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“Don’t Start A Newsletter” & Other Advice For Newsletter Writers
(Also, "don't use self-contradictory clickbait headlines." Only the worst people do that.)
(Click above for the audio version of this post, unless you have an aversion to accents that sounds like a cross between Ned Stark and an extra from a Monty Python film.)
Hello! This is Everything Is Amazing, a newsletter about science, wonder and curiosity.
Except - not today! Today, I’m doing something a bit different. This newsletter was originally going to be my next piece on mountains for paid subscribers - but because of what’s happening on Twitter and all the implications of that, I’ve switched things around a bit. Mountains in a few days, and today, this.
What The Hell, Elon
Now, Twitter’s not really that big in online network terms. There are around 350 million active accounts on there - which certainly sounds like a lot, that’s 5 times the population of the UK. But there are 5 billion people using the internet, around 60% of the entire population of the world. So only about 7% of that number are using Twitter. There are actually more people using the digital scrapbook Pinterest right now than using Twitter - and compared to Facebook’s roughly 2.9 billion users? It’s not a big thing.
But it is important. Important for scientists, important for writers, and certainly hugely important for me and this newsletter. Over half of you who have been kind enough to subscribe to read my rubbish came via Twitter, and most of you arrived during one crazy week in February of this year, when I had a Twitter thread about the ancient Zanclean Megaflood go madly viral. That thread has now reached 1/35th of the whole of Twitter - 10 million people - and in February, it led to over 6,000 of you signing up to read Everything Is Amazing.
But Twitter matters to me in other ways. I’m not a researcher, I’m not a scientist or science journalist, I’m just some bloke with a newsletter, and in order to do my job, I have to rely on the actual work being done by researchers in the fields I’m writing about. Twitter has been a fantastic discovery tool for this - and it’s allowed me to connect, one to one, with many of the people doing the work. For example, when the Zanclean Megathread roared out of control, the head of the project currently investigating it, the geoscientist Daniel Garcia-Castellanos, was active in the comments. That’s extraordinary. Extraordinarily generous, but also - what amazing power to connect.
Twitter’s also become a way to challenge toxic power, to demand justice, to amplify minority voices that deserve to be heard, and lots of other stuff that you’d firmly put in the category of “doing a bit of good in the world.”
But now, Twitter has a new owner, the billionaire Elon Musk - and he seems determined to burn it all to the ground. I can’t think of another way to explain it, truly. He’s been posting conspiracy theories, he’s been posting misogynistic frat-boy-style memes, he’s alienated around half of Twitter’s advertisers, not just annoyed them but driven them away - and this is serious, because Twitter’s losing around 4 million dollars a day and almost all its revenue is advertising. He delivered an essentially bullying ultimatum to the remaining staff that made 75% of them quit, he’s fired contractors seemingly on a whim, he’s broken employment laws in the EU and elsewhere - it’s a real clown omelet, all of it.
But the thing that makes me think he really doesn’t know what he’s doing is that he described Twitter’s woes as an engineering problem. The kind that would just require more coding, more tech.
It’s like he hasn’t paid attention to anything over the last 20 years. Twitter is a social network, and one of those words is the key to its success. (And it isn’t “network”.) The reason that social platforms like MySpace and Friendster died, and the reason tarnished ones like Facebook have managed to cling on regardless of criticism, is because of the people using them. The punters. Us. You don’t much like using it, but Aunt Petunia is posting all her dog photos on there, and they always brighten up your day and you know she’d feel bad if you didn’t click on that Like button occasionally. And that’s most of everyone. Because the people are everything.
And now, I’m seeing lots of them leave Twitter. Accounts are going dark, or going private (which is often a sign they’re half out the door), or they’re just - stopping posting. I don’t know what the actual figures are, but certainly a number of prominent voices have been silenced. And the more that goes on, the less reason other folk have to stick around. So maybe Twitter’s not going to die overnight, but it’s giving every sign of looking like its userbase is starting to hollow out, as everyone goes elsewhere. I can’t see how you can code your way out of that problem.
