The tension of writing for an audience

Welcome to all the new subscribers.

My guess is a lot of you found me via this post on why I moved from Wordpress to Substack, which, starting about six weeks ago, the Google Gods were kind enough to smile down on with attendant blessings. Suddenly, I began ranking quite high on searches related to “Wordpress vs. Substack” and the like, which has led to a pretty dramatic acceleration in subscriber growth:

Perhaps that post struck a nerve not just because I described the various models of writing online (I also covered my thoughts on writing for Medium), but also because I talked about what those platform choices meant for my identity as a writer, and how your choice of revenue model isn’t just a business decision — it’s a values decision. It’s a matter which should be deeply personal.

That post is now the most-read article I’ve written, by far.

And this has got me wondering: how should I respond to this turn? Should I respond?

“Define this newsletter”

Last week, Pranav Mutatkar’s Embrace Your Lazy newsletter hit my inbox.

I met Pranav on an Interintellect salon. (If you haven’t heard of Anna Gát and the Interintellect yet — you’re welcome). I liked what Pranav had to say about movies and directors and more broadly about how artists relate to their work, so I started reading some of his stuff, and subscribed to his newsletter.

Anyway, in Pranav’s most recent post, he wrote about how to grow old. Here’s the part that stuck out to me:

As we get older, we are slotted into these boundaries. It makes it easier for others to define us.

I never felt comfortable with boundaries. When somebody defines me, I feel the need to do the opposite to rebel against the definition. I think I have a bit of the Krishna trickster blood in me.

But for marketing purposes, defining what this newsletter is about... is... probably important. Currently, when somebody asks me to define this newsletter I just go 🤷.

(Ah, the shoulder shrug emoji. An emoji for these times.)

Pranav was touching on a subject near and dear to my heart, which is how we define ourselves in relationship to the people who are watching — or in this case reading. In fact, I made a whole movie about how artists get validation and what it means. Now that I’m writing this newsletter, I still feel that tension, between making this a space just for me and responding to readership.

Give the people what they want to hear is never a mantra I’ve been particularly interested in following, perhaps to my detriment. But that’s not to say I don’t still feel the pull. When one of my Tweets takes off, goes viral, of course there’s this little voice inside saying well, how do I more of THAT?

Honestly, I hate that voice.

What sets newsletters apart

When Pranav asked his readers to “define this newsletter,” I decided to write him back. I told him I felt the same pull he did, but at the same time I tried to remember that I set up What Really Matters as a space just for me.

But also:

…I get a bunch of subscribers, and I’m like, “Ok, how can I get more subscribers,” and then I’m like, “Wait, Russell, why do you want more subscribers? What are you trying to achieve here — audience for audience’ sake? What does that have to do with living your life on your terms?

These are the conversations I have with myself.

But the exchange with Pranav is worth recounting, because I think newsletters, especially those in the Substack mold, set themselves apart from much of what is online through their simplicity, their direct connection with the reader, and their limited feedback loops:

  1. Simplicity: this is a space for writing, period. Sure, you can embed stuff from elsewhere on the Interwebs, but I’m a writer. I don’t want to have to compete on photography, videography, fancy programming, graphic design, infographics, UX, UI, all that jazz. A newsletter is a letter, simple as that. And I can write those.

  2. Direct Connection: in other words, email. This isn’t some new, algorithmically superior model of delivery that Donald Trump will try to force the sale of for political advantage in some global game of faux privacy protection. It’s good old-fashioned email, delivered to your inbox whenever I hit send. You can either read it, or not. You can hit reply, or not. And this really matters, because, relatedly…

  3. Limited Feedback Loops: The worst thing about social media, IMO, is its endorphin-chasing feedback loops. Those little hearts on the Instagram posts, that little red notification at the top of the Facebook page, those little bits of “they love me! something new!” that we don’t think of as chasing but are driven to chase nevertheless. They are bad for you, bad for me, bad for our kids, bad for everyone. In contrast, I don’t really have a lot of metrics for Substack: I can see open rates, who opens, and a rough approximation of where new readers come from, although even that is pretty limited.

All of these characteristics — as well as the financial model itself — make newsletters a special kind of breed when it comes to online content (if you haven’t already, read The different ways to make money with online content, and what the decision says about your values).

But even with its strengths as a medium, even newsletters risk leading you astray from the things which are most meaningful. If you are writing for an audience, ask yourself why? To what end? For most of you the answer is probably something like, “So I can get some percentage of them to sign for the paid version, so I can make money.”

Fair enough. We all gotta eat. But perhaps it’s worth noting that I make about 98% of my money from marketing consulting; the other 2% from newsletter subscriptions. Do I wish the 2% were a higher number? Yea. But, as we’ve been saying a lot around this house: it is what it is.

And yet, here I am, on a weekend, punching out nearly two thousand words for you dear readers. Clearly, I’m writing for some internally motivated reason — which I think is that I honestly wish people would focus more on what really matters to them, and if more people did that perhaps I wouldn’t feel so lonely all the time. I, personally, would feel more connected with y’all if we stopped chasing money and adulation and brought it back to the basics: the human connections, the time with family, time spent learning, time spent outdoors, or on creative fulfillment, time spent following your loves, your passions, or at least: finding out what those are.

Because as it stands, I more often see those things being harnessed as a means to make money or build businesses, rather than being pursued as ends in themselves. Which is sad of course, but also the world we live in.

All of which is to say this: more subscribers isn’t the point. The point is how you wish to spend your time on this Earth. Because, as we can all at least agree, the Google Gods are fickle. Your proud SEO ranking will one day vanish. And then where will you be?