On newsletters

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Here’s a tip: Try to keep your imminent death out of mind or else you’ll never get any blogging done.

Because people have asked: here are 3 lessons I’ve learned from doing a weekly newsletter.

1. Send out a newsletter you’d actually read.

This should be obvious. Check your inbox and you’ll discover it isn’t.

Lots of people start newsletters because it’s one more box to tick on their Content Checklist™. Please don’t be one of these people.

I mean, sure, you can start a newsletter for crass self-promotional reasons, but if you want people to actually care, you’ve got to put a little love in it. It’s hard for people to love things that are made without love.

My favorite newsletters are what blogs used to be: Places for interesting people to share the things they’re interested in.

Oh, and before you hit send, consult The “So What?” Test.

2. Pick a repeatable format.

Everything good takes time to take off. If you’re going to stick with it, it helps to make your process as simple as possible.

Dig through my archives and you’ll find that my weekly emails mostly follow the same template. Every Thursday afternoon, I make a copy of last week’s newsletter, plug in new stuff, and schedule it to send out on Friday.

Having a repeatable format also has the pleasant side effect of consistency. People like to know what they’re in for — otherwise, they tend to hit “mark as spam.”

3. Turn off unsubscribe notifications.

Every time I send out a newsletter, at least 50 people unsubscribe immediately. That’s just the way it goes.

Analytics can get depressing — why not arrange the numbers so you’re only getting good news? Makes things a lot more fun.

MailChimp has a box where people can type in their reasons for unsubscribing. I recommend ignoring these reports.

“I don’t mind women leaving,” Richard Pryor once joked, “but they always want to tell you why!”

Later, scrubs! Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

You can subscribe to my newsletter here.

Fitting it together


“This is an age of divorce. Things that belong together have been taken apart. And you can’t put it all back together again. What you do is the only thing that you can do: you take two things that ought to be together and you put them back together. Two things, not all things! That’s the way the work has to go. You make connections in your work… That’s what we do, we people who make things. If it’s a stool or a film or a poem or an essay or a novel or a musical composition, it’s all about that. Finding how it fits together and fitting it together.”
Wendell Berry

3 reasons why you should show your work

A few weeks ago I gave my friend Chase Jarvis 3 reasons why all workers — not just “creatives”! — should be showing their work:

  1. Documenting your process helps your progress.
    Keeping track of what you’ve done helps you better see where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re headed. It’s also a great way to hold yourself accountable — if you dedicate yourself to sharing a tiny bit of your process every day, you’re forced to actually do the work you should be doing.
  2. Sharing your process reaps the benefits of self-promotion without the icky feelings.
    People are often just as interested in how you work as much as the work itself. By sharing your process, you invite people to not only get to know your work, but get to know you — and that can lead to new clients, new projects, and all sorts of other opportunities.
  3. Building an audience for what you do creates a valuable feedback loop.
    Christopher Hitchens said the best thing about putting out a book is that it’s a “free education that goes on for a lifetime.” As you gain fans and followers by sharing your work, they will, in turn, share with you. Even when the feedback is bad, it can lead you down new paths.

That’s a short version of the why. The book will teach you how.

The benefits of boredom

having become bored out of her gourd the artist started working

Leslie Barker, a writer at the Dallas Morning News, got in touch with me way back in October and asked me about a subject I consider myself an expert on: the benefits of boredom.

Here’s what I wrote in Steal Like An Artist:

the benefits of boredom

By the way, “Stare at a spot on the wall” was something I stole from psychologist William James of all people. I later turned it into an exercise in The Steal Like An Artist Journal:

stare at this dot until you get an idea

When it comes to the benefits of boredom, I’m certainly not the first to write about the subject…

[Read more…]

What to leave out and what to leave in

creativity is subtraction

Lots of writers — myself included — have stressed the importance of subtraction, or knowing what to leave out.

Mark Twain: “A successful book is not made of what is in it, but of what is left out of it.”

Dizzy Gillespie: “You spend a lifetime playing music to learn what not to play.”

Elmore Leonard: “Try to leave out all the parts readers skip.”

edit out the boring parts

But what if you leave out the wrong stuff? How do you know what to leave in?

Here’s David Mamet, in Three Uses Of The Knife:

I used to say that a good writer throws out the stuff that everybody else keeps. But an even better test occurs to me: perhaps a good writer keeps the stuff everybody else throws out.

Peter Turchi told me when he’s teaching writing workshops, he’s careful not to try to “fix” a student’s story too quickly:

[W]e have to recognize that the thing that looks most flawed, might, in fact, be the most interesting thing in the work. So we’re not looking for the thing that functions best, because to do that is to only reward the most conventional and most familiar moves the work makes. But to try to recognize the thing that excites us the most, or intrigues us the most, which may be something the writer doesn’t even understand.

“Life is selection,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. “The work of the gardener is simply to destroy this weed, or that shrub, or that tree, & leave this other to grow.”

But which weed? Which shrub? Which tree?

Exactly. That’s the art.