Anyway. Honestly, this stuff is exhausting just thinking about. I don’t write about internet tech, and you don’t read me to hear about it. So let’s not.
But I figure this is an opportunity to say a few things about you. About your voice. Because your voice is important, to everyone.
Beyond the absolute basics, human beings need two things to really thrive: we need to feel part of something greater, and we need to feel that we’re special in some way. These are always true. True in that we always feel these things, and true in that they’re absolutely correct. And because you are a bit different to everyone else in a good way, your voice matters, and you’re going to be able to say stuff with it that none of the rest of us are ever going to be able to put into words in quite the same way.
Maybe you know this and you’re on it. Maybe you have your own newsletter, perhaps one that’s a lot better than mine, and right now you’re rolling your eyes. I’m sorry! I know what I can sound like.
But perhaps you haven’t quite got started yet. Perhaps more and more you’re feeling like you could write one of these newsletter things yourself - and you should feel that, even if you decide to do nothing with that feeling at least for now.
Perhaps you’ve read me for a while and you’re thinking, “Well, he doesn’t really sound like he knows what he’s doing. I could do that too!”
You’re right. You could!
Because you’d do it differently, because you’re you.
But the principle is absolutely sound. Nothing stopping you.
So in that spirit, I thought I’d try to collect together a lot of jumbled thoughts on making something like this newsletter, a few ideas, a bit of experience and a lot of failed experiments. Not “The Ultimate Guide To Writing A Newsletter In 2023,” but “one guide”. One approach, one that I really believe in, because it worked for me. And since these thoughts are very jumbled, I’m writing them out in the form of a listicle, which makes me feel like it’s 2012 all over again (listicles are what we wrote when we couldn’t think up an actual structure for our writing, totally idiot-proof, trust me on this).
So, let’s start with some properly outrageous clickbait.
1. Don’t Start A Newsletter
Wow. Great advice, Mike - in your newsletter. What kind of feckless wretch are you? Maybe the kind who talks about himself in the third person! But hold on! Let me explain.
The term “newsletter” seems to go way back, including to correspondences exchanged between people in ancient Rome, a mostly one-to-one way of communicating that became one-to-many with the introduction of the printing press. It’s where newspapers came from, starting in the 17th Century. And of course you know what “news” is? That thing that’s urgent and timely and important, and usually filled with awful things that make you feel grumpy and stabby for the rest of the day.
There is, nowadays, an overwhelming amount of news. Never in human history have we all had the ability to know so much about what’s happening in every part of the world. This is incredibly exciting if you care about very specific parts of the news. If you want to carve a place for yourself reporting on local news, either locally here or locally wayyyy over there, then this is a brilliant time to get started on that.
However, if you don’t want to write about “the news”, you’re allowed to not write about it without feeling bad about it. Seriously. Because I know how easy it is to feel bad in that way. So you really care about ferns, or earthenware teapots, or the poems of Sappho, widely agreed to be one of the greatest poets of Classical Greece, and you absolutely burn to explain to everyone else why they should care like you do. Well, you’re allowed to do that. Even with climate change, the war in Ukraine, governmental corruption, amazing displays of idiocy from people in positions of great power, all these other things in the news - you are allowed to write about your specific nerdy thing.-
Two reasons for this. First: because your nerdy thing has value, and that value can’t be erased by cheap, lazy comparisons to other things. You know this deep down - it’s why you care so much - but the desperate noisy urgency of the rest of the world can easily drown it out. Social media’s made this much worse: oh look, this really awful loudmouth spouting nonsense is trending, that must mean the world is filled with really-awful-loudmouth-supporting dimwits. Or - they’re trending because everyone’s yelling at them, and in fact nobody gives a toss about them and would much rather talk about teapots, if only someone would start doing that properly.
