How I Escaped From Curation Jail

If such a thing actually exists

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

“Curation jail is not a real thing,” state the Medium “experts” who have been on the platform for years, who have tens of thousands of followers, who sell courses on writing.

Maybe they’re correct. Maybe they’re not. But this is my experience. I published my first article on August 28, 2020, and since then I have published approximately 100 more.

Between August 28, 2020 and the end of January 2021, the only time my articles got “selected for further distribution” — known as “getting curated” prior to October 2020 — was when they got published by publications like The Ascent, The Startup, Curious, and Age of Awareness which have in-publication power to select for distribution.

On the other hand, 5 of the 8 articles I published this month (as of February 14, 2021) that were eligible for further distribution (meaning, they weren’t about Medium or shortform posts) were selected for distribution. None of them were in publications at the time they were selected (one has been picked up by Curious since).

I did make some changes, some tweaks to the way I created articles, around February 1. On February 9 I got “discovered” and two of my articles were distributed, then two more February 11 and one more February 12. Did I somehow get a free ticket out of curation jail for unknown reasons, or did my writing get remarkably better around the first of the month? Really, I’m not sure. I’ll tell you what I know and let you come to your own conclusions.

Why getting distributed is a big deal

You can be the best writer in the whole world, but if people aren’t aware you are publishing, what good does it do? On Medium, there are numerous ways to get people to notice your work, some of which are more effective than others.

  • You can use up to 5 tags on your article. Then, if you put /tag/(your_tag_name)/latest behind the Medium URL, you will see your article among the latest in that tag.
  • You can share your post on your own social media feeds — Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter. However, most of your connections on those platforms are not paid Medium members. Therefore, you will not receive any revenue when they read your work.
  • You can share your posts in Facebook, LinkedIn, and Quora groups specifically for Medium members. If those members are paid members, you will get paid for their reads.
  • You can submit your article to publications. If accepted, your name will become known to that publication’s readers. If they like what you have to say, they may choose to follow you, so they can see more of your work.
  • You can also go read publications and Medium topics on your own, clap for articles you like, and follow their creators. Some of those people may in turn check out your work and give you a follow back.

However, the ticket to long-term success on Medium, experienced writers will tell you, is to get distributed as often as possible. This gives your articles staying power. They can come back to life months after you published them and start earning you money.

What I did differently to get out of curation jail (if such a thing exists)

First of all, I was determined not to rely solely on getting in publications to get distributed. Therefore, from January 1, 2021, I self-published all my posts. Sometimes I’d get a private note from a publication asking if they could pick one of my articles up, and I’d let them. But I was determined not to give up until one of my self-published articles got distributed.

I believe in myself as a writer and was willing to self-publish as long as it took to get noticed. I was fully prepared to go until at least April 1 if I had to. Thankfully, it didn’t take that long. Here are the changes I made:

I learned that you get curated in topics, not tags. You get 5 tags to apply to any article you write, and they can be anything you want. However, the more tags that are on this list of Medium topics, the more chances you have of an article getting distributed.

Also, the list of tags that award Top Writer status is not the same as the list of topics used for distribution. I’m a top writer in Ideas, so I tend to use that tag frequently — but as far as distribution is concerned, I’m wasting a tag.

I think I had one post that I tagged Ideas, Inspiration, Blogging, Life, and Life Lessons. Those are all fabulous tags, but you know how many are entries that got me into the distribution lottery? Zero. None of them are topics.

Nowadays, I try to pick three (or at least two) tags that are also topic names, and with my remaining tags I drill into the subject matter a little deeper.

I stopped using Coschedule Headline Analyzer for my titles. “You have to use Coschedule,” everyone told me, including the creator of the writing course I bought. “If the analyzer gives you less than a 65, you want to rethink your headline. If it gives you over a 70, you’re in great shape.”

Pleasing the headline analyzer caused me to lay it on a bit thick with the power words (here are 801 of them!), you know, words like “stunning” and “audacious” and “cataclysmic.” They made my titles sound contrived, and after re-reading the Medium Distribution Guidelines, I realized they could cause my headlines — whether seen by human curators or bot curators — to be disqualified as clickbait.

