Inside the Editor’s Mind: Better Humans — Terrie Schweitzer
An interview with the editor of one of Medium’s largest publications - her advice for writers, her selection process, her writing, and life outside Medium
Better Humans is currently the 10th largest and the 7th fastest growing publication on Medium with close to 400k subscribers. The publication focuses on human potential and self-improvement and is unique in that it features empathetic tutorials. This means that the publication expects writers to demonstrate personal experience in applying the advice they are providing. The advice also needs to be backed by evidence and framed in a way that is clearly actionable for the reader. A writer for Better Humans is like a trusted friend who can share insider tips, warn you of potential pitfalls, and help you solve problems that may arise in your own journey. They have a rule of no fluff, book reports, or listicles.
Terrie Schweitzer definitely has a special place in my heart.
The first time I considered writing on Medium, I had no idea how to begin getting my stories out there. I read through a bunch of “How to succeed on Medium” articles and came to the conclusion that being featured on publications was the key. After some trips down the Medium rabbit-hole, I landed on Better Humans. As a former scientist and an avid self-experimenter who couldn’t seem to write short-form blogs to save my life, it felt like a perfect fit.
I was lucky that one of the first publications I ever chose to submit to was run by a kind, thoughtful and communicative editor who not only gave me the opportunity I needed then but over time, has also given great feedback that allowed me to grow as a writer.
Today, Better Humans continues to be one of my favorite publications to write for and read. A large part of that is due to Terrie’s constant desire to diversify the voices we read and her openness to select a wide range of topics. Over the years, the topics she has selected have included psychedelic microdosing, fasting, cold showers, living cheaply, connecting deeply, how to be a National Geographic photographer, and how to be a better neighbor. Her selection truly lives the mission of the publication on how to be a better human and not just a better individual.
Terrie’s feedback and help can certainly bring out the best in a writer. Two of my best-performing articles have had 247k and 136k views. Even though they were written over a year ago, one of them still hit 5k in views in a single day last week. Because Better Humans has a focus on sharing information by showing rather than telling, I still frequently get messages on how articles published months ago have changed someone’s habits.
As the editor of one of the largest and fastest-growing publications on Medium, she has her job cut out for her. I wanted to understand her process for selecting articles from the thousands of submissions they receive each year. What makes an article stand out to her, what causes an instant rejection, and more importantly, how can writers make her life easier?
I also came to know that Terrie is quite possibly one of the most eclectic people I know with her diverse experiences ranging from her side hustle as a bubble performer, to her time in the Peace Corp in Ghana, to her new interest in pyrotechnics. I couldn’t pass up the chance to share her coolness with the Medium world.
Terrie was gracious enough to answer some of my questions about being an editor, her advice to writers, her writing, and her life outside of Medium.
What makes an article stand out to you?
I’m always asking myself, “Will this article help a reader do something they want to do?”
That’s the first hook. Helping people become the people they want to be is our primary goal.
The second is, “Is this trustworthy advice?” What makes this worthy of the reader’s time? Usually, that’s the authentic experience of the writer.
What is your process for selecting an article?
We look at the entire proposal, usually including a draft. Up until now, I’ve been the only one looking at proposals, but I’m in the process of onboarding a first reader who will vet proposals and send on only the ones that look promising.
Do you have editors supporting you? How are decision making and coordination conducted?
If there is anything questionable about an article that otherwise seems like a good fit, I usually start a discussion in Slack about it so I can get the benefit of opinions from other editors on the Better Publishing team and of any of the copy editors who want to offer thoughts.
Better Humans specifies that research must be provided. How is the research checked and validated?
This is such a great question, and I’m delighted that you asked it in this way. It reveals one of the common misconceptions about what we want to see.
We require that the writer provide evidence that the advice worked. The evidence we really want to see is that the writer spent some time implementing the advice they’re giving the reader, and got specific results.
This is what differentiates us from other self-improvement publications, which mostly re-hash other self-improvement concepts that have been around forever.
There are certain tells as to whether an author has actually done the work they’re suggesting for the writer. I look for those when I’m considering whether or not to take an article.
In terms of scientific research, when authors link to papers, I try to verify that the paper actually says what the author claims, that it is research was done on humans, and that it’s from a peer-reviewed journal. This is a quick check, I am not able to be a fact-checker. But really I prefer the n-of-1 research of a person who’s done an experiment on themselves.
It’s gotten very trendy to link to research papers, and I get the feeling that authors write articles based on popular ideas, then cherry-pick research papers to link to for the benefit of that “research shows” link. I hate that.
What is a rough percentage of articles accepted of the total submissions received?
Less than 10%.
Did you ever have a story that left a lasting impression on you?
All the time.
- How to Be a Better Neighbor to Homeless People by Matthew Gerring gave me much-needed reframing to re-think my own power in interactions with homeless people. Before that article, I unconsciously had a very “us and them” mindset — which is the root of the problem. Reading that article helped me transition to an “us” mindset.
- Your Slow, Fat Marathon by Ragen Chastain helped to dispel much of my internalized prejudice around fitness and size.
- How One Year of Microdosing Helped My Career, Relationships, and Happiness by Janet L. Chang (and her follow-up how-to) introduced me to how psychedelics can be used non-recreationally. I think about this one often as this subject enters popular culture. I hate that our back-catalog is so difficult to browse because we’re ahead of the curve in so many ways.
