Substack’s Food Writers Intensive fellows lend their wisdom and encouragement to writers who want to build and grow food and drinks publications
Start strong: Guidance for the beginner food and drinks writer
Publish 2-3 posts before launching. This way your readers have something to dig into when they’re just learning about you. If you’ve written elsewhere, take a page from Kristen Hawley’s book and import your archive: “I attribute a big part of Expedite’s success to its authority. If you’ve been writing on your newsletter topic for any length of time, import some posts to lend to your credibility. It’s nice to have a beefed-up archive to support your initial efforts.”
Turn on paid subscriptions right when you launch. Publishing paid content helps you think more strategically about your publication, according to Aaron Ayscough: “You might not get an avalanche of paid subscriptions immediately. But offering a paid subscription option will train you, the writer, to differentiate between material that feels free and material that feels paid. These categories have different metrics of success.”
Build a schedule for yourself. What does it take to help you feel organized and accomplished? Ashley Rodriguez recommends that you “create an accountability practice that helps keep you on track. I’m someone who needs to cross off items on a list, or feel like I’ve checked something off. I like having built-in checkpoints and achievable goals, like ‘publish something—anything—every Thursday.’ ”
Come in ready to experiment. Play with your publishing cadence, topics, subject lines, formats—you name it. Scott Hines approached experimentation with open arms: “I just tried every strategy I can think of to grow my newsletter and stuck with the ones that have worked (until they don’t anymore, and then I try new ones).”
Be authentic in your writing. No one can say it like you! Or, as Leah Koenig puts it, “Focus on figuring out your voice, and exactly what you want to share through your newsletter. The methods for sharing words, ideas, and recipes will continue to change—but the need for those words, ideas, and recipes remains constant.”
Do not go it alone. Reflecting on the lonely nature of the writing business, Jason Wilson recommends that you “find a group of people you can share ideas with, debate with, or share recipes with. A group that will challenge you and will suggest and model ideas you’ve never considered.”
Hone your scope
Whether you’re just kicking off your publication or renewing your commitment to it, it’s important to define your overall editorial and business strategy. Who is your publication for, and what makes it different from existing food and beverage writing? Substack’s cohort of food fellows represents a broadly varied set of writers, so it makes sense that they felt strongly about differentiation.
Aaron Ayscough pushes us to think about how and where independent writers can go deep: “I think our biggest opportunity, as Substack writers, is to present access to subjects that conventional mass media overlooks, or is ill-adapted to cover. To ask the geeky questions. To get readers excited about the small, the obscure, the hyper-local, the foreign, the rare. This is, by nature, exclusive material.”
Another, equally geeky, celebration of independence takes the form of writing that doesn’t take itself too seriously, as exemplified in Doug Mack’s newsletter: “I want Snack Stack to remain a little loose and unpredictable—I want there to be room for me to keep going down the rabbit holes, guided by my own interests and whims and trusting that my readers will enjoy the journey, even if it’s not immediately clear where we’ll end up. I want us to get lost together.”
Going independent affords you the ability to write things you might not publish elsewhere—and in a style that favors a direct, meaningful relationship with your readers.
Substack gives you the freedom to design your own media destination, a benefit Lerato Umah-Shaylor savors: “Cook with Lerato is practically my own magazine, where I share recipes and stories of my wonderful food and travels.”
Understand your readers
Among our fellows, a theme emerged: their readers are there for the writing, of course, but they’re also there because of an affinity with the writers.
For instance, Anne Byrn looks at her publication as a way to form relationships: “I hope my newsletter keeps my readers on their toes, and keeps me on mine. I hope that it makes them look at things, cooking or not, in a new way. And I hope it is an exercise in getting along. In civility. In discourse. Because I want people to comment and feel free about expressing an opinion.” Natalie Love Cruz writes for readers who share her zeal for flavor and her interest in social conversations: “I’m writing for readers who are down for a mix of food adventures sprinkled with a dose of optimism and curiosity. I’m here for people who want to travel through food and are pumped for the journey. I want to write about food as a conduit to discussing the meat and potatoes of society and identity.” Thin Lei Win designs her publication for people who share her worldview: “Thin Ink is for everyone who cares about the future. I want Thin Ink to be for nerds like myself who are interested in the nitty-gritty of global food systems and their impacts on the planet. I truly believe that food is something we all have in common and it is literally the difference between life and death. We can do without so many of the modern conveniences that adversely affect the planet, but we really cannot afford not to eat.”
Create a blueprint for your publication
It doesn’t have to be fancy, but building some way to sort your thoughts and stay organized for future newsletters is a small but effective measure to prepare your publication for the future.
Many of the fellows make use of the notes app in their phone to store lengthy, free-flowing future ideas or create checklists. Some embed ideas in a slew of sticky notes on their desk. Others take a more detailed approach, such as Natalie Cruz’s coveted editorial calendar: “I plan out four months of the newsletter content in advance. I have a tidy Excel sheet with all my dates, topics, and notes color-coded and everything. The schedule can aid in writer’s block—it allows me to be spontaneous and write on the fly without the pressure of running out of ideas.”
Find a sustainable rhythm
“How often should I publish?” is a question that writers obsess over.
At Substack, we have found that committing to a regular posting cadence is essential to keeping your readers engaged and growing your audience. Our baseline recommendation, based on what we’ve seen successful writers do, is to publish once a week.
