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20,000, Somehow: Some Clueless But Enthusiastic Creative Advice
Four more ideas from 2.5 years of this newsletter.
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A few days ago I was working on the next piece for my paid subscribers, in this gap before the start of Season 6 - and suddenly there was a mysterious rush of signups to this newsletter, and…
There’s a tradition going back many thousands of years that whenever you hit a significant milestone for your email newsletter, you immediately drop everything and write a public list of things you’ve learned along the way, using the right mix of joy, gratitude, humility, false humility, earnest helpfulness and insufferable self-congratulation.
Here’s my own reaction to that idea:
More importantly, I’m really not sure that anything I’ve stumbled over is going to be terribly useful to anyone else? At least, not to anyone who isn’t writing a science-related newsletter about curiosity?
If this is true, you might be far better served by, say, Substack’s Grow series, where they interview newsletter writers taking wildly different trajectories, like Laura Kennedy here (and her follow-up newsletter here), or Kristen Hawley here. These interviews are great source of different ideas.
Or maybe go find where your favourite creator gets honest about how experimental their particular approach is, as Adam Mastroianni does here…
Because - and here’s a thing I cannot stress enough - everyone is trying things a bit differently, and all we have are working hypotheses, not ‘laws’. Therefore, anytime you see someone claiming they know a guaranteed Rule For Success, you’ll always be able to find a successful counterexample that proves them wrong - and if you follow that advice and it bores you stupid and eradicates any excitement about doing your work, you will burn out in record time, or become so cynical that it’ll entirely corrode your ability to motivate your readers, with much the same results as burning out.
(Congratulations! You just found a mislabelled Rule For Guaranteed Failure!)
So really, you’re better served by doing whatever the hell seems the most fun and fascinating and intellectually alluring to you, and taking other people’s advice when it triggers that same delighted, excited reaction within you, and then trying to make that thing work somehow. Don’t start with tactics and strategies and all that confident-sounding “here’s what works” advice. Start with the thing you actually want to do from day 1, the thing you’re excited and enthusiastic about, and work outwards from there, however oddball the results of that process of assembly end up looking.
If this feels too nerve-wracking at first, imitating your creative idols is a respectable and reassuring way to build momentum, and as far as I can tell, pretty much what every writer has done at some point. (Deep down I will always feel like the Bill Bryson bargain-basement knock-off that I started my travel writing career as. It’s just how we get ourselves moving.)
But if you do find a way to do things “weirdly” - hooray! That might be a method for getting noticed by everyone else and driving tons of attention to what you’re doing, without spending loads of money on marketing! This is the dream! You’re a genius!
(What’s often being taught by an alleged Universal Rule For Success is how to look like pretty much everyone else - which is advice you might actually want to avoid?)”
Oh dear. Look, I’m already trying to give advice here. Fine. Let’s use some subheadings and try to do this properly.
But before we begin - I need to ask you a favour.
There are now, in theory, over 20,000 of you reading these words.
There’s actually a website that shows you what that looks like in real terms, using pictures of packed town halls, football stadiums and so on. I had a look at the 20,000-people image, and - when I regained consciousness 3 hours later, I realised there are now so many of you that I’ve never exchanged any words with. If you’re an introvert like me, you might prefer things to stay that way - but it also feels like a missed opportunity to connect in a meaningful and heartfelt fashion.
So, I’d like you to go into the comments to this newsletter (if you’re reading this in email, scroll all the way down to the bottom and hit the “Comment” button) - and write “Hi Mike! You’re an idiot.”
No, really. Please do this. It may feel rude to you, but as a perpetually self-mocking British person, I’d find it hilarious and oddly calming to read up to 20,000 comments calling me an idiot.
(And maybe this could be a requirement for anyone hitting a big milestone, to offset that creative person’s suddenly rocketing self-importance and help them stay grounded.)
So, please, go call me an idiot, right now. Especially if you’ve never left a comment before. That’s be fun, and it’d really help.
Okay! So - I already took a wobbly stab at some advice on writing a newsletter in the last season, and if you haven’t seen it, please start there:
Read through those suggestions?
Okay, here are four more.
