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10 Tips for Writing A Newsletter People Want to Read
I’ve been working on a pretty extensive “guide book” to help fiction writers, specifically, navigate Substack with dexterity for audience growth. Like all projects of this scope I pull books off my personal shelf that come the closest to what I want my book to look and feel like both inside and out. Newsletter Ninja is the quintessential example. Small. Compact. Succinct. Every topic and page contains vital information. I then realized there was a Newsletter Ninja 2 I had yet to purchase (done) and of course a newsletter I never signed up for (also done). If you are obsessed with writing the best newsletter you can and appealing to the widest audience at the same time, might I suggest you sign-up for her newsletter as well. And here’s a link to Newsletter Ninja and Newsletter Ninja 2.
When you sign up for her newsletter she gives you a free pdf that contains 12 tips for writing the best emails. I wanted to share them here but expand upon them using the hat of a fiction writer and add a few of my own that align closer to providing fiction content to subscribers.
Before you start, have a plan
It’s easy to think, I’m going to start a newsletter, and dive right in because it might look like that’s how everyone else is doing it these days. But, in reality, it takes a long time and a lot of emails to “get it just right.” I’m about 7 years into having a newsletter and what I started out with is nowhere close to what it looks like now, nor is the content the same either. My newsletter is still morphing over time until I find that magic sauce that will make mine unique. As you decide what you want to make up your newsletter’s style and substance might I suggest doing some homework by signing up to newsletters (if you aren’t already) of people you admire and whose content already reaches you in other ways (Twitter, YouTube, TikTok, etc.). Scope out how they organize their newsletters and, as Austin Kleon would say, Steal Like an Artist.
The Art of the Subject Line
It’s a skill I’ve yet to master, I think, and so I am constantly studying headlines from articles I find interesting as well as Subject lines of newsletters I’m subscribed to. Not just how they word their subject but if they follow through on that promise. Some will use emojis in their subject to stand out. Others will put a witty phrase to catch attention. Then there are those that are very regimented with volume and email number. Very mysterious. You have to open the email to find out what secrets it might hold. Another area where playing around till you find what works for you is important. Don’t rush it. But realize the subject line is like the cover of a book you happen to see in a bookstore. Everyone says, “don’t judge a book by its cover,” but let’s be honest, we all do it. If your subject doesn’t spark interest it will likely go unnoticed and unread.
Use microcopy wherever logical and possible.
Full disclosure: It wasn’t till I was learning how to improve upon my newsletter skills that I even heard the word “microcopy” so if this is your first time hearing it too, let me explain as best I can. Microcopy is the teeny-tiny informational stuff we often ignore when filling out a form or the catch phrase on a website we stop noticing after frequent visits. They serve to let the visitor (or reader) know that the content they are about to consume is exactly what they’ve been looking for so they should absorb it all. “But wait…there’s more!” or “Maybe she’s born with it. Maybe it’s Maybelline.” Not sure why I was thinking of the Maybelline commercial for some reason as I haven’t seen it in years, but hopefully that helps to understand that microcopy can make you stand out from everyone else. I like my salutation of “Hello Reader.” It's subtle but reminds both myself and the subscriber that they are here, in my email, to read it (and enjoy it?).
Write to ONE person
This is one I’ve heard used countless times before. It works when writing fiction as well. It helps to just imagine that one person who can’t wait to read what you wrote. They are tailor made for your content. You picture them down to the kind of clothes they wear and music they listen to. Basically, I like to imagine myself and write what I would want to read and assume there is at least one other person in the world similar to me who has the same tastes in amazing writing. Who is your one person?
Be known for something.
That something could be silly or serious but it’s something that is shared between you and your subscribers that builds a connection. Maybe it’s that every single email includes an affirmation quote that you come across every week and you share it to boost everyone’s day, not just your own. Or you love Star Trek and you’re binging a show and each email you can’t help but pick an episode or character that resonated with you and you share why. No, I’m not currently indulging in Star Trek and finding every possible way to inject it in whatever I write! You are!
