Words with Ino #3 – Succeeding on /r/WritingPrompts

And now,  it’s time for something completely different!

Now, I’ve talked to a lot of you.  We might have chatted in our wonderful, lovely discord server, hint, hint. Maybe we exchanged PMs on Reddit, talking about who knows what.

But many of you have stated an interest in starting to write, or have already started writing.  That’s part of why I’m doing these posts!  And, more than likely, I suggested writing on /r/WritingPrompts to you as a good way of getting your feet wet.  I’m biased, after all.

“But, Ino,” you say.  “There’s a lot of prompts, there.  And when I posted, I didn’t even get a single upvote.  And someone told me I sucked.  What now?”

Well.  Here’s the dirty little secret I’m going to share with you all, right here and now.

WritingPrompts is a game.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  It doesn’t have to be a game.  For many people, WritingPrompts is just a casual place to try out writing now and again, and that’s 100% absolutely fine.  Everyone writes in their own way, at their own pace, and the important part is your own take on it, and your own experience.

But many of you, contrastingly, have asked how folks like some of us on the server got started – how we got our feet under us, how we started building a name, how we eventually progressed to doing serials and books and cool, vaguely adult-ish things.

And so, I’m going to break the first rule of WritingPrompts, and tell you guys a bit about how to play for keeps – and win.

Subreddits and you

When I started writing, we called them vanity subs.  That term still gets thrown around a lot, but I think times have changed.  It’s more common to just see them called personal subreddits, and I like the change.  Because calling them a vanity sub implies that you’re making a subreddit about you, to soothe your own ego, and that’s really not the case.

To put it simply, having a subreddit allows for a few different things.

First and foremost, having a personal sub gives you somewhere to collect your writing pieces.  You’ve got them in your comments, sure, but trust me.  It won’t take long before they vanish into your comment history, never to be seen again.  Without my subreddit to keep a log of all of them, I’d have lost a lot of my older prompt responses, and that’d be sad.

Having them in one place also allows for a prospective subscriber to check out other things you’ve done!  If someone likes what they’ve read, give them the ability to read more by you!

The last point I’ll touch on regarding subreddits is this – a lot of folks use circular logic when it comes to why they shouldn’t have a subreddit of their own.  “I don’t need one, Ino,” they say, shaking their head stubbornly.  “I have no readers.  I have no projects, yet.  I’m not popular enough for a subreddit.”

But here’s the thing.  Without somewhere to subscribe to you, that person is going to wander off into the blackened, filthy depths of reddit, without another thought given to you.  Maybe they really liked that prompt response you did – it doesn’t matter, because without a way to keep your name on their reddit, it’ll be a long, slow process of trying to win people over by sheer number of prompts responded to.  Definitely doable – but needlessly difficult on yourself.  Without a subreddit, it’s much harder to get readers.

Quick note – creating your own subreddit requires a certain amount of karma.  I think it’s 20?  Something along those lines.  It’s not much, and it’s definitely doable even if you’re a lurker.  But it’s something to be aware of!

“All right, Ino,” you say.  “I’ve got my subreddit, like you said.  But the last time I wrote no one bothered to read my-”

Be quiet and stop fussing.  Visibility on WritingPrompts is what everyone’s after – Getting your story seen is just a good feeling.  Everyone wants to feel like their words were read and enjoyed and didn’t just die in the cold, black emptiness of the internet.  And this is where the ‘game’ I mentioned before comes in.

The Game

First – Often times, when I see newer writers start posting on the subreddit, their process goes something like this.

They find a prompt they like and which seems fun.  Now, most people are going to simply click on the subreddit and start reading prompts, just like any other subreddit.  So they’re going to be reading off /hot, more than likely.  In fact, the odds are good that they picked a topper.

Inorai’s Translation Service: Among writers, we refer to prompts that hit the top of /r/writingprompts as ‘toppers’.  These are prompts that get a lot of karma, a lot of visibility, and might even make it to /all.  I call prompts that enter that wonderful, mysterious land tip-toppers.

The issue with this is that WritingPrompts, like many subreddits, has a bit of a…problem.  Well, it’s not so much of a problem and more just how Reddit is designed.  When you have a thread, it’s by default sorted by hot/best/whatever-the-fuck name they’ve decided to call it to sound a little bit less generic.  It’s their algorithm, essentially, saying “This comment has gotten a lot of comments in the last little bit, compared to the other comments in this thread, so we’re going to call it the ‘best’ and put it at the top.

No, I don’t have access to the inner workings of their black magic.  Hell if I know how all of it works, precisely.