1. You Don’t Have To Know Anything (Yet)
A few weeks ago, business Substack newsletter writerhit 500,000 subscribers.
Lenny has a colossal following, really knows what he’s doing, & - call me old-fashioned, but I believe this is still important - he sounds like a nice bloke. If you’re going to
follow test out anyone’s advice for yourself, Lenny’s is an excellent bet (especially if you want to write a business newsletter).
However, there’s one part of his “500,000” post that I’d like to respectfully push back on. It’s this:
“Make sure it’s based on your real-life experience. You need to know what you’re talking about. People can tell if you don’t. Notice how the best newsletters are by people who have deep experience in that space. What’s at the center of the Venn diagram of your unique skills and background that together create an interesting topic?”
This is certainly not wrong - but I reckon it’s only half right.
Instead, the other thing you can do is mostly ignore your real-life experience, and go write things as a student of your chosen subject, not as a world-renowned expert on it.
At first glance, this seems counterintuitive. How can you write with any authority on a subject you’re publicly admitting you’re still learning your way into? Seems like reputational suicide.
But you’re not claiming you’re an expert. You’re saying the opposite, up front, and maintaining that identity. In doing so, you’re building deep experience in being actively curious and open to feedback, while honing the enormously powerful skill of communicating your enthusiasm to readers, so they will want to accompany you on the learning journey you’re embarking on.
As a tool for accelerating your own ability to learn stuff, this really works! But it’s also a powerful audience-building tool, as I think the growth of my own newsletter suggests - and it helps stave off creative insecurity, as I recently suggested in Substack Notes:
A tip for battling imposter syndrome:
You know the oft-repeated bit of advice about "writing what you know"? It's wrong - or at least, it's highly misleading, and leads to a lot of misery and paralyzing self-doubt.
What it seems to say (and pretty much everyone reads it this way) is "IF YOU'RE NOT A PROPER EXPERT, WHY ARE YOU EVEN TALKING, STEP AWAY, YOU TIMEWASTING LOUDMOUTH."
This leaves the door wide open to the kind of internal imposter syndrome that can have you staring at a flashing cursor for days - even weeks - as the fear of saying something wrong plays merry havoc with your nervous system.
So here's a better bit of advice: WRITE WHAT YOU WANT TO LEARN.
There's credible research on the power of doing this. [That’s by Annie Murphy Paul, who is also on Substack these days.] It will help you learn better, remember things better and be more creatively curious. But it will also protect you from imposter syndrome, because it's admitting that you may get stuff wrong as you go along. Because of course you will. You're a student!
(The trick is to be open to being corrected - which is a great way to build trust and engagement in readers, because if they see you're humble enough to be publicly corrected and own up to your mistakes, they will consider your voice a more credible presence in their Inboxes.)
The other thing about this is - it lets you invite your readers on a journey with you. A journey of learning. You're guiding them, but you're learning alongside them. That is a really compelling value proposition in a newsletter.
So: write what you want to learn, whether it's something you already know something about, or it's something you're learning from scratch. You don't need to be a world authority. No student ever is. You just need to share the excitement of learning something you're both interested in.
This method of non-fictional storytelling is incredibly addictive - because it’s an invitation, not a dictation. It says, “Hey, let’s find out together.” It’s why the science podcast Radiolab has won two Peabody Awards, it’s why this book about repeatedly walking around a city block in New York is such a revelation to read, and it’ll help your readers fall in love with what they never knew they didn’t know, until now!
But wait - isn’t this how conspiracy theories get started? Someone watches a YouTube video or two, they convince themselves all the experts are Evil and Wrong, and they quickly disappear into the angry depths of the Cave Of Trolls?
I’d say no - because good students don’t actually do that. They don’t suddenly leap up in class and announce they know more than every lecturer and professor and author of every set text, refuse to answer any questions in good faith, then march outside and set up a table outside, marked “I ALONE KNOW THE TRUTH!” Not only would that make graduating really hard for them, they’d also be denying the possibility they might be wrong - which is a really dumb way to study anything.
Forceful certainty, the kind non-ironically wielded by people yelling “open your mind to the truth, sheeple!”, is the enemy of curiosity. And as deeply imperfect as professional academia can be, in my experience it does at least try to teach students how to be curious. (Mostly. Well…more often that not?)
