Boost Your View and Read Rates by Reverse Engineering Top Writers

Use this exercise to learn to think like the pros

Image by YANETH LOTERO from Pixabay

There are going to be days when you just don’t feel like writing, yet you don’t want to waste the day. You may ask, “Other than writing, what can I do today to further my writing career?”

Studying the work of top writers and attempting to reverse-engineer their methods is something I love to do on my non-writing days. It’s not that I try to copy their writing style itself. Rather, I try to copy their thought processes: How do they draw the reader in? How do they promise incredible value, and then go on to deliver it?

Today I want to share one of the reverse-engineering exercises I’ve been putting myself through this past month. I’ve given it the rather un-sexy name of HSC1.

I invented this exercise because I felt like I’ve been leaving money on the table with many of the articles I’ve written lately. I tended to use the first headline that came into my head. The first is fine as a working headline, but it’s rarely the best final headline.

I felt like I could do a better job writing subheads and opening paragraphs, and I also wanted to improve my selection of cover photos. After all, that’s what the reader sees on my profile page or (if in a publication) the publication’s page before they choose whether or not to click “Read more…” Seems like time studying how the masters craft those would be time well spent indeed!

So I invented my HSC1 article analysis scheme. I pick an article written by a top writer, get out my journal notebook, and

  • H: Take as many notes as possible on why the headline is effective
  • S: Take as many notes as possible on how the subheadline adds to the headline
  • C: Take as many notes as possible on how the cover image communicates what you’ll find in the article, and adds to the headline, subheadline, and introduction
  • 1: Take as many notes as possible on what makes the first paragraph draw the reader in

The best way I can illustrate this is with examples. Here are three.

Example 1: Michael Thompson

H: “8 Massive Signs You’re Further Ahead Than You May Think”

  • Starts with a number
  • Variant of “you” (“You’re”) in the headline
  • The title is positive, offers the reader hope
  • Generic headline format: “(number) (adjective) Signs You’re __________”
  • “Than You May Think” implies that there’s a lesson to be learned right there, in plain sight, but you might miss it if you don’t read the article. Invokes FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).
  • I ran the headline through Coschedule Headline Analyzer and it scored a 77. It lists “Massive” as a power word, probably because it gets the reader to think big.
  • Interestingly, Coschedule calls “May” a power word. I have never seen that before. Is it because it introduces the element of uncertainty?

S: “If you understand life isn’t only about you, you’re already winning”

  • Again, the use of “you” to make it a personal lesson for the reader.
  • Expands on the headline a bit; gives you a hint as to the article’s content; however, it does not give away the store, so you’ll have to keep reading to find out the signs.

C: Unsplash photo of a woman in a yellow hoodie, in an urban area. She looks like she’s celebrating

  • Celebrating her progress — fits nicely with the headline’s notion that you’re further along than you think
  • The tall, big city building suggests the woman has “finally made it in the big time” — and you can too
  • The casual hoodie she’s wearing, as well as her hair pulled up, makes her seem accessible. Gives off the vibe, “This could just as easily be you.”

1: “Billionaire entrepreneur, Warren Rustand (name is a hyperlink to video of Rustand explaining the 3 key moments of a human life), believes it takes the average person until the age of 45 to figure out what they want to do with their life. Then, according to Warren, most people won’t grow the guts to live their why until after they’ve had their first heart attack.”

  • The first two words establish credibility. “Billionaire” tells you these are the lessons of someone successful. “Entrepreneur” connects with the audience, since this was published in Entrepreneur’s Handbook.
  • The link is helpful for those asking “Who is Warren Rustand?” (me!) and probably pleases the curation gods too
  • The first paragraph evokes FOMO once again, fear of never living up to your potential. You don’t want to do that, do you? Better read on!

Example 2: Niklas Göke

H: “How to Identify a Smart Person in 3 Minutes”

  • This article, by the way, was Nik’s best performer of 2020. 830K views!
  • “How to” is always a good lead. Readers love to be taught something.
  • Articles with numbers in the title tend to perform well, and as this one illustrates, they don’t always have to indicate a listicle.
  • “in 3 Minutes” — tells the reader they won’t have to put in a whole lot of effort to achieve the desired result. This is the same reason you see “Easy,” “Simple,” and “Small” in so many titles.
  • Somewhat of a universal appeal — who doesn’t want to identify the smartest person in the room? Who doesn’t want to hear what that person has to say?