And secondly: the enthusiasm you bring to your chosen subject has value to other people beyond what you’re writing about. If you show up with infectious energy, you’ll have readers who don’t give a damn about teapots or Greek poetry but absolutely love that you do, in the madly exuberant way that you do. If only there were more people who enthusiastically cared about their stuff instead of complaining about other people’s stuff, they’ll think. And they’ll be right, The world needs both, but right now, I’d say enthusiasm is underrepresented.
So - maybe you could start a…what? Enthusiasmletter? Funletter? Nerdletter? I don’t know what you’d call it. But it wouldn’t be a newsletter, because it wouldn’t be about The News. It wouldn’t be urgent, but it would be amazingly timely if you write about things that are always true, no matter what age we live in (just go have a read of the websites The Marginalian or Aeon to see what I mean). It wouldn’t be breaking headlines, but it could be exactly what someone needed to read, right that very second.
And most of all, it might make a total stranger feel like today was worth getting out of bed for, so tomorrow might be as well. A hopeletter.
Yeah, please go do that. It’s needed.
Further inspiration: Make 2022 The Year Of Maximum Enthusiasm.
2. Swing For The Fences
I believe this is an American term from baseball, which is like cricket, only they sawed the bat in half to make it even harder for some reason, and it’s all much noisier so you can’t have a nap when you’re watching from the stands. Here’s an overview: the Batty Person tries to wallop the Rounded Bally Thing as far away as they can, in the hope that it goes so far that it hits a member of the public, and if they can’t do this, they have to run around in a circle as punishment. It’s a bit odd really, but it’s also a good metaphor so let’s use it.
I think it’s Judd Legum of the newsletter Popular Information that said growing a newsletter is about engineering breakout hits. This can get interpreted as “going viral” - but that’s kind of a misleading term. Stuff goes viral all the time on social media and elsewhere, and it does absolutely nothing for the person who made it. The reason is that it wasn’t engineered to do anything beyond maybe get some attention. It was just a bit of fun. Which is fine in itself - fun has an important place on the internet, after all. But if you want to create fun that leads to something greater and more meaningful for everyone involved, you have to engineer it to do that. It might not work in the way you hope, but you’re trying to make it work.
With this in mind, a bit of storytelling advice I picked up from professional journalists. It’s this: nobody cares about you. Almost nobody. Less than 10% of people who read your words online. Or less than 5%. Or - nobody. And this is normal. We’re all wrapped up in our own problems, we’re all massively overwhelmed with information, and that means that if you tell a story that’s specifically and entirely about yourself in a way that only you can truly relate to, then - nobody will care. A few of your biggest fans will, but that’ll be about it.
To reach that other 90-95% of the people that will read your words, you have to try to get inside their heads. What do they care about? What a universal experience that everyone has that you can tap into, so you’re meeting them where they are, not trying to drag them over to where you are? There are lots of ways of defining this - one is “value proposition” - but whatever form you choose, it has to reach them properly, as a felt presence in their life that’s welcome and helpful in some way.
This is, obviously, Really Damn Hard. Expect to spend a good while finding out what works for you - or at least getting close to it. Hollering distance. A certain something in the wind, on a good day.
But when you get near it, you’ll know. Maybe not immediately - as your engagement goes through the roof you might not know what the hell’s happening (“did the Internet just break?”) but at some point, you’ll realise that maybe for the first time, you’ve said something that almost everyone understood. If you can swing a few of those every now and again, your reputation should grow nicely.
3. Run The Other Way
Ten years ago I used to go to travel blogging conferences, and I even ended up speaking at a couple of them. Marvelous things, they were: lots of friendships made, lots of ambitious desperation in the air, quite a lot of selling, and a full schedule of presentations on how to be a travel blogger.
As I said, I was sometimes one of the presenters, talking about storytelling. And I talked about the importance of confounding expectations when you’re telling a story: that balancing act between being too predictable and being so anarchic that you upset everyone. But I reckon the anarchy side was the most important thing I taught.