Good time for a disclaimer.  I’m not an admin for Reddit, I don’t have access to their programming, and I’m not some whiz kid.  All of these comments are purely based off my own experiences and those I’ve discussed with other writers on WP.  These are the ‘facts’ that we’ve based our choices off.  I can’t guarantee that we’re right, but it’s about as close as we’ve gotten.

Ok.  So.  We’ve got Newbie Writer A, who I’m going to call Earnest, and they’ve picked out a prompt that sounds fun.  Which is a current topper.  Heart in their throat, they mash their keyboard madly, churning up their very best story just as quickly as they can and grab that mouse and hit that Submit button and-

Nothing.

Their prompt sits right where it rested, a lonely ‘1 point’ resting next to their name.  Confused, they look at the thread.  It’s…active.  It’s very active, in fact, with the thread’s karma skyrocketing.  But it’s like no one’s looking.  Maybe it was just too soon.  Their mouse slides up to the refresh button.

Nothing.  It’s unchanged, in fact.  Again and again they refresh, waiting as the minutes drag on into hours.  At last, when they’d just given up hope, the little orange envelope in the upper right-hand corner of the screen lights up.  And so does their heart.  They leap for their inbox, a smile breaking out across their face.  Finally, it’s here.  Their reader.  Finally, they can-

You suck.

Oh.

So, what went wrong?  What exactly happened here, and what can poor Earnest do next time?

So, like I mentioned – WP, like every other subreddit, is bound by Reddit’s code.  And given the way that WP’s stories are written, and the length that often goes into them, most readers will only read a single story on any given prompt.  The top story, in fact.  I think this is reinforced by the fact that once many people have read a story, they’re both ‘satisfied’ with the prompt, more often than not, and they now associate that story with it.

Or maybe I’m full of shit.  It’s hard to say.  But it’s a simple fact of numbers that the top story on a prompt is much, much more likely to be successful, and often will get orders of magnitude more points than the second story.  The further you go down the prompt, the more pronounced this is.

This is not to say that you can’t get attention on existing threads – some threads will skyrocket for a long time without anyone writing for it.  Some threads have a first story that’s frankly bad, and so a well-written second story can unseat it.  Quality, as always, is really the important factor here!

So here, at last, we have the basis of our game.

  • Find the prompts that are getting lots of upvotes, and thus will remain visible
  • Achieve the top spot on said prompt
  • Succeed in making that connection with a reader, and keep them coming back.

For the purposes of this, we’re really going to look at the first point in this post.

The Selection of the Prompt

This is the first step, and honestly, there’s no magic bullet here.  There are tricks, which I’m going to tell you about, but nothing I can tell you here will guarantee you a topper.  Really, the only key to winning a top spot is time.  You’ll need to be consistently writing prompt responses, and throw out a lot of lines.  If you don’t make it, that’s fine.  Try again.  And again.  Sooner or later, you’ll get one!

To begin with, when looking for a prompt, stay away from Hot and Top like your life depends on it.  Those are threads that more than likely already have stories written for them, and those stories will have a substantial lead on anything you can write.

There’s a bit of a debate as to this part, but what we can all agree on is that if you’re going topper-hunting, you should be browsing either /rising or /new.  Most other writers will tell you to watch /rising, as that’ll tell you which threads are on their way up.  Me, personally, I like to watch /new.  I’ll get into why more a little bit later.

So, you’ve sat yourself down in the /new queue.  You’re watching the prompts roll in, one horrible, meme-laden thread at a time.  What’s that?  Numbers over their heads?  People screeching insults in their head at people and having someone actually respond?  The fifteenth thousand Guy Fieri prompt?

Yeah, it’s a cesspool.  I know.  I really do.  But if you want visibility, that’s how you get it.

So, watch the numbers of upvotes.  Every writer will tell you something a bit different as to when something is a ‘topper’, but really, you just want to watch how they’re behaving.  A good-scoring prompt should start accelerating from a few minutes onward, and continue without any noticeable plateaus.  Ideally, for a topper, I’d like to see that it’s sitting at a good 10-15 points by half an hour in.  That’d tell me it was fairly solid.

And here we get to why I like to watch /new.  Last night, in fact, a group of us was sitting around #WritingChat in the WritingPrompts discord (Yeah, that’s a thing too) chatting, when a few prompts were linked as possible rising toppers.  We weren’t sure.  But one looked like it had potential – A 17 minute old prompt, with 9 points to its name.  That would be a pretty good candidate for the next topper, if the timing was right (more on that in a minute.)

I had my suspicions.  I know it’ll shock most of you to know that on Reddit, people are kind of assholes sometimes.  Sometimes, people lie.  And, in fact, they cheat.

