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Run Your Newsletter Like a Restaurant

John Nicholas
John Nicholas
12 min read
Run Your Newsletter Like a Restaurant

I believe more people should start writing online.

Not only will you be better off for it (by increasing your luck surface area), the world will be a richer place for learning from your ideas.

In this essay, I cover:

  1. Why you should write a newsletter
  2. How to overcome limiting beliefs
  3. Why you need a system
  4. My newsletter system including modules, information capture, the final product, distribution and feedback.
  5. Closing thoughts and two paradoxes

1. Why you should write a newsletter

One of the best ways to share your ideas is by starting a newsletter.

Here are some of the benefits I’ve seen from writing one myself:

  1. You improve your information diet. My newsletter forces me to consume information more intentionally. Everything I read, everything I listen to, everything I consume is weighed up against whether it can be included in my weekly publication.
  2. You create a body of work over time. The weekly commitment to publish something creates a Colosseum of ideas after a while. Even if I don't publish a long-form essay, I'm still publishing a thought or an atomic essay which can become a longer piece one day. I’m still creating. After five months, my weekly habit has already produced a significant collection of work.
  3. You can repurpose the content for social media. I can revamp my essays and share them as Twitter threads. I send out short posts on LinkedIn. This leads to a bigger following on social media and eventually more subscribers on my site.
  4. You find your tribe. By sharing your thoughts online, you will generate conversations and connections with the most interesting people. By speaking your ideas into existence, you send a signal into the world and find others like you. You start nurturing a relationship with your subscribers and fellow writers. You rekindle old friendships. You form new ones.

Even though the benefits to writing online seem obvious, it's not that simple to get started. We are held back by limiting beliefs and irrational fears.


2. Overcoming limiting beliefs

Starting out is tough.

When I first started writing online, I resisted creating a newsletter.

I had many fears and doubts:

  • Creating a newsletter felt like a big commitment (where would I find the time to write something each week?).
  • I also wasn’t sure I would generate enough material to write about (where will my ideas come from?).
  • In addition to this, I felt like an imposter. Shouldn’t I leave the newsletter writing to the pros like Sahil Bloom and David Perell?
  • And (the big one), if I’m not making money from this, wouldn’t it be better to focus on my career or something more productive?

Fast forward five months and I’ve published over 20 editions of my newsletter.

How did I get here?

1. I lowered the stakes:

I created an experiment where I wrote a weekly thread (‘Not a Newsletter’) on Twitter. I ran this for 6 weeks. In doing so, I proved to myself that I could produce a collection of ideas and notes in under an hour. Even with a busy schedule, I could shave off an hour. First fear - the lack of time - ticked off.

2. Writing breeds creativity:

Our best ideas come to us when writing. After a couple of weeks I became confident that I had enough ideas. I proved to myself that there is enough to write about. Second fear - creator panic - also gone.

3. We all have a story to share:

Not only will you increase your luck surface area, your readers will be better off by learning from your ideas. I realised that me playing small was not benefiting anyone. Sure, the big newsletter writers have a big audience and they produce great content. But someone starting out on their writing journey can learn more from me since I am only a couple of steps ahead on the journey. I have recently cracked the issues they are struggling with. Third fear, being an imposter in a world full of 'real' writers, checked off.

"It's almost always better to learn from peers who are 2 years ahead of you than mentors who are 20 years ahead of you. Life evolves and most insights get outdated." - James Clear

4. I connected with my ‘Why’:

Some weeks are slow. Your subscribers are only increasing marginally. There is little engagement. Nobody likes your tweets. You start questioning the point of it all. In these low moments, I like to think back to why I write. I feel more grounded (writing is the perfect antidote to restlessness). I am also finally figuring out my purpose (this is the first time I have given this much thought to what I want to create with my life). And I have increased my serendipity. The countless highs outweigh the occasional lows. Fourth fear, creating something irrelevant, crossed off.

In addition to overcoming these limiting beliefs, I set up a system to create content consistently.


3. Why you need a system

To publish consistently, you need a strong system:

“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” - James Clear

Some weeks are more difficult than others. There are weeks when I don’t feel inspired. Other weeks are crazy at work. Still other weeks I might be down with a cold.

My newsletter system helps me get through these weeks.

By setting up a similar system, you can:

  • Publish week in and week out, despite what life may throw at you.
  • Avoid creator panic (not knowing where your next idea comes from).
  • Get to a point where you write a newsletter in a couple of hours.
Starting is the hardest step. It gets easier from there.

Over the last few months, I have seen the marginal gains from publishing consistently. My first newsletter took over ten hours to complete, but since then the time has reduced each week. Now I'm at a point where I can create an edition in about three hours. (Ok, maybe four hours if I'm completely honest.)


