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Unschool for Writers
Hello! Who are you and what newsletter did you start?
I first posted my Substack newsletter, the Unschool for Writers, in April of 2021. The newsletter is born of my years teaching in an MFA Creative Writing program, together with the experience of homeschooling my son, and the autodidact path in my own life.
(Yes, I still see it that way, in spite of years of formal education; I will always have the lens of having been a high school dropout for a decade.)
How did you launch it and what did you do to get the first 100 subscribers?
After I posted a handful of articles, I emailed almost everyone I knew, including years of ex-students. I posted on social media; I reached out in all ways I could, and so began with a small number of solid followers.
I have consistently posted 8 - 10 pieces each month, kept on top of responding to any comments, and actively encouraged questions, writing a number of posts in response.
I publish articles in The Writer Magazine (print, over 100 years old, out of Boston) and regularly include the newsletter URL in my bio. I also write for Medium.
I repost posts to Twitter and FB. I include a monthly post of vetted markets and contest. I’ve run a “holiday writing” mini-course, and currently have three workshops running in the areas of picturebook writing, poetry, and short scenes of either fiction or nonfiction. These are a bit of work to organize and are for paid writer-readers only.
The building has taken time (just over a year to get that “100”), but for the most part, once someone is subscribed, they stay.
My first-of-the-month post—a pot pourri—will always be free, and includes a prompt with its own separate thread for all subscribers to share whatever they come up with
What does your process for creating the content look like?
I make use of the “draft” stage of writing on the platform: if an idea pops into my head, I jot notes about it, dropped into a post-in-progress. I’ll fill in the title with something that will make sense to me even months later, so I can locate it easily. I might find an image for inspiration—Unsplash or my own. I might write subtitles. It might sit for days, week, or even months. At any given time I’ll have more than a dozen of these rough beginnings, awaiting more pieces and conclusion.
There are certain types of articles I like to post, such as ‘close reads,’ some aspect of writing for young people, answers to readers questions, writing-book reviews, and so on. So, often, I will write these types of pieces in one go, let sit a few days, then edit. I do like when I’m working ahead, but this doesn’t happen as often as I’d like. My goal is to post at least every five days, but it happens more frequently.
What tools are you using to create, send, and grow the newsletter?
Everything! A bit of social media—just re-posting and sharing. Substack’s “recommendations” does bring new subscribers, though to date only "free" ones.
One thing I do very little of is to offer “deals” on subscription. The times I’ve done this, there’s little response. And I don’t want to do it so often that subscribers are “waiting” for the next offering.
I do use the “subscribe with caption” button, and then personalize the caption. I try for something light-hearted, something like “when you go paid, I do a tap-dance…” or a gentle reminder that what they’re reading is ad-free—which I so appreciate about Substack!
What have you tried to monetize the newsletter and how well did it work?
I’ve been writing for many years, and teaching for two decades. Although I am not a “name” writer—I doubt you’ve heard of me—I am confident that I have something of value for both new and experienced writers. (In my academic work I supervised over 50 theses. Most of them have either netted the writer an agent, and many have gone on to win significant awards.)
Part of the reason you haven’t heard of me is that I’ve written and published (traditional publishing houses) for all ages, which makes for terrible “branding,” but good teaching. So… I saw no point in waiting to go paid, and two weeks after setting out on this path, I posted to let all know that within a month, I would be asking them for $6/month or $60/year.
That first month I had a good number. It slowed after that, but has grown steadily, with this September seeing an exponential shift that I’m hoping continues. The added value in having active workshopping groups alone makes this very worthwhile; it’s not easy to find a place to share work and gain insight and feedback for this sort of price.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain subscribers?
Solid posts! Monthly prompts. The afore-mentioned workshops. I vet a half-dozen markets and writing contests each month. And answer subscriber questions.
The best course to growing and encouraging “paid” is to post genuinely useful material, and to actively connect with subscribers. I do spend a brief bit of time on social media each day, re-posting pieces, but it comes down to building trust that I’m going to make it worth the paid subscriber’s time and money.
Stay the course.
How are you doing today and what are your plans for the future?
I currently have over 1400 total subscribers with over 100 paid. I’ve had a few low months for revenue, but through the first year I averaged about $500. Now it’s more like $650.
What’s one piece of advice you’d like to share with someone who wants to get started or is just starting out?
Know that your goal will take two or even three times longer than you think it will.