What I Learned from Starting a Newsletter
Read this if you're thinking of starting your own Substack publication (plus get my tips on how to get growing)
Starting a Substack publication is an exciting moment but it’s also daunting. It's like standing on the edge of a precipice before deciding to jump.
I know because I was there three months ago. And all I can say is that I’m grateful that I took the plunge.
I hope you will too.
That's why I've created a collection of my 4 biggest learnings from writing every week to a subscriber list that is now over 270 people.
So, if you're thinking about starting your own Substack publication, make sure to read on so that you can better hit the ground running.
See you on the other side.
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Lesson 1: Get clear on why you’re writing
There are many different reasons for wanting to start a Substack publication. To me, they fall on a spectrum between these two points:
You want to make money by writing online
You want to share your personal creativity
Neither is right or wrong; they're both valid. But they are very different reasons and they imply a different approach.
Writing to make money
If you intend to create a publication to make money, be aware you’ll have to create enough value to enough people that they will pay you for it. In this sense, your publication will be like a start-up, and you should treat it as such. Useful questions include:
What is your value proposition?
Who is your target audience?
How will you reach them?
You will need to be very in tune to what the data is telling you. You will need to seek as much feedback as possible and be open to it.
Writing for self-expression
If you want to start your publication as a vehicle for self-expression, you will be much more free to write whatever you want to write about. That may sound great but freedom can veer into a lack of clarity on what to write about.
This will make it harder to convince people to subscribe to your publication. This is because not many people will care about your writing if they don't understand the value it will bring to them.
Writing your way to your why
Your why might not be evident when you start—it wasn't for me— but it is an important question to keep in mind.
I still don't know exactly where I stand on this spectrum. I'm trusting that I will write myself to a place where I can find meaning in a way that brings value to the reader. Just like finding a voice, I appreciate that that can take time.
That said, if you can nail your why up front, then more power to you.
Lesson 2: Focus on creating a publishing habit
The most important thing with any form of content creation is consistency. Publishing at regular intervals helps build trust with your audience. It also pushes you to create from a place of necessity rather than inspiration.
Set yourself a realistic and actionable goal
Writing a publication takes commitment; there are times when it’ll be challenging. And keeping motivated during those times will be critical. That's why I recommend starting with a realistic and actionable goal in mind.
When I started, I set myself only one goal: to publish one post per week for three months. I figured I could, at a minimum, write something new once a week. If I succeeded, I'd have 12 posts live, which is more than I had ever published in my life before that.
In hindsight, I'm grateful I didn't go beyond that goal. It turns out that publishing once a week took more out of me than I had expected.
Be ready to deal with your fears
I had expected that writing in public was going to be a scary thing for me to do. After all, I was a life-long perfectionist, which is the reason I never published in the first place.
That said, the amount of internal fears I had to deal with surprised me:
Is this good enough?
Am I embarrassing myself?
Why is nobody reading this?
The list goes on. It’s easy to dismiss these questions from the outside but that isn’t so easy when you’re emotionally invested.
The act of creating can be simple but often you’ll be your own worst enemy. Be prepared to learn to step out of your way.
Commit yourself to deadlines
My relationship to writing has always been a mixed bag. I've always loved the feeling of getting words down that are in synchrony with my thoughts and emotions. Yet writing has also always been painful. It always demanded a ton of willpower and, as a result, I only ever did it if I had to.
So, if you're like me, I recommend setting yourself deadlines and telling your readers about them. That public accountability is what worked for me.
Don't wait for inspiration. Commit yourself to deadlines and have faith that inspiration will meet you halfway.
Lesson 3: Create systems for content creation
Coming up with new things to write about from scratch every week is draining. As soon as you've published one piece, you have to immediately start thinking about the next one. That's not sustainable.
That's why I recommend setting up whatever systems you need to that’ll help you. For me, this has meant creating two systems that I work on in parallel. The first one is input focused, the second output focused.
Input system: Research and note taking
Everything I want to write about comes from two sources:
My reference notes—aka the notes I take on books I read, podcasts I listen to or videos I watch.
From these, I create atomic notes, which are notes that each contain a single idea or concept. I then link them with any other related atomic notes.
Over time, I'm building my own web of interconnected concepts that I can dip into for ideas or inspiration on what to write about.
Output system: Content creation board
The other system I've created is a kanban board, which represents my content pipeline. I've divided each stage of the process in a way that makes sense to me and then position each piece of content onto it.
My stages are:
Ideas: this is where I add any topic idea I have as I get them.
Research: this is where I move ideas I want to explore further.
Write: this is where I move ideas once I'm ready to flesh them out. (The focus here is on dumping the first draft down).
Edit (Cut): this is where I read through the 1st draft and do necessary cuts (killing ideas that don’t fit)
Edit (Revise): this is where I make big picture changes (moving paragraphs around)
Edit (Polish): this is where I focus on line editing (finding the right words and making strong sentences)
Design: this is where I create any design for the post.
Publish: this is where I copy/paste the piece into the Substack editor and format for publishing.
Published: this is where I keep the collection published posts.
