A couple of weeks ago, I was talking with a superintendent of a local school out in the Southwest. As she told me her story, she was practically in tears. She felt helpless in the face of a crisis that was looming in her future. I asked her and others who were deeply involved in this issue if they had talked to someone from a national press about this issue. They said no.
So, I have been hammering away at this topic for weeks now. As a freelance writer, I can make a decent living, if I go from pitch to submited article in two weeks. There’s a formula to these pieces. Start with a compelling story. Explain how it involves X number of people or involves X number of dollars. Interview an academic expert, a think tank type person, refer to some studies, and then return back to the compelling story. 1,200 words and you’re good to go.
But I didn’t do that. I kept talking to people. And writing up their comments until I reached 2,500 words. Any self-respecting editor will cut that in half and slap it up on a website. This will certainly happen. But I kept going, because I think I have more than one article here. I think I have a book topic.
But before I get that far, I need to see if that one article will take off. I need to see if there are enough people interested in the topic, which will justify another few weeks of uncompensated time pulling together a book proposal. I’ve done them before and gotten nowhere, so I want to test the waters before I keep digging and writing.
Getting an article to go viral, meaning lots of regular people read the article and link to it on their Facebook page, is a very complicated matter.
Of course, a lot has to do with matters that are beyond the scope of a writer. An editor has to love the topic, write an excellent headline that either makes people curious or confirms a pre-existing belief or bias. An editor can effectively kill your article by publishing it on a Friday, rather than a Monday, or by not publicizing enough on the website’s social media.
I can’t emphasize how important those gatekeepers are to exposure to ideas. If they don’t like the topic (or the person) at the heart of a story, you can’t get past square one.
Another factor that determines popularity is the audience. If the audience is well organized, woke, and is organized by outside groups, then your article will do well.
For example, I write a lot about special education and autism issues. It’s always better to write my articles with the word autism in the title, rather than special education. Parents of autistic children are super well organized on their own with tons of groups on Facebook. A link by Autism Speaks on Facebook is automatic gold, since they have over a million followers. Special ed is too broad of a term and doesn’t have an organized constituency.
Popularity requires both grassroots and elite interest. An article that is retweeted dozens of times by education geeks on Twitter may not necessarily capture the interest of ordinary parents on Facebook. And links from Facebook brings in more readers than RTs on Twitter. But you also want the endorsement of your peers on Twitter, because that’s another kind of win.
Of course, having a compelling story that impacts a lot of people and is well written is an important element of popularity, but there are millions of story like that every day. There is so much great journalism out there that doesn’t get enough attention. To be read widely requires more than producing a quality piece. It requires strategy.
As a writer, popularity is important because it means that you can command higher salaries and editors return your emails. A good topic can lead to book deals, which leads to speaking engagements, which is where the real money is.
All of those selfish reasons for desiring popularity are important. This is a job, after all. But sometimes you want popularity because you feel very strongly that an issue deserves more attention. Sometimes as a writer, you just love your topic and want to champion the people who are being ignored. Sometimes, it’s a mission.