When determining whether you will post weekly, several times per week, or a few times per month, ask yourself what role you play in your readers’ lives. How can you strike a balance between delivering something consistently and not exhausting yourself?
Scott Hines sings the praises of posting consistently: “I publish a newsletter every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at the same time. I think it’s important for my readers to know when to expect something from me, so it can be something they both look forward to and aren’t surprised by—but it’s also important to me in creating that writing. In keeping a regular schedule, I am working to foster an ongoing conversation with my readers, a comfortable rapport.”
Most of the fellows spend roughly 10 hours per week on their publications; some dedicate up to 40 hours per week. All of them agreed that writing is the fast part. Everything else—such as conducting research, transcribing interviews, promoting a newsletter post, and optimizing its layout—can take much, much longer.
Keep your tank full
Don’t forget what brought you to writing in the first place, and be clear about what fuels you.
“I try not to be afraid of mixing things up within the structure I’ve built. I experiment often with the types of things I write, and I trust that my readers are familiar enough with me, my writing, and my voice to humor me when I get a little weird with things. Keeping a brisk, three-times-a-week schedule writing for years means I’ve kept in a state of ‘flow’ with my writing. I never allow myself to get rusty or blocked, and I keep the muscles loose.” —Scott Hines
“I am a writer who needs peace and quiet, enough to allow me to dream, remember, recreate, and fantasize.” —Lerato Umah-Shaylor
“The best way to fill a creative well is to immerse yourself as often as possible in art, broadly defined. The excursion doesn’t have to be grand or particularly well-planned. It does not even have to explicitly connect to your creative field. The act of simply stepping away from your desk (and the empty page blinking out from your computer screen) and taking a little time, by yourself, helps generate both ideas and motivation.” —Leah Koenig
Additional sources of motivation and energy might come from collaborations, travel, research rabbit holes, and current news. Many of our food fellows are actively experimenting with Substack’s tools—including video posts, audio, and discussion threads—to keep their editorial calendars alive without exerting enormous effort in each post. Others are surveying their readers to learn more about who they are and what they want.
Reach new readers
Expanding your readership is all about getting the word out and keeping people in the loop about your publication. Posting to social media and activating your network in person and online remains one of the most effective ways to grow, but the Substack network is beginning to promise a rich source of subscriber growth.
No one in this cohort loves self-promotion; however, reminding your audience that you exist, and that there are ways for them to support you, is a proven way to see your newsletter grow. As Kristen Hawley put it, “There is absolutely nothing—nothing!—to be ashamed of or overly cautious about when it comes to promoting subscriptions to your own work over and over and over. If you’re writing on Substack, you’re probably interested in working independently, maintaining a space for your own work. The best part about being independent is that you can do literally whatever you want with your brand. If something’s not working, you can change it; no bosses or bureaucracy to worry about. In my experience, readers appreciate this type of humanity, and you’ll stand out from the crowd because of it.” To put it another way, Ashley Rodriguez did the math and found that with “slightly more Twitter followers than subscribers and way more Instagram followers than subscribers,” she realized she “needed to continuously tap other areas of the internet where there is clearly buy-in (these folks follow me, after all!) but maybe haven’t heard of my newsletter.”
When you can, lean on a friend with a following that’s bigger than yours to help get the word out about important articles and launches. For instance, from Doug Mack: “My biggest one-day bump in paid subscribers came from my public launch on Twitter, two weeks after I’d begun—and that bump wasn’t from people I knew. It helped a lot that one of my big Twitter mutuals, who has more than 100,000 followers, retweeted my launch thread. I didn’t ask him to do so that time, but I have asked on a couple of other occasions—I keep my requests to a minimum!—and I think most people are happy to boost Twitter mutuals now and then if you ask nicely.”
Think of growth as an asset to your creativity and your ability to share your work with the world. Solicit ideas from your readers, engage with them in comments, and publish their testimonials. Leah Koenig describes the benefit of this feedback loop: “Nothing boosts your confidence (or gives you the incentive to grow) quite like having an audience you feel accountable to.” On a related note, Lerato Umah-Shaylor uses social media to attract subscribers by sharing glimpses of her personal experiences and reserving the secret sauce for Substack: “I have been including my travels in my newsletter, and I intend to drive traffic from social media to more fleshed-out stories in my newsletter.”
Draw from Substack’s network
Writers on Substack form communities within and beyond the programs we offer. Anne Byrn is a frequent collaborator with other writers on Substack, sharing interviews, recipes, and ideas with fellow food writers. She says, “I am wired to be social. And as much as this Substack is my own baby, I have so enjoyed meeting all the other writers and am fascinated about what they do. I enjoy being a part of this pack.”
Substack’s recommendations feature, reader profile, and publication embeds facilitate cross-pollination and growth across the network. Jason Wilson is one of many who has seen substantial audience growth thanks to recommendations from a number of writers: “The recommendations feature is a great way for larger, or more established, newsletters to support smaller ones. I’ve seen it work personally, particularly with José Andrés’ newsletter, who began recommending mine, and generated more than 400 sign-ups for me in just a few weeks.”
Many thanks to Substack’s food fellows for their thoughtful consideration, and special thanks to the mentors who pushed our thinking: Hanna Raskin, Dave Infante, Melissa McCart, Andrew Janjigian, Caroline Chambers, Andrew Zimmern, and Ruth Reichl.
A guide to food and drinks writing on Substack