There are no rankings to attain and no algorithms to decide who your content reaches. Unless your newsletters get marked as spam, anything you write slips right into your subscribers’ inbox. Isn’t that neat?
A year ago, I started my Substack newsletter to write about the issues that interest me. Despite the satisfaction I derive from writing SEO articles that generate clicks and impressions, I wanted a space to be authentically me. I wanted to write without caring two hoots about algorithms and search rankings.
When I stumbled upon Substack thanks to some of my writer friends, I instinctively knew Substack is how I can fulfill my writing itch whenever I need it. If you relate to what I just described, this blog post is perfect for you. Otherwise, continue reading to find out more about why I enjoy writing on Substack!
In this post:
What is Substack
For the uninitiated, Substack is a newsletter service. Other mainstream email marketing platforms include ConvertKit, MailChimp, Mailerlite, etc. However, Substack is not quite the same. Or at least, I do not view Substack as a substitute to my mailing list on MailChimp. I write my Substack newsletter almost independently of my blog, and you will see why I do so in a bit.
The following sums up what I think are Substack’s unique selling points:
- Readers and writers can like and comment. Think of it as a discussion forum on all your Substack articles. With the new Substack Reader app, the community is only going to become livelier!
- Anyone can view your entire archive on your Substack page. Past newsletter issues are no longer buried in someone’s inbox, never to be read again.
- Feel confident about your writing? Writers can turn on paid settings to charge a subscription fee. Instead of channeling your creativity towards copywriting, writing a Substack newsletter is one way to express your opinion in a voice that is authentically yours. Of course, nothing stops you from treating Substack as another affiliate marketing opportunity either.
Based on these features, Substack is created with writers in mind. Not only is it an email marketing platform, but it also incorporates some of my favorite features of blogging. Substack makes it possible for constructive debate between readers and writers, and perhaps, even between readers.
To everyone who blogs and loves whenever someone leaves a thoughtful comment, you may find that the comments on Substack tend to be amazingly insightful. From what I regularly observe, readers have just as many opinions to offer, and they—or rather we—make their voices heard! Sometimes, Substack comments could be an equally awesome read.
Anyone and everyone can write and publish on Substack. There are some writers I love, and I relish every Substack newsletter that arrives in my inbox. For instance, essayist Roxane Gay writes The Audacity where she also lends her platform to emerging writers. Matthew Yglesias left Vox—a media company he co-founded—for Substack where he now comments on current affairs.
What You Need to Know About Substack
1. Substack is an email marketing service
At its core, Substack is an email marketing service. In other words, you must put in the work to build an engaged subscriber base. Sure, there is a chance that Substack picks up on your newsletter enough to promote your work, but let’s be real. A shoutout from the platform will not happen without heaps of effort on our part.
Substack’s popularity is arguably a response to internet algorithms that decide what people get to view or read. By sending content directly to subscribers’ inboxes, writers bypass the algorithm, and it is entirely up to each writer’s creativity to capture the attention of readers. Remember, everyone’s inbox is likely as cluttered as yours!
The upside is that your reach no longer depends on how relevant your content is to the platform’s users. I could be wrong, but many Substack writers possess strong personalities that compel people to want more. In other words, being unabashedly you in writing could potentially get you more subscribers than focusing on a narrow niche.
As a Substack writer, I find it liberating to NOT worry about using all the right keywords. For once, my focus is solely on my audience, and it reminds me why I love to write!
2. Promote your Substack newsletters, just as you would with any other newsletter platform
Despite the differences between Substack and conventional email service providers, some of the same rules apply. Among these, self-promotion is more important than ever. Not having an algorithm decide who gets to read our work also means there is no algorithm to distribute our best pieces.
Hopping onto Substack means working doubly hard on your socials to build an engaged readership. Share your newsletters and writing progress on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and even Tik Tok! You could even use good old SEO on your blog to channel traffic to your Substack. For instance, Mike Sowden, who writes Everything is Amazing, bagged seven hundred followers overnight with an article about light pillars that went viral on Twitter!
So, yes, unfortunately, greater autonomy over distribution also comes with more publicity work. And perhaps, a dash of luck.
