How To Start Writing On Substack

Dickie Bush & Nicolas Cole

Ultimate Guide Table of Contents

In this week's Digital Writing Compass Deep Dive, we want to talk about Substack.

Substack is a newsletter platform that lets independent writers publish directly to their audience and get paid through subscriptions. It combines a blog, a newsletter, and a payment system all into one place, so you can focus on writing while they take care of the technical details for you. 

Unfortunately, finding readers for your newsletter requires you to dial up your marketing efforts to garner those coveted email addresses from people who don’t know you.

Here’s the golden rule:

Start writing on Substack when you have an audience.

The hardest thing about starting a newsletter is finding and growing your audience on social platforms, first. 

It's not enough to just “start a newsletter.” You first need to find people who want to read your content for free, out in the open. Because if you already have an audience, it’s way easier to ask readers for their email addresses—notifying them when new content (from you) arrives in their inboxes. All of this takes time, effort, and commitment. 

So, before you even “think” about starting a newsletter, be sure you’re doing the following:

  • Writing on social platforms (like Twitter, LinkedIn, Medium, etc.).
  • Gathering data and analyzing “what’s working” in your Typeshare Analytics.
  • Doubling-down on your winning topics and refining your audience. 
  • And over time, Naming & Claiming your niche.

Only once you’ve done the above should you start a newsletter on Substack.

Substack helps you send a newsletter without worrying about a complicated email marketing system.

Now, out of all the different platforms out there, why use Substack? 

Because even though e marketing platforms like Mailchimp are packed full of useful features, you probably won’t need 90% of them (especially if you’re starting your very first newsletter).

With Substack, you can send your newsletter with just one click. It’s insanely simple. On top of that, it’s really the only email platform designed around ascending free subscribers into a paid tier. (Substack’s category is literally “paid newsletters.” So even though you can write and publish on Substack for free, the whole point is to move free subscribers up to a paid tier eventually.) 

Here are some other reasons why this platform is and ideal place to start:

  • It's free to use.
  • You have full editorial control.
  • You get to keep 90% of what you earn (Substack takes 10% of your paid subscription earnings).
  • If you ever leave, you can take your audience with you (just export the excel file of all your subscribers).
  • Substack is continuing to invest in distribution tools, like community recommendations, to help you grow your subscriber base.

If this sounds like the next logical place for you to start writing online, here’s a quick guide on how to get started writing on Substack.

Step 1: Set up your account, but hold off on the paywall.

Don't paywall your writing until you're ready.

It will take a few minutes to get your account set up and a lot longer to make sure you have an audience that wants to hear from you. Even if you've built a following, it will be tempting to start charging for your writing as soon as possible. (And if you don't have an existing audience, then people may not be able to find you when they go looking for content that's worth paying for.) So, start for free—and use Substack to grow your audience and attract new readers by sharing your work out in the open.

Focus on building up your subscriber base so that when you are ready to start charging for content, you'll have a large pool of interested people waiting for it. And once you do decide to launch a paid newsletter, remember that it’s okay if it doesn’t work out right away! 

You’re building something new and exciting, and it may take time for people to get used to the idea of paying for something that used to be free.

Step 2: Repurpose proven content from your library.

You should be coming to Substack with validation from other platforms like LinkedIn or Twitter.

First, dive into your Typeshare analytics and find some content that you already know resonates with your target readers. Then find 2 to 3 different pieces that represent the topics you write about and align with your goals for starting a newsletter. Look at how many impressions and engagements you received from each piece and identify which ones are best suited for you to “double-down” on.

Use these posts as your seed content.

Remember: the hardest part of getting your newsletter started is figuring out what readers are actually willing to subscribe for. So, remove the question altogether by starting with proven content. Just pull ideas from your existing content library, and expand them. 

Remember, you can easily expand content by adding in:

  • Lessons
  • Mistakes
  • Tips
  • Stories
  • Examples
  • Case Studies
  • Etc.

Step 3: Send your first newsletter (to yourself).

Before you hit publish, send a copy of the post to yourself.  

You want to take the time to do this for two reasons:

Reason #1: Your writing will look different and feel different on different platforms. And when you send yourself a copy of your newsletter, you will view your writing through a completely different lens. How does the subject line read in the midst of your inbox? Do the images display how you want?  Do the words wrap where you want? 

Put yourself in the position of your reader and make edits accordingly.

Reason #2: Once you have a copy of the email in your inbox, you can forward it to your friends and family as a personal invite to join your newsletter if they like what they see.  It is a nice way to get some early traction and feedback from people you trust. 

Don’t be afraid to ask your friends to share!    

Step 4: Launch your newsletter on Twitter.

Substack gives you a way to communicate directly to your audience with email, but it doesn’t replace the effort required to grow that email list. 

You need a way to promote and market your Substack. This could be a big Twitter or Instagram or LinkedIn account. We recommend you connect your Twitter account. Substack makes it possible for you to send an email to other Substack readers who follow you on Twitter letting them know that you now have a Substack publication which they can subscribe to. This is another great way to get early attention on your new newsletter.  

For more, check out this Ultimate Guide To Starting A Newsletter.

Step 5: Network with writers and readers to drive growth.

When you're trying to grow your audience on Substack, it's important to network with other writers and readers.

Substack has a Discover function (that they are continuing to build out) that helps readers find new and interesting writers. But what most writers don’t consider is that this Discover area of Substack can also be a great place to find and meet other collaborators. Look at who the other up-and-coming newsletter writers are in your niche/industry, and reach out to them. See if they’d be willing to do some sort of cross-promotion with you. Or maybe co-write an issue of your newsletter with you—which they then send to their email list as well.

There is so much opportunity on Substack.

We encourage you to dive in!

Here are some three ways to connect with other writers and readers:

  • Turn on recommendations. Recommendations on Substack help writers get their work in front of new audiences and receive the same for their own work. To recommend publications, head to your Settings and click Recommend other publications on Substack under Publication Details.
  • Involve your readers. Incorporate comments and quotes from your community into your posts to make them more engaging and personal.
  • Knock on virtual doors. Try cold emailing or DM'ing someone you admire and who has an audience that would likely be interested in what you are writing about.

The more you engage with the community, the more chances you'll have to connect with new people who might love your work.

Alrighty, that does it for today’s Digital Writing Compass Deep Dive!

As a recap, you just learned:

  • Fast track your growth by bringing your audience with you to Substack.
  • When you should consider monetizing your newsletter.
  • 3 quick ways that help you build a strong community around your writing.

The big takeaway is to start writing on Substack only once you’ve validated your assumptions & proven you know your readers.

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