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Writing about the Middle Ages – what works, what doesn’t

medieval writing - British Library  Arundel 43   f. 80v

As an editor for Medievalists.net, it is my job to write about the Middle Ages and create posts that are intriguing and enjoyed by our community. It also has to be done on a daily basis, so there is pressure to produce posts that are going to be read and shared. I’ve had ones that have done really well, while others have failed to get even a small audience. Here are examples of what has worked, and what did not work.

The idea behind this post comes from Jonathan Hsy, who a couple of weeks ago commented on his Twitter feed:

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I will begin with a caveat – I need to write for an audience that is larger than people involved in academic medieval studies. The reader I am aiming for is someone that enjoys medieval history, has already read or watched some things about it, and is looking to know more – the kind of person that I would expect to meet in the history shelves of a book store.

So how do I want to quantify what makes a post successful for me. The short answer is that it gets read at least 5000 times. That is around the point where the post is going to do well-enough financially for the time I’ve put it into it.

Since we have to compete with all other online media, I have to keep in mind a number of things that are necessary in order to make sure that my post stands out from the crowd. This will include how to give the post a catchy title and good opening lines, how to be effective on social media (even the best posts will be seen by only a tiny percentage of our social media audience) and at the same time make sure it also follows the best practices related to search engine optimization (SEO, which means how high it will rank on Google when someone searches for a term related to it). There are many books and websites that talk about how to do this – one resource that I recommend is Pat Flynn’s Smart Passive Income website.

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I also have my own personal preferences in regards to what to write about. I enjoy writing about topics related to daily life, warfare and violence (that harkens back to my time creating the De Re Militari website) and letting medieval texts speak for themselves.

With these points in mind, here are my thoughts on two posts, one that did very well, and another that flopped. First, one of our best ever posts:

Girls’ Names from Medieval London (not the usual ones!)

Last April I came up with the idea to write about medieval names. I had read a piece about older names becoming more popular in the United Kingdom, and I thought that I should create a list of what were popular names from the Middle Ages. I started looking into a set of records from medieval London, something that I am very familiar with going back to graduate student days, which I knew had a large number of names. However, once I started looking at the records I found that I was more interested in reading the unusual names – ones that you would not expect to be in 14th century London. I had just enough information about these women to include a line or two about who they were, so I posted the piece.

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I didn’t have any specific expectations for this post, but within the first day of it going online it started going viral, especially on Facebook. Since it went online about 14 months ago, this post has been read over 98,000 times, of which 23 000 views came on the first day it went out on our social media.

I think the reasons for the success of this post has to do with two factors – it is relatable to our audience and it is a little unusual. The tag line: “Looking for that great ‘medieval’ name for your newborn daughter?” certainly offers what our readers might be interested in – what makes a good name – especially if you are going to be a parent.

The second part of its success is that it offered information that was a little different. I wasn’t telling people about names like Mary and Elizabeth, which are what people normally think about in regards to medieval English names; instead I told them about women that were called Dyonisia and Sabine. It was something that they had not heard about before, and I think that added to its appeal.

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Now, a post that I thought was great and did poorly:

Lightning Strikes in Medieval Florence 

This was a post I was really excited to write – the diary of Luca Landucci, a Florentine merchant, is filled with fascinating anecdotes and observations. I initially was thinking of creating four or five posts based on it. The first one was about his writings on when he saw or heard about lightning strikes in his home town. I thought others would see what I saw – interesting tales about something that we have all experienced.

I posted it on March 29th of this year, and thought it would do well. However, since I posted it, this article has accumulated a grand total of 316 page views. Ugh!

I am still a bit mystified on why it did so poorly, but I think the title of the post had a lot to with it. Reading it now it comes across as too bland. Nothing in that title really entices readers to click on it.

To have a post to do well requires many things to happen, including luck. If a lot of people read it, I can feel satisfied; if not, Ill be disappointed. However, the next day it all starts again – we live in a 24/7 media universe, so I can’t rest on my laurels. I have many, many ideas of what I can write about, as the Middle Ages are filled with interesting stories.

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~Peter Konieczny

Peter Konieczny is an editor for Medievalists.net. You can occasionally find him tweeting @medievalicious

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