Paul Smalera has written and edited stories about technology, business, and opinion at The New York Times, Fortune, Quartz, Fast Company, Reuters, Slate, and, most recently, Medium.
He’s an expert on how to write memorable stories and on how traditional media organizations and newsrooms are managed.
During a private call with Foster members, Paul shared his observations watching the internet disrupt traditional media and open up new opportunities in its place.
The call was a private workshop for Foster members, but the summary notes are below. Apply to Foster here
"Today, you can start a media business in 15 minutes."
- Institutional gatekeepers and media organizations are fading and if a blog post or Substack article "hits," it can drive as much traffic as a major media outlet.
- 1,000 true fans can build a business (see The Passion Economy, Li Jin)
- The barriers to entry are so much lower and that lets the important thing rise up which is the quality of the idea and the writing.
"The edge eventually becomes the center"
- Quartz started with exploring niches that other business media didn't think readers would be interested in, but it ended up being their most successful work.
- Indulge your passion, interest, and not be afraid to share that really deep stuff.
- Paul: "Things like on the edge of the conversation eventually become the center of the conversation. The edges are more interesting, and less known, so people naturally gravitate there. Being on the edge, if you do it right... the center eventually comes to you. The niche becomes the center."
What advice would you give to writers starting out today? "Distinguish yourself on quality"
- Have somebody read your self. Working with an editor if you can, or get other people to give you feedback on your work.
- Read your stuff out loud.
- Given how much competing stuff is out there, you want to distinguish yourself with a baseline of quality. Signal to readers that you care and are paying attention, and you're not just taking advantage of the tool to just bomb it out. Raise the bar.
- It can take years and years to develop good writing, but it's worth it.
- Produce clean writing.
Is the medium of writing at risk? Are we all just going to be watching TikTok videos a few years from now?
- Paul: "I don't see writing going anywhere in our lifetime. I wouldn't sweat it."
- Also, there are always things you can build around your writing; a podcast being one example. But writing can be the engine for the ideas.
In your past, you've helped discover unknown writers. How do you find high-potential, talented writers?
- At Everything, we're looking for people who are going to indulge their passions.
- If you're talking about getting in front of an editor at a traditional or even more digitally orientated publication, there are a lot of hurdles - it's difficult. Do your research. Know who you're targeting.
- If you're pitching someone, establish authority. Why are you the right one to be writing this? Luckily that no longer needs to be that you've been published - follower on Twitter, Substack subscribers, or work history are working. "Audience is credibility"
- Editors are looking for reasons to say no. Try to eliminate reasons for them to say no.
If great writing is a function of great editing, how do you think about the discipline and practice of editing?
- There are so many things to editing, large and small.
- Let's talk first about working with an editor (or somebody giving you feedback).
- The #1 thing is trust. And there are two parts to that trust: you must trust an editor's intention and you must trust that they will actually give you the hard feedback you need to hear.
- Cultivate a community of people (writers & supporters) who can give you feedback on your work.
- There's so many things to good editing. You could decide you want to work with a professional editor, even just one time to help you see the flaws than an amateur writer won't find.
- A few things to look for while editing:
- 1) Throat clearing at the beginning of a draft (avoid this!). A lot of times you don't need the first few paragraphs.
- 2) Narrative tension and resolution. If you read good feature writing in the NYTimes, but any really good feature story, a lot of times you'll see that people introduce ideas, and they really setup all the things you're going to experience. Then throughout the piece they resolve those things for you.
- 3) Are you resolving the piece properly?
- Within the draft, if you're not answering all the questions then you're dragging the reader a long. You want to give them enough to keep engaged, but not too much to be done.
- Write in a way where readers can almost anticipate what's coming next and the other pieces to your story. Like this.
- TEDTalk/Toastmaster formula: here are the three things I'm going to talk about. Here are the three things. Here are the three things I talked about.
How to you develop and understanding of and relationship with your readers?
- Email every subscriber when they subscribe. Make it as personal as you can.
- Email every subscriber when they unsubscribe and try to understand why.
- To get over writer's block, pretend you're writing a friend a letter.
- Stick to a publishing schedule to become part of your readers routine.
- More important than schedule, say something worth saying.
How do you build a community around your work?
- Do the things above, but also: open threads. Intentionally write prompts that encourage your audience to reply. And when they reply, make sure you do to! (event if it's just a "thank you").
- Figure out what communities your readers already hang out in (Twitter? Hacker News?) and go add value there
- Treat readers like they're real people
How to properly scope a writing project?
- Explain the ideas to yourself. Start with the pitch.
- Create an outline, organize your thoughts.
- What you might find is that there's one bullet is the thing that you're really excited about. Try to tell that individual story, and see if that is a compelling enough thing.
I have a lot of interests. How do I decide which to write about consistently?
- Think about which ones you personally have the most energy around and also watch which ones resonate most with your readers.
- As a writer, it's okay to have multiple projects going at once (I'm doing this now)
- If you're not exactly sure why you're writing about something, write about why you think you're interested in it. And publish that! Readers often enjoy that style & can get excited about the topic too.
- Give yourself some time to figure it out. Continually watch metrics and see what's working.