Repurpose: this is where I go through published posts break them down into smaller pieces of content for social media.
Schedule: this is where I schedule posts for social media.
Done: this is where I move cards once I’m done.
What I like about this workflow is that it allows me to work on different pieces in parallel depending on my time, energy or inclination.
Lesson 4: Use metrics to your advantage
Understanding your metrics is very important to the growth of your publication. Yet it is too easy to get lost in the data. There are countless ways of interpreting it and it can quickly turn into a huge time sink.
It can also be a source of emotional drain.
Approach metrics with the right mindset
When writing online, it's easy to get sucked into obsessing over any small changes in your metrics. I'm definitely guilty of that. But metrics are only useful if they can help you understand if you're moving in the right direction.
So, when looking at the numbers, I encourage you to remind yourself of your why. What are you trying to gain from looking at your metrics?
Without this sense of clarity, no number will ever be enough and will only cause you turmoil.
Track one key metric at a time
One way to use metrics to your advantage is to focus on one metric at a time. Pick one that you believe is the best proxy for what you're trying to achieve. Then measure movement in that key metric as you try different things.
For example, my current goal is to increase the reach of my content on Instagram.
Given that I recently started there from zero, I decided to set increasing reach my goal. (My reasoning is that, if I manage to gain more reach, it’ll translate to more followers. This, in turn, will translate to more subscribers to my publication). So I only look at changes in my reach.
This frees me up to focus on publishing content. Then, at the end of the week or month, I gauge the impact of my efforts and adjust.
Extra: 4 tips on how to grow your publication
I've so far focused on learnings that will help put you in the right mindset. I did that because I think mindset is far more impactful than any individual tactics.
That said, here are four tips that helped me in growing my subscriber list:
Tip 1: Tap into Substack's Recommendation feature
The Recommendations feature is a very powerful way to get people to sign up to your publication. It allows you to piggy-back on the growth of someone else's publication. This is how it works:
Another publication recommends your publication to their audience.
When they get a new subscriber, the Substack UX will ask them whether they also want to sign up to yours.
The trick here is you have to figure out ways to get other publications to recommend you. I’ve found the only way to do that is to:
Write stuff our writers like and would be happy sharing with their readers.
Make them aware of your publication.
Build a relationship that may result in a recommendation.
Easier said than done.
In my case, I was lucky to have a good friendrecommend Seeking Wisdom. Over time, this has given me a steady influx of subscribers with no extra effort—if that’s you, it’s great to have you here!
Pau's newsletter is about Machine Learning so I’ve wondered how much of an overlap exists between our topics. I see evidence of both: some recommended subscribers aren't engaging at all with my posts whilst a bunch are some of my most engaged readers. (For now, I'm happy with this trade off as it means I'm reaching some new readers that I otherwise wouldn't).
That said, if you end up trying to get recommended by other publications, try to do so within your own niche.
(By the way, if you’re curious about Machine Learning, I highly recommend Pau’s publication. Pau knows his stuff and he’s a great guy and teacher).
Tip 2: Work on your reader acquisition flow
As daunting as it feels to publish the first few times, the most probable outcome is that very few people will read anything if you don't tell them about it. The reality is that having a publication means it's on you to promote what you're writing about.
And this means being active on discoverability platforms such as social media.
For example, Notes is a great way to get people already on Substack to discover your writing. Admittedly, I haven't been active much there but I can see how powerful it can be. (If you have positive experiences with Notes, do let me know in the comments; I'm curious to hear your story).
For now, I've decided to focus on growing my Instagram channel. Of all the platforms I experimented on, I found it the least unenjoyable experience. It has good analytics, which I'm using to help me understand what is appealing to people, and has scheduling options.
Tip 3: Add your publication to TheSample.ai
TheSample.ai is a newsletter discovery service that sends out your posts to its readers. If those readers then like what they read, they have to the option to subscribe to your publication.
In my case, it hasn't led to a ton of new subscribers but enough to justify the 10 minutes it took me to add Seeking Wisdom to the directory. As a bonus, the metrics in The Sample.ai's dashboard gives you another glimpse into the performance of your individual posts.
(If you want to support Seeking Wisdom, you can sign up to The Sample here. You'll get to discover new newsletters and, in return, I'll get extra traffic from them).
Tip 4: Tell your friends and family
My last tip is where most people will start: tell your friends and family. Be aware that this is a bit of a double-edged sword though.
Friends and family may bring you an initial boost of subscribers but they probably won't be your target audience. As a result, their feedback might be of questionable use and might block you.
Personally, I find writing to people I don't know in real life more liberating.
I've been writing Seeking Wisdom for over 3 months now and I’m finally starting to feel a little more settled.
I still don't know what I'm doing exactly and I still feel resistance every time I sit down to write. But I do feel more comfortable with the process.
I'm starting to appreciate that writing in public is a form of exploration. There is no end point, only the act of reaching out into the world, one week at a time.
If I can connect with other people in the process, then I’ll take that.
That's it, thanks for reading!
If you do end up creating a Substack publication, make sure to tell me in the comments below and I’ll check it out.