To paraphrase Monty Python, as newsletter writers, our chief weapon is surprise. Surprise and fear. Our fear, at trying to surprise our readers. We’re terrified about doing it. What if this is the leap into the dark that burns everything down? Well, firstly, excellent mixed metaphor, you should definitely try to break the polite rules of grammar every now and again, and secondly, that’s not what you should be terrified about. You should be terrified of looking boring. And you will become boring when your stuff looks exactly like everyone else’s.
So - unleash your reckless idiot. Break a few rules. Go the other direction to everyone else. Not very often, because this approach is like seasoning, you should only dab a few experimental sprinkles here and there until you’re sure it’s not going to actually ruin everything. But often enough. And the reason for this is, I dunno, what would happen if Twitter melted down and you relied upon it to get people excited about your work? What would you do then?
This is going to keep happening - not to Twitter….well, maybe to Twitter, who knows, but it’s also a fact of creative life. There are plenty of people writing newsletters to pay attention to here - for example, shoutout to writer Elle Griffin who is always trying new things in and around her Substack The Novelleist. She’s great at chucking stuff at the wall to see if it’ll stick. That really is a good way to learn.
4. You Can’t Help Other People Enough
You can see people starting online businesses who have a grounding in the offline late 20th-Century capitalist way of doing things: they treat it all like a zero-sum game. I’m not going to help you because then I’ll lose power. The only way for me to go upwards is to step on the face of the person above me. Never ever work for free, especially for other people. And so on.
This has always been bullshit, including offline, but its bullshitty nature is particularly evident on the internet, when you tune out the blowhard fauxpreneurs and plastic gurus and so on, and look at the people who are doing well, and then look at who they hang out with. Networks are everything - and the best kinds of networks are built non-transactionally. Putting that into normal, actual people-using-their-face-holes talk: be generous and kind and helpful.
I talked a few newsletters back about how kindness improves everything, including your own health, weirdly enough. Generosity seems to be much the same, as Adam Grant outlines in his book Give and Take, which I also mentioned a while back. And helpfulness is the third in this power-trilogy of impactful creative strategies. The more you help people, the better it is for everyone, including you. It’s a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats thing, but you’re also marketing yourself as someone worth paying attention to, simply because you’re looking like the opposite of a selfish dick.
This is a thing that can sit uncomfortably with you if you think about it long enough. Am I doing this nice thing for someone because I’m a good person, or because I’m an unusually self-interested one? Well, deal with it. Wrestle with it privately by yourself in the long winter months if you must, because it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that other people get helped.
This also extends to running a paid newsletter. I’m going to steal a really lovely line from a recent newsletter from Holly Rabalais who writes Release and Gather, because it’s a great way to think about it: “when you have more than you need, build a longer table, not a higher fence.”
One way of doing this is to make the creative causes you support a function of your income - so as you build up your paid offering, you put aside a set percentage to help support the work of other people you admire. I’m doing this with my own Substack: as I grow it, I can take out a few more paid subscriptions to others, so I’m paying it forward.
Another way is Substack’s Recommendations feature, which is a fancy version of what blogrolls were doing ten years ago. I’m recommending a bunch of other newsletters in the hope that new visitors to mine will check those out too - and I hope they do, because I’m recommending them because they’re great.
And again - this could be seen as “networking” if you’re being cynical about it, as buying my way into other people’s communities or trying to chat up their audiences for my own selfish gain. Sure! I don’t think that’s why I’m doing it, but that could just be a sign of how far gone my soul really is.
But again, it matters not. Because the upshot is, I’m doing things that definitely help. I know this because everyone who takes out a paid subscription to me, or recommends my newsletter to their readers, has my eternal gratitude - to a frankly alarming degree. This is why I should probably just stay in my cabin, I’d just end up trying to hug everyone.
So - please, be generous, and kind, and helpful, and do it from the beginning. That’s what the young folk call a “growth hack”. You’re welcome.
5. Own The List
Now, this newsletter’s on Substack. And right now, I trust Substack. Why?
Because they cannot kill this newsletter.