- More recently, Max Frenzel’s piece, The Subtle Art of Pacing, Active Recovery, and Sitting With Pain, has me thinking about endurance as a type of fitness and practice of its own.
Those are just a few that come to mind.
How did you become an editor for this publication?
I’m a long-term Coach.me employee, and with an interest in writing, it was a sort of natural fit as publishing became a more important part of our business.
If you could give one piece of advice to people submitting to your publication, what would it be?
Read our Write for Us page and ask yourself if your article is really a good fit for us. Don’t waste your time if it’s not the type of article we’re asking for.
What is the most common reason you reject an article?
Most commonly they are listicles or “book reports” — a rehashing of other advice articles or books.
What would result in an instant rejection?
Plagiarism. Poor writing. No evidence that the author has tried the advice they’re giving. Articles that have already been published in other publications on Medium.
Also, a link to a draft that I can’t read will result in an automatic bounce. Sometimes writers submit drafts via Google docs, and when I click the link, I’m asked to request permission. I won’t do it; I only touch a submission once, and if I can’t read the draft, I send a rejection.
How much does the author’s profile/number of followers/writing history affect your decision to select their article?
I only look at this if I’m on the fence about whether to take an article or not.
One aspect of our decision-making is that we seek to diversify the range of self-improvement advice we publish. You can’t do that by just continuing to amplify the voices that are already predominant.
Do you always leave a response? Should we follow up if we don’t get a response?
We get back to everyone within two weeks (but we’re working to get that down to a 1-week max response time).
And if a writer does reply to a rejection, as a rule, I don’t respond. There’s just no time, and it can often be difficult to respond in a way that doesn’t seem to beg an argument. I’m lucky that we have a pretty clear mission, and it gives me confidence in my decision-making.
How can writers make it easier for you?
Don’t submit drafts that aren’t within our purview.
In general, the writers I work with are all really lovely. It is a supreme privilege to be able to work towards an effort I can be proud of in every way.
What do you enjoy writing about?
My own writing tends to be a form of picking up threads of understanding and trying to weave them together in a way that reveals the interconnectedness of life. Typically this doesn’t end up on Medium.
What are the favorite articles that you’ve written that you would like to share?
I think one of my best pieces was Silent Confrontations in Klamath Basin. It turned into a minor research project for me.
At the time I wrote it, you could leave comments in your own articles that acted as little side-notes to the main text. I love how it worked in this piece and felt that I utilized it really well. But then Medium changed the interface and it spoiled that effect. Now there are just little asterisks on the side that a person has to click to reveal them. The same thing happened with some of the photo features that changed; you could change the pacing of an article with an effect that would hold the image in place as you scrolled, with text over it. It was disappointing because it had been really exciting to create a piece that used all these features non-gratuitously.
What is the biggest lesson you have learned as a writer?
I still have much to learn, but I think “kill your darlings” has been the most useful thing to me. I’ll often start out an article with a specific concept or turn of phrase that feels like the linchpin of the entire piece. But somewhere in the editing process, I’ll find that it’s entirely a diversion, and nothing falls into place until I get rid of it.
What are your personal goals as a writer?
To write. I haven’t been doing a lot of my own writing; reading lots of articles and editing seems to deplete my resource for it.
I feel that I have a couple of books in me — one based on two years I spent working part-time on a goat dairy and getting sober, and one based on two years I spent in Ghana as a Peace Corps volunteer. But I haven’t learned how to grapple with the entirety of a book very well yet.
Provide links to your mailing list/books/social media if you want to share it with readers.
Who are you outside of writing / What are you passionate about outside of writing?
I’m constantly running off trying new things. I’m a huge wad of contradiction; on one hand, I adore going to my zen group where we do a silent solo meditation out of the land (or my daily nature sit-spot practice). I generally need a lot of quiet and solitude to stay sane. But I also love going to sensory extravaganzas like drag races and getting covered in flecks of tire rubber and feeling the heat and roar of the engines viscerally.
I’ve got a side hustle as a professional soap bubble performer, though COVID-19 has killed that business off for now.
I recently found out that there’s an entire community of amateur pyrotechnicians, and I’ve been to a couple of their gatherings in Iowa and Arizona — that was tremendously fun. I really want to learn more about that world — another all-out sensory experience.
I’m a birder and especially love birds of prey, and I have a dream of building a personal haven based on permaculture principles.
I’m 56 years old and feel a little disappointed that my generation hasn’t done much to solve problems like racism, consumerism, and ecological degradation. But I am optimistic about what I see in younger generations, and feel like the best thing I can do is engender a stronger sense of agency and empowerment in my nieces and nephew, and their peers.
I am always questioning what is true.
What is something about you that most people wouldn’t expect?
I tend to be very reserved in person until I get to know people. This has often been misread as conformity.
What brings you joy every day?
In retrospect, the best thing I did to prepare for the pandemic shutdown was the acquisition of 10 pounds of dog.
My dog, Liesl, is a Minature Dachshund/Rat Terrier mix, and she brings me so many reasons to smile and laugh during the day. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I really needed her to combat the loneliness of isolation. Animals are the best.
A big thank you to Terrie Schweitzer for taking the time to share even more fascinating details about herself.
This is the first of a series of interviews with editors of Medium publications. Follow me if you are interested in seeing more. Please feel free to email me at email@example.com with your burning questions for editors or simply get in touch to say hi! I would love to hear from you.