Okay, if I knew more about how conspiracy theories get traction, I’d probably argue this point more persuasively, or, even better, savagely tear it apart. As with all these things, I’m still learning.
But right now it’s my working hypothesis that writing a newsletter about something you want to learn is both a credible & audience-attractive pursuit and also a really fruitful career-building approach, even if you occasionally encounter people like experimental psychologist Adam Mastroianni did here:
“Last March, when I had barely begun blogging, I happened to meet a big shot author who writes pop science books, and I told him about my dreams for this blog. "Maybe this could be what I do," I told him, hopefully.
“It’ll never work,” he said. "People want to read about what they are interested in, not what you are interested in. I’m successful because I write stuff that will sell. I don’t actually like the stuff I write about.”
I felt pretty embarrassed, like I had just told him that when I grow up, I want to be a unicorn. “Maybe, um, maybe there’s actually a lot of people out there who are interested in the same stuff as me!” I suggested, sheepishly.
He wasn’t listening because he had just pulled up my most recent post and was skimming it. “I’m sorry, but this isn’t good enough. Don’t quit your day job." “
2. Start As Slow As Possible
Starting a newsletter is terrifying. Not only are you dealing with all the tightly-woven dread of putting yourself out there, you’re also comparing yourself to the brilliant and prolific folk already newslettering their socks off. But you just can’t write 20,000 words a week, or ten newsletters a month, or those superb pieces of political analysis thatsends out to her 1.2 million subscribers every (!) single (!) day (!)(?!).
But isn’t that what is required of you? Is that what it takes to “make it”?
Nah. Everything is up in the air here. No rules about how many times to post, how many words to write, how much time to do this or that. Everything is editable to the needs and opportunities of our own lives.
As Lenny says:
“A weekly cadence is a great starting point. People often start publishing at too fast a rate and quickly burn out. I can only sustainably write one great post a week. Crazies like Ben Thompson, Noah Smith, and Heather Cox Richardson can do this almost daily. Others can do it only monthly. All these routes are fine. Depending on your goals, even one incredible post a year is very valuable. The key is to find a cadence you can keep up for years.
Remember, quality + consistency = you win, and people don’t want more emails. They want better emails.”
For these reasons, a useful way to start is to be almost - but not quite - not doing it. What’s the absolute smallest amount you could show up and consider yourself to have actually done the thing at all?
Here’s another writer not entirely failing to go surfing for the first time:
“…when it came time to drive on my own to the beach with my board and wetsuit, I was filled with the old dread. I did not want to be perceived, by myself or anyone; I did not want to have to figure out where to go and how and what to do.
Then I realized that I could take a page out of my own blog and start basically as slow as possible. I could go and not even put on my wetsuit or take out my board, and instead just pretend to take the sea air like a young 19th-century dowager with an incurable case of hysteria, while I watched the surfers.”
- “You’re Doing Good. Keep Coming Back” - Casey Johnston, She’s A Beast.
And here’s adventurer Brendan Leonard redefining what running means:
(Brendan also recently wrote a book about how to keep making stuff. It’s really good and it’ll probably help you get somewhere fun.)
What usually happens is that when you get started, you will discover it’s great or okay or sort of tolerable, and you’ll want to do more of it. But using this method, that feeling will kick in after you’ve started, so the whole thing is suddenly so much easier. Because you’re already doing it. Right?
Anyway. If you want an example of finding the right pace for your work, check out Will Dowd’s newsletter:
He publishes new editions around once a month - and every time he does so, they are works of meticulously crafted beauty. (Will’s such a fine writer, with credits at The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, NPR etc, and a rare knack for weaving story threads together in the most surprising of ways.)
So if once a week feels intimidating, why not try a Will-Dowdian publishing schedule, and see how that feels? It’s certainly working spectacularly well for him.
3. Awe Travels Far
Since this newsletter began, I’ve been cheating with my marketing.
The internet is plagued with clickbait - the immensely attention-grabbing material that promises so much if you just abandon whatever you were doing and go click through. When you do, you find meaningless garbage (brilliantly parodied by Clickhole, above), and you’re disgusted with yourself for falling for it yet again, ugh.
