How To Generate Content

March 19, 2020 § 27 Comments

“Start a blog!” agents say. “Write a newsletter!” announce publishers. “You’ll build readership and be more attractive to agents and publishers!”

But what the heck do you put in it? Hey, I got rejected again by the same magazine?

Yes.

Absolutely.

(I do.)

The daily grind of your writing life is indeed fodder for bulletins every week or two. More than once a week gets annoying; less than once a month and people forget who you are and unsubscribe. Try to share your work the same time and day, so that people have a subconscious expectation of reading you, say, Tuesday mornings.

I have to write something every week? What if it’s not good? What if it’s not a diamond-sharp, multiply-revised presentation of my Best Thoughts Ever?

And a blog post or email newsletter is not a lengthy, many-drafted essay. In fact, the best content is:

Brief,

Personal, and

Useful

Be brief.

Chances are you’re not the only thing they’re reading that day. They want to be provoked, or made to laugh, or learn something, briefly.

Newsletters max out around 600 words; under 300 is better. Blog posts’ sweet spot is 600-800 words. Ideally, write the amount you can write, polish, and post in 60 minutes or less. At first, that may be 200-300 words. Once you get a rhythm down, you’ll be able to get closer to your target—or turn out shorter pieces in less time.

Brevity helps you write more often, using your available time. Don’t feel guilty if you don’t have an hour—feel good that you got out any amount of words to share. Remember that the medium is the message: readers don’t expect literary genius in an email. Write your best, but don’t worry about perfection.

Get personal.

Whatever you do, make it yours.

Blogger Penelope Trunk‘s break-out fame came from live-tweeting her miscarriage during a business meeting, shattering the image of work-life balance. She personally attacked a guy on Twitter who criticized her parenting, and “I Hate David Dellifield. The One From Ada, Ohio” is still one of the most popular posts on her site. Some days, I read Penelope and think, “She’s a loon!” Other days I think, “Wow, I’m glad she’s brave enough to write this.” I’m not showing up to her blog for pure information, I’m reading because I’m fascinated by her.

If your news today is, “I got rejected by the same magazine again,” write that. Write about how you made 100 copies of the rejection, folded paper airplanes, wrote “Never give up!” on the wings, and flew them into the playground from the elementary school roof. Or how you dreamed about doing that. Or how you added another hatchmark on the bare plaster of your crumbling bathroom wall, how every day you sit on the toilet and count rejections like a prisoner counting days. No matter which of those is closest to your own experience, someone reading will gasp in shock and recognition and say, “Me too!” And then they will read you again next week.

Be truly useful.

I was speaking with another retreat leader (If you’re an academic working on breaking through writing blocks, check out Inkwell Retreats, this woman is ah-mazing). We discussed how conference speaking, online courses, and blog posts could intrigue and connect with potential retreat guests. The big question: How much should we “give away”? If people could take a video course at home, or read a craft blog for free, would they still come to an expensive retreat or day-long workshop?

What I (rather indelicately) said: People watch porn for different reasons than they hire a sex worker. “In-person and focused on me” and “conference session” and “watching a video at home” are all different experiences.

Give away the secret recipe. Genuine interest in the well-being of your readers means sharing truly useful, specific information. The more you show you care about your readers, the more engaging you become. Karmically, this is an excellent thing. Cravenly, generosity makes you look powerful. That person has so many resources she can just give them away! Passing on information shows you as connected; a visible part of the writing world.

Trust that there is enough: Enough money, enough readers, enough students, enough to go around. Re-posting a prime contest or sharing a submission opportunity doesn’t lessen your own chances. Instead, it builds your authority as a source. (Check out Erika Dreifus’s excellent newsletters full of writing opportunities.)

Generating content is not an immediate return. Musician Amanda Palmer (artistic nudity at link may be NSFW) did a lot of free YouTube concerts before running the first million-dollar Kickstarter. Cheryl Strayed wrote a lot of Dear Sugar columns for free before Wild broke out.

Blogs and newsletters make us our own gatekeepers. We slowly build our reputations and our readership. Start small. Take on only as much commitment as you can regularly deliver. Respond to comments. Engage with all four of your readers—they’ll bring friends.

Stay brief. Get personal. Be useful.

Share.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Manager. She offers travel stories and writing tips on Instagram.

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