3. Substack adapts some of the best aspects of social media
Writing newsletters can feel daunting when you send it out into the world and do not hear back from anyone. Fortunately, Substack allows users to like and comment on newsletter issues.
Even if readers do not want to share their responses to newsletters publicly, liking a newsletter issue itself signals writers to keep doing what they are doing.
The comment thread at the bottom of each newsletter issue also fosters civilized, healthy discussions that the Internet seems to lack these days. Interact with other writers, comment intelligently, and you never know what may happen. Even after a year on Substack, some of the comments I receive or read on other Substack articles still surprise me with the amount of depth and thought that goes into them!
4. While things have improved, there is still limited data analytics to work with on Substack
If you use MailChimp and ConvertKit at all, you are probably familiar with how traditional email service providers report analytics in great detail. From subscribers’ country of residence right down to the hyperlinks and buttons each subscriber clicks on, email service providers equip marketers with all the information they need to drive conversions.
Unfortunately, Substack is still severely lacking in the data analytics department. Writers can track the number of opens, the sources of traffic, and a few other metrics, but that is about it. Hopefully, things will improve in the time to come.
What Should I Write on Substack
To be frank, I still find myself wondering what to publish on Substack every time I fire up the webpage (as I am working on this blog post, Substack just announced its new Substack Reader app!). However, that is the beauty of writing on Substack.
I treat Substack as a scrapbook of sorts. I started out writing responses to the articles and books I read or the shows I watch. And I still do, but I also started publishing my student exchange adventures. In short, Substack functions as my stream of consciousness most of the time. There is no niche because I am my niche if that makes any sense.
Once you subscribe to a few Substack newsletters, you will begin to notice that many writers do not allow a niche to restrict themselves. Even if there is a stated niche, these writers could comment on something tangential, and it would still receive the same level of responses. Your writing voice—not how well you rank on Google—often matters more on Substack.
That said, here are some Substack newsletters from my inbox to get your creative juices flowing:
- Sharon Hurley Hall writes about anti-racism. Sharon interviews activists, shares reading lists, and offers her opinions and experiences with anti-racism three times a week.
- Katie Hawkins-Gaar writes My Sweet Dumb Brain where she shares personal essays about life’s ups and downs after losing the love of her life. Everyone experiences grief at some point, and Katie gives readers a peeks into both her pain and the tiny pockets of happiness that she still finds on some days.
- Books on GIFs is different from conventional book reviews because it uses GIFS to review books!
Even with a sample size of three, you can probably already see how varied Substack newsletter topics can be. After some experimentation, I believe you will find something that you are passionate to write about on Substack.
For more Substack newsletter recommendations, the What to Read series on the Substack blog often has hidden gems. Over half of the Substack newsletters that I subscribe to come from the Substack blog!
Setting Up for Success with Substack
Does Substack excite you yet? If you are ready to launch a Substack newsletter, the clean interface makes it easy to customize and start writing.
First, head over to substack.com and click start writing on the top right to create an account.
On the next screen, signing in with Twitter means your followers may receive an email notification that announces the launch of your Substack newsletter. If you are fortunate enough to have an engaged following on Twitter, signing in with Twitter is highly encouraged!
The next two pages will then ask for your email and writer bio. Your writer bio is different from your publication synopsis. You can write for multiple publications, but your bio is tied to your profile. In contrast, a publication synopsis is specific to that newsletter only.
Clicking on continue prompts you to create your first publication on Substack. It is fine if you have no idea what to write about yet, you can always come back to edit your publication bio later. Don’t sweat it at this stage.
Instead, consider your Substack URL more carefully because it is troublesome to swap out the links everywhere you have shared them later on. I chose mingwrites to match my blog, but your social media handle works, too. Of course, nothing stops you from rebranding your Substack newsletter with a different name.
If you have an existing mailing list, Substack also allows you to import email addresses via a CSV file! Otherwise, select skip.
And with that, you have launched your Substack newsletter! But before you start promoting it, there are some pages that you should customize. Head over to your dashboard at [insert your publication URL].substack.com/publish. For instance, mine is mingwrites.substack.com/publish. Then, click on the settings tab.