A lot of times, you’ll see a prompt shoot up all at once, right after it’s been posted.  And then you’ll see it do essentially nothing after that.

Do I have proof of anything?  God, no.  But I can suspect all I like, and no one can tell me I can’t xD Threads like that reek of vote manipulation and bots, and it’s something that would be very hard to spot on rising, where you can’t see it from the very start of its lifespan.  If something continues rising, accelerating on its way up, that’s a good topper.  If something has an initial surge and then plateaus, that smells odd to me.

The prompt stalled at 9 points, by the way, and froze right then and there.

“There are thousands of prompts a day, though, Ino,” you say.  “And yet there are only a handful of actual successful prompts.  I have a life.  How am I supposed to magically be on when one of them comes in?”

Well, luck does play a role.  Not going to lie to you about that much.  But as for when a topper is going to roll in, there is some rhyme and reason to it.  We call it the topper cycle.

In short, WritingPrompts, and Reddit’s algorithm, does much the same thing with threads as it does with comments, although again I don’t know the inner workings of their black magic and I’m just sure someone’s going to inform me how wrong I am.  One way or another, there are going to be a few prompts which make it as toppers and get pushed to the top – and there they’ll sit, lording themselves over the rest of everyone.

They’ll sit there for about 15ish hours, in fact.  More or less depending on how strong they were.  And there’s the kicker.

There are two toppers at any given time.  That’s just how it works.  Two.  And when they age out, they’ll fall away – at which point those slots become open again.  So you can begin to predict a new topper based on A) how old the existing toppers are, and B) if there’s a prompt already on the rise, aiming for one of those new topper spots.

If there’s already a new topper on its way up, more than likely, that’s it.  I’ve seen rising toppers unseated, but it’s absurdly rare.  Once something is shooting towards the front page, you’re not going to see anything else to rival it for the next cycle.

Now – toppers, in my experience, do tend to fall around a few key points, and there are periods of the day that could potentially be more likely to see them in.  This is even less scientific, and again, every writer has their sweet spot when they like to look for them.

I find that I have good luck with finding toppers from about 8am-11am and 2-4pm, both EST.  If I were asked to tell you why, I’d say that’s because these are the times when A) redditors are waking up, and B) when they’re bored at work, waiting to go home.  Or getting off school.  Maybe I’m totally off base, that’s just my guess.

With that said, there are times when I check in the morning, and I find that a topper got posted at, like, 5am.  And Silvertongue was posted in the night (right before I went to bed, in fact).  So, anything can happen, in the end.  But those are the times when I’ve had successes.

Once you see that prompt get the upvotes rolling in, well, the timer’s on.  Everyone likes to win those prompts!  So get in thread, and start writing!

A Quick Note On /r/WritingPrompts Etiquette

I know that winning a topper is a big deal.  It’s exciting, it’s fun, and it can get a lot of attention for your stories.  But if this is a game that you’re wanting to try your hand at, be aware of a few no-nos that you should stay away from.

First – yes, winning top story is important.  And especially for those of you who might not be as experienced in writing or as fast on the keyboards, I know that more often than not it winds up with you hitting ‘Submit’ – only to find that three other people submitted stories while you were still typing.

It sucks.  I know.  We’ve all been there.

However tempting it is, though, remember that you should still post a complete, well-formed prompt.  A lot of times we’ll see people post excessively short prompt responses on rising toppers, pretty blatantly for the express intent of squatting on that top spot.

It is not considered acceptable to post a short response, and then edit it to add in the remainder of your prompt response once you’ve finished it.

It’s a little different if you’re doing a entirely different second part – again, it goes back to the idea of your response functioning on its own.  It’s fine to do more than one part on a prompt (clearly).   Just make sure that you’re not leaving a half-assed prompt for the purpose of karmagrabbing or ‘reserving’ a spot at the head of a topper.

Also.

This one is a little different, in that it’s actually expressly against WP’s rules, but although karma is in play on WP, you’re not allowed to do things like gate your content behind karma or leverage upvotes for yourself.  So that means nothing like “If I get 100 upvotes I’ll write another part for this”.  That could actually get you in trouble with the moderators.


It’s far from an exhaustive list of the ins and outs of writing on WP, and there’s a lot more to be covered like how to write a prompt response that will draw in readers or how you should utilize your subreddit/manage your serials.  But, I think this topic more than stands on its own!

So, if anyone has any other questions on anything I’ve put here, or has something else about prompting on WP, please let me know!

And I leave you with a question of your own – have you noticed any quirks with the algorithm, or with toppers?  When do you like to find your prompts?

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