In which I don't talk about growth strategies
My honest feedback? Go ahead and do that 'Substack for beginners' series. Instead of writing something like today's post (which, don't get me wrong, it's really nice and made me, someone who already knows about Substack, open it rather than the Substack for beginners video) it would be a better use of your time to work on stuff that makes a difference for your platform.
Don't let the fear of being one-of-those-new-people who dish out advice on how to make it on Substack hold you back! I like your approach to teaching about Substack and writing (I actually watched the beginners video though I was baffled that someone wouldn't know that basic stuff, but now I get it!) because you're not just selling advice, you're a fiction writer yourself and a very prolific one. When I think about writing fiction on Substack you're the first person that comes to mind because you're so productive. It's better that a new Substack writer lands on your platform for writing advice and not on some trap for courses on how-to-make-it-on-Substack without any other content. Honestly, you're doing us all a favour by showing newcomers the real face of Substack.
The “you know it already. Just write it” theme from today’s article was just what I, a procrastinator, needed. Thank you.
There’s a significant difference between the guru-type of articles you mentioned, and the sharing of own experience. The first is written in imperatives, which drives me crazy, with my applied linguistics background :), while the second is primarily written in 1st person (this how I do, that is what I did etc.) The first assumes a know-it-all stance (let me tell you how things work, dude), while the second is reflecting and sharing (this is what I noticed has worked for me).
With Substack being a bit of a biosphere in itself, I think know-it-alls would pretty soon become isolated within the broader Substack audience, which has got much better quality to read (and write) than such junk.
I like this. This 'here is who I am and what I'm aiming to do, please nudge me when I stray'. I think this is an important piece of having a writer community. Having people you trust just quietly point out when you're straying from what you stated you wanted. Even if it's just to give you an opportunity to re-evaluate what you want and if you still want it.
This was such an honest post, Simon, I really loved reading it. I especially liked your line about fiction vs content. Speaking from experience, writing content is very sneaky in the way it seeps into the writing plans. Thanks for the great reminder to be more conscious of it, and for what its worth, I've always found your posts to be focused on genuinely helping writers.
I enjoy reading the occasional “Here is my writing process” or “Here is a great writing tip” post. But I don’t bother with dogmatic “this is how you should write” posts. Which typically mean, “This is how to write like me.” Or “This is how I was taught to write.” Often written by someone without the success to back it up. Not to mention, there are four billion posts online on how to write already.
I agree with Matt’s Note. Practice makes progress. Eventually, you need to quit taking courses and buying writing books and start writing. That is how you will improve at writing.
On the other hand, the “Substack for beginners” series is a good idea because there is not a glut of material on this subject. And Substack is continually changing. So, there will probably always be new stuff to cover. But only you can decide your reason for doing them.
And the topic of writing serials on Substack has not been overdone. Or successfully cracked, either, in my opinion. Sharing tips on this is helpful for all of us who write serials.
We all have to decide why we are doing our newsletters. My impression is your motives are pure.
I'm either sorry or glad that my note caused you such a crisis of confidence, Simon. Sorry for the anguish. But glad because it resulted in this excellent post from you. As someone who writes a lot about writing, I share your cognitive dissonance when I think about my own advice to stop reading about writing--which I meant and still mean--and instead just write. I agree with what some of your other commenters have already noted: It probably comes down to the difference between those writing gurus whose apparent purpose is to get you hooked on their endless hamster wheel of maxims, platitudes, and mini-homilies, and thus increase their revenue, and those who instead put out an energy that's genuinely intended to clarify, motivate, and create a helpful sense of encouragement to get the work done. Those whose inspirational trajectory, in other words, is actually and ultimately away from themselves and toward helping people get to that point of sitting down with nobody else but their muse and nothing but the action of that inner collaboration as it spills onto the page.
You patently fall in the latter category.
I'm definitely one of those people tired of all the writing advice in general, but what I like about your serial fiction guide is how practical it is. What I'm truly tired of is seeing grand ideological statements on the nature of writing and storytelling, you must be/do this for a good story. It just gets me in a certain bad way. Though I do appreciate how substack has let me see contradicting statements like that, people pushing back against common narratives about writing.
In truth, I found you because of the “how to” help, being new to Substack myself, and I’ve stayed because you’re a good writer.
No one has yet mentioned that Matt’s note was actually advice too.
So if he had followed his own advice, he wouldn’t have written it.
People love and treasure advice (of the sort that is right for them) otherwise they wouldn’t pay for it, or subscribe to it. Advice is someone who has been thorough a difficult thing (even if its only starting a substack) is them leaning back on their path and holding a hand out to you to help you along.
I have dipped into several ‘how to do substack’ things, and your beginner videos were the best, the clearest, the least bullshitty things I saw.
Bringing clarity is a valuable gift.