The settings tab is where you find every page, automated message, and theme that you need to edit before anything else. My advice is to check out these settings:
- Publication name and one-line synopsis appear on your subscription call-to-action.
- Add tags that help Substack suggest your newsletter on their homepage.
- About page is an elaboration of your one-line synopsis. Introduce yourself, what your publication is about, how frequently you intend to send out newsletters, and provide compelling reasons for people to subscribe.
- Welcome email is the first email that new subscribers receive. Thank new subscribers for hopping onto your mailing list. Once you have a few newsletters out in the world, link some of them here as well. I do not know about other readers, but I love reading past issues as I await the next newsletter!
- Publication logo.
- Cover photo is the image that appears above the subscription box when people visit your Substack URL.
- Edit your publication theme. Change your theme colors to match your online presence.
- Publication details. Under this section, you will find the email banner, header, and footer settings. I highly recommend creating a banner with Canva or any other software you are comfortable with. Most writers insert call-to-action messages and buttons in their headers and footers. Doing so means you never have to worry about asking people to hit subscribe or share!
5 Tips for Writing on Substack
1. Write a smashing newsletter synopsis!
Remember how I said self-promotion is even more crucial on Substack? Well, it all starts with writing a smashing synopsis that conveys the gist of your Substack newsletter succinctly AND makes people curious enough to subscribe. Work on that one-line elevator pitch that best describes your Substack newsletter. Your pitch does not have to be complicated, and you could always tweak the synopsis as your newsletter evolves.
On the about page, you can expand your synopsis and elaborate on what got you started on Substack. To give potential subscribers some idea about what to expect, curate a handful of Substack newsletters and link them here as well.
The following are some of my favorite Substack synopses that are short, sweet, and to the point:
- Common Sense: “Honest news for sane people brought to you by Bari Weiss.”
- My Sweet Dumb Brain: “A newsletter about facing life’s ups and downs, all while being kind to yourself.”
- Garbage Day: “A newsletter about having fun online by Ryan Broderick.”
- Atoosa Unedited: “How I finally learned unconditional self-love and authenticity…and you can, too.”
And of course, here’s my Substack, if you’re interested: Ming’s Memo.
2. Use buttons to your advantage
Email newsletters are sent with a goal in mind. For bloggers and writers, we usually hope that subscribers would click on our links to read the full blog post. Whether you want readers to comment, subscribe, or share your newsletter, Substack includes some preset buttons that writers can easily insert.
Make it a point to include one of these buttons within the main text of each newsletter. Another space to include buttons is the customized header or footer blocks that appear on every newsletter.
For instance, I append a writer’s bio to the end of every Substack newsletter. After my bio, I say, “Like this newsletter? Share it with your family and friends!” The share button then appears right underneath my call to action.
Remember not to overdo it with the buttons, or responses may be too divided between all the actions you prompt readers to take.
3. Create consistency across your newsletters
Although Substack writers no longer have to bank on algorithms to favor our writing, we now compete with what could be an obscene amount of emails. All of us probably know someone with thousands of unread emails in their inbox! One way to help readers associate our work with us is to create consistency.
The following are some of my tips:
- How you sign off matters. Create a unique one-liner to close every email newsletter. For instance, Ellen DeGeneres ends every talk show episode with, “be kind to one another.”
- Earlier, I mentioned that you could customize a footer block to appear at the end of every Substack newsletter. For most writers, the standard footer would be a writer bio followed by a call-to-action.
- Design a newsletter header image.
- Create a template to use as your featured image for every Substack newsletter. This image appears as a thumbnail on your Substack archives. Whenever someone tweets or posts your Substack link on social media your featured image accompanies it as well. This step is important if you intend to use social media for publicity purposes.
- Brand colors. The beautiful thing about Substack is that you can run through the settings line by line to customize your newsletter. You can even set brand and accent colors to tie in with your online presence elsewhere.
- Customize your Substack newsletter’s ‘from’ field. For instance, mine is ‘Ming’s Memo | mingwrites.com’.
4. Write and publish regularly
We need to show up regularly to get anywhere with Substack. Imagine subscribing to a newsletter and not hearing from the writer for several weeks before an email finally pops up. I wonder how many of us would still remember that we subscribed to the writer!