Write in your own voice.
Unless you’re writing an article that is meant to be factual and not include a hint of yourself or bias in it, then you want to be able to read your email out loud and if it doesn’t sound like things you would actually say, write it again. Reading things out loud, I find, is one of the best ways to improve not just writing a newsletter but writing stories as well.
Optimize the style and look
Everyone has their own way of presenting an email. Some will just have a block of text with no fancy bells and whistles. No images. Just words and maybe a link or two. Then there are emails that will have a fancy banner, section headings to keep things organized, YouTube videos, images, links, etc. Whatever you decide, it’s good to be uniform in that decision so that it’s not jarring for the reader. I will make tweaks to my own newsletters here and there but it will be months in-between when I make drastic changes.
Use CTA’s properly
It’s important to have some form of link or button to test engagement over time. Even if you’re not selling something (which I recommend not doing right from the start) it’s helpful to at least know just how much your subscribers are interacting with the email you send. Are they reading to the end of your email and clicking that link you strategically placed near the bottom? What you choose to do with the tracking information you gather is up to you, but it’s important to track the clicks especially when you start deciding to sell something.
Do you have a P.S. in your emails? You should
I say this hesitantly because I used to have a PS in my emails but I stopped doing it and I honestly don’t remember why. I remember I started because I know someone who uses it to share secret things about his writing and I found the idea of hiding things in the PS that people had to click to take them to a secret webpage to be fascinating. So I started to do it. I think I stopped when I stopped having secret-worthy things to hide. I really should bring it back and I just might. Just remember if you decide to utilize the mighty PS, for whatever reason it really does get clicks almost every time. That is one thing I remember about whenever I would use a PS and have a link contained in it. That link was the most clicked. There is just something about the promise of a message hidden within a PS that makes people curious enough to click it.
Remove unengaged subscribers.
I’m sure this can cause a debate among newsletter writers. There will be those who say, “don’t waste your time.” And others will claim they clear out their subscriber list regularly. I will say that when I used Mailchimp I was of the mindset that clearing out the subscribers who never opened my emails was vital. Mailchimp had a cap of 2,000 subscribers and anything over that you then had to pay for. These days they have lowered that number to 500! I pity anyone who is trying to still work within the confines of Mailchimp’s rules. But because of the need I had to constantly chip away at my email list to make sure it never went above a certain number I’m just used to doing it. I’ll admit I have not had to do it with Substack because they don’t have a cap on the number of subscribers I can host with them. However, when it comes to having the most accurate numbers for opens and link clicks it helps to have a list that is the most active users.
Short stories or serials for fiction writers
If you’re not a fiction writer this might not apply to you. But one thing I highly recommend if you write fiction and you want to make sales of your work in the future, including short fiction in your email and then a link where they can go to “read more” can be most helpful. When I remember, I like to include a Drabble in my emails which are stories that are exactly 100 words in length. It doesn’t take up much space to include it in my update emails and it’s a way for me to remind my subscribers that I write fiction too especially as it can seem like I’m writing more non-fiction stuff about my journey as a fiction writer than actual fiction!
Enjoy the ride
It can be easy to get lost on the road. You find yourself so focused on writing the next email and getting that perfect and out to your subscribers that after a while you look back on all that you’ve done and find you didn’t quite enjoy it like you hoped you would. It’s okay to miss a day or more. Just like it’s okay if you much rather write the story than tell your subscribers about it. Sometimes we need to just write and not be bothered with the extra bits on the edges. Your readers (I hope) will be understanding. At the end of the day they would much rather get something from you that you enjoyed writing and couldn’t wait to share than some obligated weekly email that you struggled to put together.
At the end of the day communicating with your email list is supposed to be fun for you to write and for them to read. When that stops happening it’s time to reevaluate the process from top to bottom and maybe go back to the basics.