Eighteen years ago, novelist and poet Erika Dreifus completed an MFA degree and found herself inspired to share literary opportunities and resources with other writers. A newsletter, she decided, would help her to broadcast this information widely while creating a writing community. In 2004, she launched The Practicing Writer, a digital newsletter published on the first day of each month.
“I was also trying to cultivate more teaching and related opportunities in the writing world,” Dreifus explains. “The newsletter allowed me to alert subscribers about my own services and courses.”
Digital newsletters for writers have been around for decades. Some provide subscribers with writing prompts and short essays on craft. Some feature interviews or author profiles or guest posts by people connected in some way to the literary community. Some, like The Practicing Writer, combine information on contests, competitions, calls for submissions, digital resources, and subscriber success stories.
Writing can be a lonely, isolating business. But as many have discovered, sending out a newsletter weekly or monthly can create a sense of community. (Case in point: I sat in a lecture hall two years ago waiting for an AWP conference panel to begin, and Dreifus walked in. Several people in the audience waved and greeted her with visible delight, recognizing her from the photo in her newsletter.)
Newsletters as literary citizenship
The now-defunct YahooGroups hosted The Practicing Writer until 2019, when Dreifus moved her newsletter over to the hosting platform Substack. She appreciates the efficient and simple design, as well as the fact that she can send her writing to subscribers for free. “I am happy to contribute my time and skills – research, writing, editing, proofreading – since I consider this work to be an essential part of my service to the literary community,” she explains. “At the same time, I want to keep the newsletter free for subscribers, ad-free, and free to distribute.”
In between issues, she publishes weekly short posts on job openings, contests without entry fees, and calls for submissions from paying magazines on her Practicing Writing blog. These supplements, she explains, allow her to share time-sensitive information. “There are so many ways to contribute to the literary community, to perform a sort of literary service or citizenship,” she says. “The newsletter and supplements are, for me, a key way of going about that work.”
New York Times bestselling novelist Jami Attenberg of New Orleans began her weekly newsletter, Craft Talk, in conjunction with her project titled “#1000wordsofsummer,” during which writers around the world support each other in writing 1,000 words a day for two weeks. Before she launched the newsletter in 2018, she’d been blogging for over two decades. “It was a way of finding my voice in the world,” she says. “It helped me to become a better writer.”
Blogging, and then newsletter writing, has helped her to connect with readers and writers around the world. Currently, Craft Talk has over 13,500 subscribers. Attenberg fills the newsletter with information on writing and publishing, along with observations on the creative life. Some of the content is free. Other sections – specific discussion threads and archived newsletters – are available to subscribers for $5 a month. Half of the proceeds go New Orleans-based cultural, educational, and social justice organizations.
“The fundraising component was a really big deal to me,” Attenberg says. “Before I started Craft Talk, I sat down and thought, ‘How can I use my words and knowledge base to make writing more accessible to people? And how can I use them to raise money to help people?” The newsletter is an act of service, she says. “It’s good for writers to know they’re not alone and to get a little bit of encouragement.”
She finds it most challenging to come up with a fresh topic each week, so occasionally, she’ll open up the comments section and ask subscribers how she can be of help to them and then use their questions to generate topics for the newsletter. She’s eager to share the process of writing and publishing her memoir, I Came All This Way to Meet You, which comes out in January 2022. “It will be interesting to talk about the process of putting out a book and what it takes to get the work done,” she says. “Specifically, what it’s like to publish a memoir.”
A safe space for readers
Since 2019, Nikki Carter has written a weekly newsletter titled Will & Way, in which she posts profiles of women of color along with resources and job opportunities in technology and creative fields. Carter earned an MBA and began a career in health care but found that she preferred her side work as a freelance writer.
“When I was in health care, I felt very far removed from patients,” Carter explains. “I knew that the work we were doing was having an impact, but I didn’t ever get to see it because I wasn’t doing hands-on patient care. So when I started writing, I enjoyed being able to more clearly see the impact of what I’m doing.”
When she made the transition to full-time freelancing, she began to study newsletters and other forums in search of job opportunities. Like Dreifus, she forwarded resources that she knew would be of interest to her friends and colleagues. “And then I had this idea to make a newsletter,” she says. “That could be the place where I drop everything, and people could read it.”
“It’s important for people to have spaces in which they can feel comfortable being themselves, in which they see themselves reflected.”
Carter was born in Germany. She is mixed-race and grew up as a self-described “Army brat” who moved every couple of years and longed for a solid sense of community. As a professional writer and entrepreneur, she wants to provide women of color with safe and welcoming career options. “It’s important for people to have spaces in which they can feel comfortable being themselves, in which they see themselves reflected,” she explains. “These spaces cultivate belonging and understanding, so you don’t feel alone and isolated.”
With diversity and inclusion in mind, she consulted with the author of a popular newsletter – a woman who explained that readers crave a connection to writers, and who suggested she showcase her voice in her newsletter along with job opportunities. Potential subscribers read this from Carter on the homepage for Will & Way: “Barring a major life (or weather) event, you should see me in your inbox every Wednesday – I always say the only time in my life Wednesdays didn’t suck was during college, because of Taco Salad Wednesday. So think of this as your very own taco salad, cuz you deserve it.”
She includes information on relevant events and workshops, as well as biweekly interviews with subscribers and/or sponsors. “The interviews offer descriptions of people’s experience in the workplace, plus advice and content that they’re reading and watching,” she says. In addition, Carter shares details about what she’s been reading, watching, and listening to, along with links to her most recent publications.
The weekly commitment has been challenging, she says, particularly during the months she was preparing for the LSAT and applying to law school. The newsletter requires constant research and diligence in posting accurate information. She’s been able to earn income from the project by selling advertisements and soliciting donations through Patreon – a membership platform that facilitates payment for writers and other creators. Donors get access to all of her archived newsletters.