4. My newsletter system

The main deliverable each week is the product - the newsletter. Everything builds up to and flows out from the newsletter (as illustrated in the cover image).

The newsletter consists of different topics or modules. If you think about a restaurant, the topics are the meals that you want to prepare for your customers.

In order to run your restaurant, you need to decide what you want to cook. What is on your menu? What content do you want to share? What topics do you want to write about? What is the niche you are targeting?

To create the meals on your menu, you need the right ingredients. Ingredients that match your unique recipes, your unique niche. This is the information you capture. The quotes you jot down. The notes you take when you read books and listen to podcasts. All the ingredients can be used to make the final product.

Once you’ve cooked the meal, you still need to serve it to your customers or deliver it to their homes. You need to email your newsletter to your subscribers. You need to distribute your ideas online. The last step is the most important. Without distribution, nobody will taste your meal. Without posting, no one will read your writing.

Finally, your customers will give you a rating. Compliments to the chef. Or only 3 stars out of 5 on UberEats. Email replies and conversations are an important feedback loop into your writing.

I. The topics (the menu)

First, decide on the topics you want to write about.

Decide on the modules of your newsletter. These represent the types of food on your menu. What resonates with you? What do you want to serve your readers?

By setting up modules, you achieve two things:

  1. Awareness: your mind is trained to capture information that fits your modules. You are backsolving for what you want to produce. If you don’t know what meal you are cooking, you won't know which ingredients to collect.
  2. Consistency: Your readers know what to expect from you each week. They know what cuisine to expect from you. There is room for experimentation, but stick to your broad niche. Nobody likes a mixed kitchen (burgers, pasta, fish).

Here are some example newsletter structures from three of my favourite writers:

  • James Clear (3-2-1 Thursdays) has a very neat structure. 3 ideas from him, 2 thoughts from others, 1 question for the reader. No pics. No links. Very clean, easy to consume.
  • David Perell (Monday Musings and Friday Finds) gives himself more freedom, but he still has a basic outline. He share a new essay or he recycles some of his older writing. In addition to this, he features the best articles he read that week.
  • Ali Abdaal (Sunday Snippets) leads with a thought and then puts his favourites (song, video, podcast, book) at the end. He always ends with a quote from Readwise.

Try to limit yourself to 3-5 modules.

This will save you time (you can’t write about too many things then). It will also show your subscribers that you respect their time. Having too many modules will scare readers off. They can’t eat a buffet each week.

My newsletter has five modules:

  1. Photo of the week. This is the antipasti (bread and olive oil) on my menu. I usually share something outdoors (hiking, running, skiing) or a picture of me exploring a new city. This provides a behind-the-scenes of my life, which nurtures a relationship with my subscribers (there is a human being living a life behind the writing).
  2. Quote of the week. This is the starter option (primi piatti) on the menu. A short quote from a book or article I read, which warms up the reader’s brain with easier material before the longer sections start.
  3. New content from me. This is the main course (secondi piatti). Every week I try to share one new creation from me. Either a long-form essay, an atomic essay (250 words), a collection of thoughts or a visual.
  4. One tip for other creators. A second, lighter main course. Here I share advice for other creators on their journey. Either a tip on mindset, something practical like how to create visuals on Procreate or a curated segment from a creator I admire.
  5. Things you might like. The dessert. My favourite joke, article, video or visual from the week. Something light to end off with. I try to make this fit in with the overall theme of my newsletter.

II. Information capture (the ingredients)

Once you have set up your modules, it becomes much easier to capture information according to content buckets. You will know which ingredients you need to collect for the different courses of your meal.

Good writing is downstream of good information capture, which is downstream of being aware of the topics and ideas that resonate with you.

We consume a lot of information during the week. It’s important to go through life with our eyes open. If you see something that resonates with you (something that can be captured in the newsletter) save it in your notes. In the Fisherman’s Guide to Writing, I shared broader techniques on how to create awareness and how to capture information.

I use a Notion system to track my newsletter notes. Each note is tagged according to its content type (or module) – essay, note, photo, quote, article, etc.

When I capture an idea, I leave a breadcrumb for my future self in an accompanying note. A brief description of why this idea stood to me or why it could help someone. Something I can use to pull myself back into that frame of mind. The note can also slot straight into my newsletter when I share the idea.

In addition to tagging the content type, I update the status based on whether the note has been published in a newsletter yet or not. The note is either still in drafts (unpublished) or in the outbox (sent via my newsletter). Or I’ve gone one step further and repurposed the note as a post on Twitter or LinkedIn after sharing it in my newsletter. See section 4 on distribution for more details.

A screenshot from my Notion system.

The only requirement is to keep writing so you have a constant stream of content.

III. The newsletter (the meal)

Now that you’ve set up your menu and collected your ingredients, you are ready to create your meal.

Everything builds up to and flows out from this point.