I like that you're a writer of fiction - a good one - who care enough about writing to help other folk force their way past the barriers they sometimes put up in front of themselves and over the starting line. Personally, I think you have the balance right. There's nothing 'click-bait'y' (is that a thing?) or over-promising, or 'gamifying' about your posts and videos that explain things.
Interestingly, in spite of the use of the phrase 'growth strategy' in the subtitle I still opened the post because I knew you'd tackle it in a way I'd be relaxed about!
Onwards. Keep up the good stuff, Simon.
I see what you did there, and I approve.
I imported a mailing list, 17 years in the making, with 1.8k subscribers as my 'starting point' a few weeks ago. I very much understand that fear-of-the-publish-button!
It's useful to see beginner guides, but it's more inspiring to see others doing that I'm doing - writing fiction on here AND writing tips (I'll be publishing my first of the latter next week).
Keep up the good work!
There is so much in this that I relate to, and you've described it so well. I'm still new here and I'm sure I found you through the Beginner series but, like someone else said, I stuck around for the writing (and the Notes). I appreciate both from you—I like the writing, and I also like some genuine thoughts about growth from someone who didn't bring 200k followers over from IG, someone who has writing chops to back it all up. I appreciate just hearing about what you did, and I understand you're describing your path and you don't claim to have the blueprint. In fact, it's refreshing!
As is my habit, I’ve got loads to say. But about 90% of what I want to say is already written in an upcoming Editorial I’m writing about the concept of scaling up and scaling back and how important that is to do from time to time.
What I will say here is a mention about passion. I am passionate about fiction writing. I am passionate about community and being helpful in both teaching and motivating. But if I could only choose one, it will always be fiction. Hence why I had a “come to Jesus” moment recently when I sat down to review my 2023 output. I was startled to see the scales tipping more towards non-fiction and less towards fiction! Both from a content perspective (word count) and engagement perspective (comments and Likes). Going into 2024 I’m drastically changing that. And Substack (for all its faults of which is has many) is the reason why am able to do so.
I can teach and motivate on Notes without affecting my passion for writing fiction and sharing it with my newsletter subscribers. I can increase production and stick to my two passions without feeling overwhelmed or disappointed in the outcome. You might be surprised to hear me say this but in many ways 2023 was a fail in my book. I did not do what I set out to do. Even though I will end up having written 245 100 word stories by 12/31/23 that will contribute to no less than 3 self-published books coming in 2024, none of what I’ve done produced what I expected. I fell short on many personal and public goals and I, like you, have to consider if the reason is because I leaned in too heavily on the non-fiction to the point that a newcomer who stayed was more of a “teach me” reader than a “fiction reader.” And I’m not saying readers can’t be both. I am both. But there can start to be a disparity. I’m sure to see it when 2024 becomes 90% fiction and 10% other. I expect my subscriber numbers to take a stark hit as a result. My desire to hit 1000 will likely never come but at least I will be feeding my passion.
You did help me to realize that at the end of the day I’m either going to like what I put out into the world, thereby caring less and less about when I hit that “send” button, or I’m going to second guess myself. In 2024 I intend to do much less second guessing about those Editorials I push out by simply writing less of them. Putting my energy and time into my fiction. Where I am happiest. And if that means my numbers get cut in half because I’m choosing to inspire more fiction writing rather than bloviate about other topics, I’ll gladly take the hit. It also helps that I turned off unsub and sub emails so I have to intentionally go to the settings to see them. Out of sight. Out of mind.
As long as you are happy with the content you’re writing who gives a toss about offending someone? I sure as hell don’t. I’m not writing what I write for you, I’m doing it because I have to. And if there were no internet or way to share my work publicly it wouldn’t stop my need to write. I’m reminded of this fact by the dozens upon dozens of my mother’s journals that I inherited. They are filled with stories and poetry. None of which anyone got to see in her lifetime. But she wrote them anyway. Why? It was her passion. Did she even know (or care) that when she was gone her eldest child would one day sit with them and read her words. It probably never crossed her mind as most of her writings predate my existence in her world. I wanna write as voraciously as she did and I hope someday I will...
I always enjoy your take, Simon whether it's on writing or some of the technical minutia of running a Substack. You deliver thoughtful advice that is grounded in your own experience but most importantly, you're not selling snake oil. Pursuing anything creative in a public way is a vulnerable act. Those just taking their first steps need good, solid advice. They don't need someone trying to take money out of their pocket with the promise of fame and fortune.
On the subject, there's brilliant take down piece Anthony Lane wrote for the New Yorker about a "self help" book that's all the rage right now. I think you'd enjoy it: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2023/10/23/build-the-life-you-want-the-art-and-science-of-getting-happier-oprah-winfrey-and-arthur-c-brooks-book-review