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Advice from an expert on how to write in a time of Substack
We were fortunate to host Ben Williams, who served as editor of New York Magazine’s digital properties for more than 10 years, at the recent summit for the Substack Fellowship for Independent Writers.
At the summit, he shared insights about online publishing, developing writers’ voices, and the art of going viral. Here are the highlights.
On the origins of Grub Street, Intelligencer, The Cut and Vulture
“They all started off very small, basically as blogs. When we started growing the website at New York Magazine, it was really the early peak of the blog era, and there were some things about the ways blogs operated that we wanted to adapt – the conversational tone, the constant updates, the commentary and linking around the web.”
“I actually think about something like Substack as being the revival of that under a different business model. What’s changed is that the business model for commercial blogs was about generating advertising revenue, and now it's subscriptions, which can make a big difference to the editorial approach: Instead of trying to reach a wider audience, you can focus on a niche that really wants what you’re doing…. These sites all started out as one or two people tops– a writer and an editor, or an editor and two writers, and then over time we constantly evolved and grew them as we figured out what worked.”
On writing for the internet
“There was an early phase when [magazines] would just try to do print things, except on the internet. It took a few years for people to figure out, well, actually that doesn't really work and there are characteristics of the internet that are different from print, and if you want to be successful there, you have to adapt to those characteristics.”
“The voice is different on the internet. Humor plays a lot better on the internet than it does in print, for example. So what we did was more like a translation. We said, New York Magazine has these characteristics and values. How do we take those values and adapt them to the different dynamics of internet publishing?”
On writer voice
“A strong voice is extra-important online, and it's hard to teach voice. For instance, there are people who write great features in print and those pieces might be effective online. But if you try and turn that person to a blogger, they just can’t do it. They don’t know how to do the voice.
And then vice versa, there are people who are really natural bloggers, or these days there are people who are really natural tweeters, right? Twitter is this very particular thing, and someone who’s good at that doesn’t necessarily know how to build a longer story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and so on.”
“I’m not sure that you can really teach the voice, though. I think you can help people with it. You can help them hone it and develop it. But, ultimately, we were always trying to find writers where you can see the voice there already.”
On how the subscription model changes things
“We didn’t necessarily think about who the audience is as specifically as [Substack writers] should think about it. Eventually we conceptualized it as an urban audience. And that would mean not just people in New York, but it could be someone who lives in a small city, or a small town in Texas, but they want to get out of there and move to New York or whatever. So we would think about the urban state of mind. But that's still pretty broad, whereas [Substack writers] can be targeting a much more specific niche. And if you’re giving your audience real value with each story, there’s probably less pressure to have something new every single day.”
On what counts as ‘adding value’
“I always think in terms of new information, which can mean a lot of different things. When you're on Twitter, you’re looking for stuff that interests you that you haven't heard about before. It could mean I’ve broken some news and I’m telling the world something that just wasn’t known before. Or it could mean adding context to the news that helps people understand something in a deeper way. The simplest thing, if you can do it, is being funny.”
“Another thing is finding the angle that's a bit buried in a story, but which is more interesting than the headline. Or you can reframe how to think about an issue – maybe the New York Times wrote something and you know [the topic] better than they did. And you can say, ‘Well, I actually know it's this way.’ A lot of people think they do, anyway.”
On going viral
“There’s a perception that junkier stories are the ones that get traffic, but there are plenty of times when really quality stuff does break through. It's just that there are no guarantees – there are patterns to what works in terms of audience, but there’s a lot of luck too. If you do get a hit story, it's good to follow up on it, because you've already got people coming to you for that thing, and if you give them more of it soon, they’ll take it.”
“Don't get too high, and don't get too low. If there's a story that doesn't hit as big as you wanted, it's not actually a reflection [on your work]. I do really think there isn’t a tight correlation between audience and quality. So if you have a story that didn't do as well as you'd hoped, that doesn't mean the story sucked… You have to think long-term and not live and die every day on which direction the numbers tipped.”
On being different
“The thing that you have to figure out is, What am I supplying that no one else can supply? How do you stand out amidst a huge amount of competition? Just recapping the news from elsewhere doesn’t really work anymore. So what not to do is what everyone else is doing.”