Now, I just ask myself, “What am I talking about here?” and write out 5 to 10 words that describe the article in plain English. The subtitle gives me another 8 to 15 words to build upon that description. I usually write 2 or 3 candidate headlines (some writers generate as many as 10, because headlines are important) and pick the best one.

I stood on the shoulders of giants. I try these days to do better about finding outside sources, experts in the field, and link to their studies. Curators/distributors want to know that claims you make in articles are verifiable.

I have increased my use of quotes in my articles too. Quotes not only add authority, but they break up the monotony of plain text on a page. Since this is a post about curation jail, why don’t we insert a quote right here?

“Ol’ Smokey’s got them ears on and he’s hot on your trail. He ain’t gonna rest ’til you’re in jail.” — Jerry Reed, “East Bound and Down”

I made sure to fill in SEO Title and SEO Description. Previously I had been leaving these blank. Go to … (the three dots next to the Publish button in the editor) > More Settings > SEO Settings and fill them in there. Don’t forget to hit the Save button next to each before returning to the editor.

There are many excellent articles on SEO, and I don’t claim to be an expert so I will refrain from giving a lesson here. My main point is, I think the curators — again, humans or bots — might have been penalizing me for leaving out this data in the past.

I changed my profile display name from “Paul Ryburn” to “Paul Ryburn, M.Sc.” For a long time, I resisted making this change, feeling like it was bragging about my degree in a sense. “Why don’t I just change it to ‘Paul Ryburn, Douchebag?’” I remarked to my friends who suggested adding the degree.

After a while, though, I came to see their point. Medium wants to see expertise on the topic, and that expertise can come from the self as well as from external sources. If a bot curator wants to add an extra point to the article’s score because it sees that degree, why not let it?

I rewrote my profile description to better reflect what I write on here. I hadn’t updated it since my 3rd post, and it said I write about beliefs, dreams, and intuition, stuff that I really don’t write about that much. Again, I thought it might be worth an extra point from a human or bot curator if I were writing about topics on which I claimed expertise.

Things I was already doing and kept doing to increase chances of getting distributed

  • I had a title, subtitle, and featured image, except for shortform posts (which are not eligible for distribution anyway)
  • I took the time to include ALT text for my images. Not only does this make the images friendly for the visually impaired, but it can help with SEO.
  • I made sure my image credited the free stock site from which I acquired it, and where the image creator’s information was available, I credited them as well.
  • If I was using one of my own images, I captioned it “Photo by author” to let curators know I didn’t overlook the step of crediting my image properly
  • I tried to include lots of white space: paragraphs no longer than 5 lines, headings, subheadings, separators, additional images, bold and italic text to break up monotony
  • I used the free version of Grammarly to catch grammar and spelling mistakes
  • I proofread each post at least twice before publishing; where possible, I would read the post out loud or have a device read it out loud as part of the proofreading process

So, does curation jail exist? And takeaways

I can’t say for sure. But…

  • 0 posts distributed (without the help of publications) in 5 months; and then…
  • 5 self-published posts distributed in 2 weeks

Sure sounds like I got moved to the fast track for distribution. I can’t say which of these (if any) made the difference, but perhaps one of these changes helped:

  • Using Medium topics as tags
  • Abandoning Coschedule Headline Analyzer and instead writing headlines that “just feel right”
  • Using links to expert sources as well as quotes to establish credibility
  • Filling in SEO Title and SEO Description before publishing
  • Putting my degree in my profile display name
  • Rewriting my profile description to better reflect my topics

Before I go, I want to thank Holly Kellums, whose article How I Got Curated on Medium After Two Years in “Curation Jail” influenced the changes I made this month. Also thanks by extension to The Maverick Files since his advice was an influence on Holly.

If you have any additional tips for getting distributed, feel free to share in the comments.

Let’s keep in touch! Feel free to sign up for my newsletter. Here are links to my five stories that got distributed:


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

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