Also, writing consistently means you improve and find your writing voice faster.
5. Engage meaningfully with both your readers and other writers
A little networking can go a long way. Why not read, comment, and maybe even respond to other comments you see? You never know who would be intrigued by your opinions enough to check out your profile and hit subscribe. For bloggers who are accustomed to a lively comments section on their sites, Substack may work out brilliantly for you!
The Next Step: Transitioning from Free to Paid on Substack
For those who are still considering or trying out Substack for the first time, it may please you to know that writers can go paid whenever they want. Just as magazines and newspapers have paywalls for some content while keeping others open access, Substack allows independent writers to do the same.
However, most Substack writers tend to spend months—if not years—to experiment and build a subscriber base before turning on paid. For instance, John Warner, who writes the Biblioracle, only turned on paid settings after writing his newsletter for over a year. Even the best writers take time to find their footing!
While I have not gone paid with my Substack newsletter, here’s what experts have to say:
- Give your best content away for free to build momentum before you consider going premium.
- Continue to give [at least some of your] best content for free even after you’ve gone premium.
- Frequency and consistency are crucial for paid Substack creators. Only monetize after you’ve built up a habit of creating content consistently, weekly.
- After you have a dedicated audience who open your emails, find value within, and seem eager to read your writing, you’re ready to go paid.
And here’s a useful guide to help you get paid while writing on Substack.
Summary: Guide to Writing on Substack
- Substack is an email newsletter service with like and comment features.
- Substack is built for writers to share their best works, but it is limited in data analytics that professional marketers would look out for.
Write consistently on Substack.
- Customize your theme, welcome messages, headers, footers, and about page.
- Engage with other readers and writers.
- Subscribe to other newsletters and observe what everyone else is doing. They may inspire you, too.
I love writing on Substack, and I intend to keep doing so at a pace that I am comfortable with. There is much that makes writing on Substack enjoyable. For one, not caring about SEO keywords in each newsletter issue is oddly freeing! If you have been at it for a while, you probably understand why I say so.
Alright, that’s it from me. I’m happy to take any questions in the comments section below. I may not know all the answers, but I can probably point you to the appropriate resources. Thanks for reading, and I wish you success in launching your Substack newsletters!
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10 thoughts on “How to Start Writing on Substack: A Beginner’s Guide”
Not sure how I missed this, but thank you, Ming.
This was unbelievable thorough. It’s literally the most comprehensive guide I’ve read on Substack. Thank you so much!
Thank you for all this information, Ming.
If I have no interest in social media, would Substack be a good place for my writing anyway?
Thanks, Ming, for this introduction. I have a blog site that I post on periodically but am very interested in Substack. I have been working on a book for 15 years after self-publishing 2. But I think Substack might be a better way to go for me.
Been blogging on Medium and thinking about moving to Substack. Thanks for the roadmap!
Hey Bonnie, Medium is great for testing your writing and building an audience. Maliha, the amazing writer behind this blog, is a prolific writer on Medium as well. I would say using both during the transition period to get your readers on Medium to subscribe to you over on Substack is one strategy you can try out. All the best!
Thanks for the comprehensive intro to Substack. I hadn’t heard of it an hour ago; now I feel I have a pretty good grasp of it. And I am an Old. Neat!
Thanks, Violet 🙂
Hi Ming, How does substack compare to Medium? I signed up but haven’t used Substack yet. I do write on Medium from time to time. Thanks for explaining how to use Substack. I do subscribe to a few folks who were banned from social media.
Hi Lisa, I’ll go ahead and answer this 🙂 Substack is, as Ming pointed out in this post, a newsletter service. You have to do the legwork to bring in your own audience. Medium, on the other hand, is like a blogging platform that is not exclusively yours. With Substack, you get a level of exclusivity because your newsletter reaches your specific audience, whereas, on Medium, you’re competing for attention among the broader Medium audience. What drives Medium is its algorithm, and what drives Substack is your own marketing skills. You can also check out the articles on Medium that Zulie wrote right here: https://www.thesideblogger.com/how-to-start-writing-on-medium/