On Vocal, variation works, and your inner weirdo is your most powerful weapon in that battle.
I now accept that a lot of my early success on Elephant Journal was simply beginner's luck: My 'natural' writing voice, and the topics I wrote about, were an easy fit. I suited that platform automatically.
But, whereas it seems like Elephant Journal and I were made for each other, the fact is - initially - I didn't suit Vocal. And making myself do so was a tricky process.
As this article is at pains to stress, your biggest weapon is your 'Voice.' It's what makes you unique - find your voice, hone it, and never lose it. It's your greatest power. However, you've also got to tailor it. Nowadays, my 'Vocal-voice' is a bit different from my 'Elephant Journal-voice.' It's still 'me' - just a different tone, a different color.
Is there one 'Vocal-voice'? No. But there will be your 'Vocal-voice.' And finding mine took time.
Firstly, I read. A lot.
I focused on the articles that won 'Challenges' and got made 'Top Stories.' I also read every article the Vocal Curation Team posted. It's a process of immersion; if you dive deep enough into the platform, by osmosis, you'll start to absorb what works and what doesn't. It's about getting a 'feel' for the site. I may not always be able to tell you exactly why an article on Vocal works, but I can tell you whether it's a 'Vocal Piece' or not.
Secondly, I experimented with my tone. A lot.
I remain a passionate advocate for mental health. But, my articles about this issue don't fly on Vocal. That's okay - I'll still post the occasional piece, but I've got Elephant Journal for that. However, I also love music, comedy, football, and movies. And it goes without saying that the tone I use when talking about The Beatles is not the same as when I'm discussing depression.
On Elephant Journal, my tone is more grounded, more balanced: On Vocal, I'm a bit more frivolous, more relaxed, which suits the things I write about, and the tone of the majority of the Challenges. There are more jokes, more silliness, more arcane facts, and more weirdness. There's still the odd burst of seriousness, but there's also a lot more whimsy: That's my 'Vocal-voice.'
I've learned to trust it.
And I've learned to acknowledge that if a piece doesn't fly, the chances are that it's not because it's a bad piece of writing (though sometimes it is) - it's more probably true that I've posted it in the wrong place, the wrong site: Even now, I still get my Vocal-voice and my Elephant Journal-voice mixed up.
Next, I'm going to work on Medium voice. Trust me, I've got no idea how that particular Christopher is going to sound yet.
But I sincerely hope it's weird: I've learned to like that aspect a lot.
If you've liked what you've read, please check out the rest of my work on Vocal, including my Top Story:
If you've really, really liked what you've read, a small tip would be greatly appreciated.