Seriously. They can’t. If Substack overnight turned into Arkham Asylum and everyone there went on a madly destructive rampage, the damage they could do to Everything Is Amazing - and every other Substack newsletter - would be little more than an inconvenience. It would be a royal pain in the bahoochie to get all our content reinstalled somewhere else, and to upload our email list to that new place - like Ghost, which is a brilliant alternative, or some other competitor. It might cost a bit of money upfront to get the front end designed, and so on.
But if we have downloaded our backups, it could be done, with nothing important lost in the process.
So in a very real sense, while you’re signed up to this newsletter through Substack, and while it runs on Substack, I could remove Substack from this equation and continue as before. (I have no plans to do that because Substack have treated me brilliantly and it’s a great platform. But I could.)
But as other newsletter writers and content marketers and….anyone with a conscience have been yelling for the last decade, that is not what would happen to an audience you have on Facebook. Or Instagram. Or - Twitter.
If Twitter poops out tonight, I’ll lose the ability to deliver brilliant, masterly observations like this:
If Twitter stopped me publishing things like that, it would be a huge loss to the world, as I’m sure you’ll agree.
But it would be way more of a loss to me. I might never connect with those people again (if they really are people, because, sometimes it’s hard to know on Twitter.) They’ll be gone. Therefore, to get philosophical for a second - were they ever connected to me?
It’s not a philosophical question, it’s an engineering one, the kind that Elon Musk likes. No: not really. That audience wasn’t mine. It belonged to Twitter - and therefore, in terms of ability to reach that audience, *I* belonged to Twitter.
This is the sleight of hand that social media platforms have been playing with us creators of all kinds for years - and it’s time to move past it.
So: own your list. I don’t know of any other method that’s as effective and empowering as having a list of individual email addresses of people who have willingly opted in to read your stuff. This is as true today as it was a decade ago (which is crazy, if you think about it, what exactly have these big platforms been playing at?). And the great thing is: it empowers your audience too. If they get sick of hearing from you, they can walk away with one click. Everyone wins.
As I said, I’m really enjoying using Substack. You could give it a try, or check out Ghost, or Buttondown, or - well, there’s loads. Or if you’re more comfortable with the technical aspects, you could take Ernie Smith’s advice and build your own newsletter, as he’s done with the brilliant newsletter Tedium. In a way, getting this setup is the easy bit, even though it always feels hard. And the terrific thing with having access to your email list is - if you find you don’t like one, you can shift over to another without losing anything!
You can trust any platform that allows you to do that.
So okay, that’s a lot of rambling advice. I’m probably better off sticking to writing about sciencey things that make you go wow, so I’ll get back to doing that. But - here’s one last point.
When you’re starting any creative endeavor, you’re haunted by one question: “will I ever make it?” You know, that intangible sunlit finish-line over the horizon where your dreams come true and you can finally stop wincing when someone describes you as a writer, or painter, or author, or musician, or whatever label you dream of claiming for yourself.
There are two ways to answer this question honestly, and they’re both a bit disconcerting. The first is: yes. Yes, you are going to make it. I’m not lying to you. You are, indeed, going to make it. But this comes with an enormous caveat, because when you make it, it won’t look anything like what you currently think it’ll look like. So you’ll have a moment where you realise that all your hard work and determination and the inexorable math of steadily outputting work that’s incrementally better and better quality through applied experience, suddenly you’ll see that things have kinda fallen into place in a way that actually, for the first time, works, in a way that you can carry forward in a messy but workable fashion. And you’ll go: but…oh! But this isn’t….ahuh. Hmm. That’ll feel very strange.
Secondly: because it won’t look like how you imagine it’ll look like at the beginning, you won’t make it. Instead, you’ll arrive to find a bunch of new problems to deal with - except they’ll be much more interesting and enjoyable problems. I think this is a Mark Manson quote - the aim of a fulfilled life is to end up dealing with better-quality problems. So really, you’re not going to make it, because the messy, upwards part that’s so much fun is never over. And what a relief that’ll turn out to be.
Hope that helps. See you again in a few days.