Crafting your newsletter involves pulling your favourite notes and ideas from your information capture system and fitting them into your content buckets (the modules of your newsletter).

When creating your newsletter, it is important to set up constraints and rules upfront:

  1. Length (not too much food): There are many things fighting for your readers’ attention. Knowing this, I try to keep my newsletter under 1,000 words. This means it will always take less than four minutes reading time (assume 250 words per minute). There are weeks when I want to share three articles, but I limit myself in order to respect the reader.
  2. Contents section (the specials for the day): I share a line-up upfront so my readers know what’s on the menu each week. They can then choose which modules they want to engage with.
  3. Cadence (how often is your restaurant open): I try to publish my newsletter once per week. This means backsolving from my publishing date. 3-4 days beforehand I start filling in my modules based on my unpublished notes. One day before I like to have a draft ready.

Given the right constraints and a reliable information capture system, the newsletter can almost write itself. You only need to make sure the ideas fit some broader theme and add value for your readers.

IV. Distribution (the delivery)

Once you’ve cooked the meal, you need to serve the customers that come to your restaurant. Otherwise, what’s the point?

In the same way, creating your newsletter is only half the job. Getting it in front of some eyeballs (focusing on distribution) is as important as crafting the content itself.

Distribution comes down to two parts:

  1. Email your subscribers. These people have a standing agreement with your restaurant. They come to eat there. Or they have a standing order. These are true fans that have opted in to receiving your content.
  2. Posting on social media. To increase your exposure beyond your normal restaurant guests, you can also advertise your restaurant on food delivery platforms (share your ideas with your followers on Twitter and LinkedIn). This involves packaging the meals and sending it out to their homes (repurposing your newsletter content for easy consumption on mobile apps). For example, I can create a visual of my quote of the week and share it on LinkedIn. Or I can create a Twitter thread from my latest essay.

By focusing on distribution, you increase your luck surface area:

“The amount of luck that you have in life is how much value you create, times how many people you tell about it.” - Patrick McKenzie

By controlling the controllables (sending your weekly newsletter and tweeting out your best content), the things out of your control (your subscriber and follower count) will also follow over time.

Not only will you gain expsosure, the world will also be better off. You owe it to other people to get your best ideas out there so our collective knowledge increases.

V. Feedback (ratings)

The engagement after sending your newsletter or posting certain sections on social media is a great signal of whether you are on the right track.

Similar to how a restaurant gets rated by the UberEats rating system or restaurant patrons give compliments to the chef (or complain about how their steak was cooked - yikes), your subscribers and followers will point out what resonated with them and what didn’t (silence is also a form of feedback).

Replies to your newsletter validate your ideas and generate new ideas. When people ask you questions on your process e.g. how do you deal with writing feedback, the answer you give them can become an essay.

The feedback can also loop back into your system. Like a restaurant can update its menu based on customer feedback, you can update the topics or modules you include in your newsletter.

Tip: always encourage your subscribers to reply to you. Especially when you are starting out and you have time to respond individually.


5. Closing thoughts and two paradoxes

Think about your newsletter like running a restaurant.

Set up the modules (the menu), capture your ideas (the ingredients), create the product (the meal), distribute your postcard (the delivery) and get feedback (the ratings).

In addition to setting up a reliable system, I would encourage you to sit down and think about why you are writing. This will motivate you to keep on publishing when the chips are down.

I want to leave you with two interesting paradoxes:

1. Writing perspective:

People don’t care about you, they only care about what you can do for them. Or “people don’t care about your shit” as my writing buddy Adi says. At the same time, it is important to write for yourself or write for an audience of one as Morgan Housel, the author of the Psychology of Money, says. You should stay true to your own voice and share the content that gets you excited. So what gives?

I think it comes down to this: write about what resonates with you (the topics that get you fired up), but write them with the lens of helping your readers (not creating a diary entry that’s all me-me-me). Don’t think ‘what do you want to teach’. Think ‘what should they learn’.

2. A constant companion:

While a good newsletter system will help you reduce the time spent each week creating the newsletter, the writing never really ends.

Writing is a constant process. It’s a way of life. Always keep your eyes open. Create awareness of what resonates with you. Always be on the lookout for new ingredients for your recipes.

3. Should we avoid social media or use it to build connections?

Also a tricky one. We know how deleterious and time wasting social networks can be. We have more tools, but we are more distracted than ever. We have more info, but we are more overwhelmed by its abundance.

At the same time, I've met incredibly talented people on the internet. People I consider friends. People I would never have met had I not started writing online and sharing my ideas on platforms like Twitter.

Use these platforms, but use them wisely. Curate your information diet and limit your time on social.

Good luck with your newsletter! Remember - nobody wins if you play small.


Thanks to Adi Verma and Kath Mora for reading drafts of this essay.

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