Recently, Carter hired part-time admin help. “My admin does some of the research for the job postings now,” she explains. “She looks at company pages to make sure they’re diverse and inclusive, and looks at their LinkedIn profiles as well. It can get a little bit time-consuming.”
They get the word out about Will & Way by contacting the people they’ve mentioned in the newsletter, whether it was a job opportunity or event. “My admin emails the link to the newsletter and says, ‘You’re mentioned, and we thought you might want to see this. Feel free to share with anybody.’ That’s how a lot of people have found out about it,” Carter says.
Some of her subscribers have reached out to her to tell her about opportunities they’ve received because of her newsletter. One of her sponsors was looking for a Black woman travel writer and found that person via Will & Way. Recent college grads email her as well to tell her how much they appreciate the project. “I like to see those kinds of tangible impacts,” she says. “It’s awesome.”
A fun part of your writing schedule
Nicole Gulotta, author of Eat this Poem: A Literary Feast of Recipes Inspired by Poetry, inspires readers to become subscribers to her newsletter Over Tea. She emails it every other Wednesday, promising “insights from my own practice, things I’m learning, encouragement for creative and cyclical living, plus good things to read, listen to, and cook.”
Author Aminatou Sow, co-host of the podcast Call Your Girlfriend, has a newsletter titled Crème de la Crème, which includes “observations on politics, tech, capitalism, skincare, scams…basically anything that delights or infuriates me. There will be book recommendations because I love books and because books are the answer to rampant 21st-century charlatanism.”
Jack El-Hai has a monthly newsletter titled Damn History, in which he posts articles and resources for readers and writers of popular history. “I wanted to start it because I was personally interested in reading a newsletter like that, and there weren’t any,” he explains of the three-year-old project.
El-Hai writes historical novels as well as articles for magazines including Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Scientific American Mind. A newsletter seemed like the perfect way to let readers know about his work and promote other writers working in the genre. He tells writers to view newsletter writing as a fun part of their schedule.
“Make sure the topic of the newsletter is something you love writing about,” he says. “And make sure the people to whom this newsletter is directed are people you want to be around. My readers are people who read and write popular history. Those are people who I want to be around and have a lot in common [with].”
Issue 43 of Damn History, published in June 2021, includes links to his most recent articles, as well as links to popular history mentions over the past month. Readers can learn about how, in 1879, Belgians attempted to train cats to deliver the mail. One link leads to a tell-all article about a man who worked for 40 years as a Yankee Stadium food vendor. Another leads to an article on the best apps to use when recording interviews. Still another allows readers to join The Peculiar Book Club for fans of strange, spooky history.
In 2021, El-Hai sponsored an award for writers of popular history articles and announced it in his newsletter. “Amazingly, there are no other awards for this kind of writing,” he says. “I put out a call for entries and rounded up three judges. I got a really good bunch of entries, and it brought in subscribers when they entered the contest.”
Though El-Hai isn’t able to tell whether his newsletter has inspired book sales, that’s not the point, he explains. What he really wants is to provide devotees of popular history with reading material from writers around the world. “I would like the field of writing history for general readers, as opposed to scholarly or academic readers, to be healthy,” he says. “This is my way of trying to make it happen.”
Advice from the pros
El-Hai tells writers not to issue newsletters too often. He spends an hour or two a month working on Damn History. “I also suggest not focusing too hard on making income from the newsletter,” he says. “There are other soft benefits that writers get from publishing newsletters.” One of these is recognition and association with the topic of the newsletter – in his case, popular history. Another plus is a network of like-minded writers. “Adding is a paid subscription feature complicates things and increases the pressure and the demands on the newsletter writer,” he says.
Attenberg tells writers to ask themselves a few key questions before they launch a newsletter. “Do you have something to say? Can you say in your own way? Is a newsletter the appropriate medium for it?” she asks. “Don’t just start a newsletter because you feel like you’re supposed to have a newsletter.”
Carter tells potential newsletter writers to read what’s already out there. “Get a feel for what resonates with you – and why,” she says. “Maybe it’s written in a personal tone, or you like newsletters that stay really professional. This will help you decide how you want yours to be. I would also say launch before you feel like you’re ready.” She admits that she was intimidated to put Will & Way out into the world. “But once I actually did it, I knew I had to push another one out the next week. That kept me iterating,” she says.
Dreifus, in her 18th year of newsletter writing, still finds the process rewarding. “The newsletter still means a lot to me, in large part, still, because it seems to matter to others,” she says. “I’m especially gratified when subscribers share their ‘success stories’ with me – news about an opportunity they learned about from my newsletter that has made a difference in their own writing practices/writing lives.”
More newsletters for your consideration
Brass Ring Daily
Kara Cutruzzula’s daily newsletter with tips for creativity, productivity, collaboration, and inspiration in the midst of self-doubt.
Jane Friedman’s free biweekly newsletter with digital tools and resources for writers ranging from how to write a book proposal to how to self-publish.
Funds for Writers
C. Hope Clark’s free Friday newsletter offers interviews; calls for submissions from magazines and small/midsize book publishers; and information on fellowships, awards, and residencies.
Part of the Society of Professional Journalists, this biweekly newsletter provides information on digital tools for writers, including audio and video recording apps, chart and graph generators, and podcast software.
Opportunities of the Week
Sonia Weiser’s twice-weekly round-up of calls for submissions from magazine and newspaper editors around the world. $3/week.
Writing Exercises from Matt Bell
Monthly writing exercises, craft discussions, and reading recommendations.
Melissa Hart is the author, most recently, of Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens. Twitter/Instagram: @WildMelissaHart.