S: “This two-question combo can help you look past the validation-seekers and find the most intelligent thinkers on your team”

  • First thing: Most subtitles are 10–12 words, or at the very longest, 15. Nik’s is either 19 or 21, depending on whether you count the two hyphenated words as 1 word or 2. Nik broke an unwritten rule about subtitle length — and got 830K views!
  • Gives you a taste of what you can expect to find in the article (2 questions) without giving them away.
  • Adds a work-related context. You better identify the smartest person in that context — if you don’t, it could affect the bottom line.

C: Morsa Images/Getty Images photo of a team of 5 at a table in a work conference room; a woman is standing, leading the other 4.

  • Reinforces that work/business is the context for the article.

1: “What’s the fastest way to identify the most intelligent people in a group? Start with an easy question. Then ask a complex one.”

  • This is also unconventional. Nik gives away the content of the 2-question combo he mentioned in the subtitle. You could have your answer without clicking “Read More…” on the publication’s page (this was in Forge) or Nik’s profile page.
  • Yet, what good are the two types of questions without concrete examples? You’ll have to click “Read More…” and read the article for those.

Example 3: Isaiah McCall

H: “You Need To Do This Before The Stock Market Crashes”

  • Damn, that’s borderline clickbaity. Did this thing get curated? (View page source > CTRL-F > search for ‘TopicId”) Yes, in Money. See, you can still get away with clickbaity titles. You just have to make sure you back up your claim in what you write.
  • Again, talks about what “You” need to do. Makes it personal for the reader.
  • Generic format: “You Need to Do This (Before/During/After) ________”
  • Leaves the reader wondering what “This” is. Induces FOMO, and fear of crashing and burning along with the stock market, if they don’t read.

S: “A little pessimism never hurts”

  • Reinforces the notion that the stock market might crash
  • Hints at what “This” in the headline is about, without giving it away

C: Image, made by McCall in Canva, of a downward-pointing red trend line, atop data, charts, and graphs in blue. Images of red COVID-19 molecules and the word “COVID-19” in white.

  • Induces fear in the stock market, combined with pandemic fear. It’s important to note that the article was published December 4, 2020, in the middle of COVID’s third wave.
  • Red, white, and blue — did McCall select those colors to subtly imply the U.S. stock market?

1: “There are two types of investors (probably more than that but bear with me): The reactive investor who reads: “What to do when the market crashes.” And then there’s the proactive investor, who wants to know what to do before that crash.”

2: “Kudos to you. Now let’s begin:”

  • What? There’s a 2? The rules didn’t say anything about there being a 2! You’re only supposed to analyze the first paragraph! … Yes, but rules were made to be broken, don’t you know?
  • Gives the reader a positive reputation. Describes the difference between a reactive investor (negative) and a proactive investor (positive). The implied message is that you took the time to read this article, therefore, you must be the proactive type. Kudos!

You won’t become a pro by:

  • Only reading through my 3 examples
  • Only doing 3 of these on your own

You need to do 30 of these. 40. Even 50. Make it a goal of yours to do 30 of these HSC1 analyses in a month. That doesn't have to mean do one of them a day. It can mean that, if that works for you. Or, you can knock 5 or 6 out at a time, on the days when you’re not in the mood to write.

What matters is that you do enough of them that the patterns seep into your subconscious mind. When you get ready to compose your own headlines, and subheads, and intros, and when you get ready to pick your images, you’ll begin to think like a top writer. This brings me to my final point:

Only study top writers for this exercise

My longtime readers know that I’m a big fan of pulling up the latest in the writing tag (or in any tag) to discover work by all writers, experienced and brand new alike, curated and uncurated. I like to find good writers before The Algorithm finds them.

For this exercise, though, I recommend studying the work only of proven winners.

Ideally, I’d tell you to only study viral articles, but it’s not like we know for certain which ones are. It’s not like there’s the word “VIRAL” in bold red letters next to the ones that have taken off.

Ideally, I’d tell you to only study writers who earn at least four figures a month on this platform, but we don’t know who those are, either.

Here’s my general rule of thumb: If I pull up a writer’s profile and see at least 7 Top Writer statuses, it’s a safe bet that they’ve either written viral articles or had $1000+ months. It’s not a guarantee, but it’s the best system I’ve come up with so far for identifying writers to study.

If you have suggestions for tweaks to this process, I’d love to read them. Feel free to leave them in the comments.

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I write about writing, ideas, creativity, intuition, spirituality, life lessons. Ex-college teacher Twitter: @paulryburn

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