As I wrote here, clickbait relies on diversive curiosity, which is the thing that pulls us onwards towards novelty and the enticing mysteries of stuff we’re clueless about. A wonderful thing! Good science writing (say, Ed Yong’s) is terrific at hooking you in just this way.
But without a route into deeper meaning (epistemic curiosity, when you drill down into knowledge instead of hypercaffeinatedly skimming the surface of it), it’s all surface stuff - and when that surface lies to you to trick you into clicking through to a page full of adverts, that’s just bullshit.
I hope (god, I hope) that is the difference between what I’ve been doing and clickbait. I try to write stories like my science writing heroes - but I’m tickling the same parts of the brains of my readers as clickbait does. Take the first tweet of this Twitter thread that drove 6,000 free subscribers into my newsletter - or this one, which reached 3 million people.
I feel like I got away with doing this - and hence wasn’t eviscerated by Science Twitter - because I more or less delivered on what I promised, backing it up with the credible science. (Even so, a few people yelled “clickbait!” at me - and seemed nonplussed when I cheerfully agreed.)
To get my writing noticed, I was using the power of making people go “wow!” - more formally, the human experience of awe and wonder. For a good overview, go listen to this fascinating interview between Katherine May and Professor Dacher Keltner, author of Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How it Can Transform Your Life.
As Professor Keltner says, awe is the source of much that’s good in this world, but also of QAnon, Flat Earthers and the way advertising platforms get us to click on bullshit so they can make $billions. It can be used to highlight great work being done by reputable, ethical scientists - or it can get you to watch Graham Hancock. Awe as a tool is not in itself good or bad: it’s all about the way it’s used.
So here’s some slightly Evil-feeling advice.
Point 2 in this newsletter was “Swing For The Fences”: try to engineer a few breakout hits here and there which have a reach that’s way beyond what’s normal for you and your work. This isn’t necessarily “going viral” - it just has to bounce much further, for much longer.
The way I’ve done this is using awe. As an amateur copywriter, I learned a bit about dramatic tension and story shapes and foreshadowing (and hey, I’ve watched a lot of Breaking Bad). I now know how to hook with a promise of something interesting to come - and when I can deliver on that promise in a way that doesn’t feel like a cop-out or a rug-pull, and if I get more than a bit lucky, my story will travel further than normal.
Obviously Twitter is a flaming pile of toxic Musk nowadays, so - who knows if I’ll ever do it again. But I’ll be trying it again elsewhere, because it did work. Repeatedly. Spectacularly.
So it might work for you too.
4. Add A Bit Of Seasoning
If you’re looking for a still-fairly-unconventional way to organise your newsletter, how about running it in seasons, like the one I just wrapped?
I see the advantages thusly:
you work in creative sprints, not the unending, week-in-week-out grind that can make newsletters such a draining prospect…
with each season, you can refocus on a different topic, and therefore a subtly different audience filled with brand new people who know more than you about what you’re writing about (which keeps you nicely on your toes)…
you can get readers excited about new beginnings and endings…
and you can have an actual legit break every now and again, letting you catch up with your own thoughts, read some things properly. and have what we newsletter writers laughingly call a life.
If you like this idea, please take and use it with my blessing (after all, I’ve only borrowed/stolen it from, like, the whole entertainment industry).
And if this… *searches for appropriate phrase* …utter clown omelet of a man can do it, you can too:
Best of luck!
One More Thing: Can I Help?
As I said at the end of July, I’m offering up consultancy calls to paid subscribers of this newsletter to help them with their own curiosity-driven creative work - not because I have any firm answers on anything (I hope that’s super-clear from this whole newsletter), but because I love the process of throwing ideas around, which was the best part of when I worked as a story consultant.
And now it’s time to get those calls underway!
And if you want to become one, and read the extra 20% just for paid supporters of this project, or just want to see this thing survive and grow, I’d love to welcome you aboard!
(As well as access to all articles behind the paywall, every season includes a special mini-season just for paid subscribers - and the next one is about what I can learn about the power of applied memory, as I explained here a little while back.)
If you’re interested, (a) thank you *so* much, that would mean everything to me, and (b) click below to sign up: