Anxiety, ambition, professional jealousy, hot tips, vibe shifts, and other things that should make writers wary.
I should have also shared this comment from Alicia Kennedy: "“Did I do what they did?” is the KEY here. So many people would like accolades and an audience without the labor involved. There are obvious privileges involved in both putting in that labor and reaping the rewards, but I’ve always found when I’m falling into an abyss of comparison that this is the question to ask myself. And then I have to ask whether I want to have done what they did." https://substack.com/@aliciakennedy/note/c-44388336
Thanks for the sanity reclamation that this post offers. I do want to grow my stack. But I also want to do the work. I write and draw and love the process of it. And STILL, I sometimes get surprised that my baby stack hasn't grown very much. Did I mention that I've taken on a caring role for my dad with Brain Cancer? Which means I haven't been posting with a regular cadence for some months now? hehe (coz you gotta laugh).
I don't notice myself actively comparing myself with other writers, but I do still find myself passively noticing that there hasn't been much growth lately.
Thanks for reminding me that I'm doing what I'm doing coz it's fun and impactful for those who read it. And that in all honesty, I value my growth as a writer more than my growth as a Substack.
That little realisation made my heart happy.
Hi, Summer-- I’ve been following your notes and love this distillation. I just started reading Haruki Murakami’s essay collection “Novelist as a Vocation” and it struck me how, in his foreword, he said he’s been working on and re-working the same essays for decades. Even as an undeniably successful novelist, he was not yet comfortable publishing essays about novel-writing until he’d let them sit for years in a drawer. I’ve often wondered if the immediacy of self-publishing is harming my work product, in that I so rarely let a draft sit like I used to (out of necessity) before being on Substack. Your thoughts on this topic are refreshing. Thanks for taking the time to share them with such clarity
I am here to be in conversation, not in competition. I really enjoy this space-- stay the course! And thanks for sharing the perspective of an established poster, as well as that of a hard working writer. For now, I am a ravenous reader who writes elsewhere and I am enjoying the literary/ salon community here. It is exciting to watch a community grow with a generosity of spirit at its root and to feel part of it.
Brilliant. Just echoes everything I have been thinking over the past 12 plus months publishing here on Substack. I was drawn to this platform to share my writing after hearing that "niche" writing often does well, and hoping that my essays on women's narratives might get a few readers, if I put the work in. This has already surpassed my ambitions for my newsletter! Most importantly, by posting to a regular schedule and not posting unless I feel it is my very best work (whether for free or paid subscribers) I have found both great satisfaction in the process of improving my craft and wonderful, responsive readers. I have also found some awesome writers to read and interact with, such as yourself. Thank you for this reminder of what it really takes to be "successful" as a writer 💖
Simply brilliant. Packed with wisdom and some stone cold facts. Too many people here are writing about writing rather than actually writing and sharing original material, which is what Substack is designed for. Real writers write. The work is its own reward. Success, if it comes, is often beyond our control. All we can control is the work. So do the work. Write. Trust the universe to do the rest.
Brilliant piece, thank you! It took me 8 years of very hard work to grow an instagram following of, at one stage 250k, and it looked like (and still looks like) getting up at 5:30am 6 days a week, using every ounce of time throughout the day and night to write, cancelling plans, intense periods of solitude (especially when I’m writing a book) and so much more that comes when you live and breathe your passion. It’s never been a competition for me (other than with myself at times) but about service. Service to just one woman who may feel like I used to feel, and who may feel less alone, and eventually courageous enough to go towards her pain. Thank you for this essay.
Hi, this is not the totality of my thoughts on publishing. I am not calling out any one person, not even the person who I initially replied to in Notes. Thanks!
Yes to all of this. Thank you for saying it. I read a post over the weekend that I found disheartening and upsetting, that seemed to shame those of us who enjoy it here and who are grateful to subscribe to and excited to share this space with well know writers. I have seen many posts like this, albeit not quite so scathing and they sadden me. I think many others read it too, and felt the same. My response was to rant into my phone notes and then publish my own small response of encouragement, which has turned out to be my most popular post to date 🤦♀️🤩 I’m not a serious writer and I’m not trying to be, but I can still have fun and enjoy my work and the work of others here. Bravo 🤩 and just in case anyone would like to read it, people like me who just want to do their thing and share their work... here’s the link 💕https://open.substack.com/pub/whileiwasdrawing/p/confessions-of-a-middle-aged-substackaholic?r=1l11kb&utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web
A great long version of The Note, thank you. And I really appreciate the honest focus on entitlement, which is so pernicious. Your words slice right through the self-inflation. In my work (as an outdoor therapist), I have seen so much interest and growth that i get a lot of requests for 'how can I do what you do?' Or 'what quals do I need?' And I get so tired of the entitlement. It's hard to convey that it took all of the decades of my life to braid this journey from all sorts of (mis)adventures and dead-end choices and experimentation. I can't just give you a quick answr or sell that 5 point plan to you. On substack I am growing slowly and yes, it can be frustrating to start again from the 'bottom' but it also reminds me of my hunger and as long as I put in the effort I too see things gradually grow. This is the only way - the organic way, the way that feels true of all worthwhile things. They take time, effort, experimentation. Thank-you for you cutting through the jibber jabber and reminding us all that what works is what has always worked. And vice versa. Love to you. X
Did I not just read what you've written?
If I did, why did I then immediately spent an hour and a half writing a pithy, amusing, blindingly insightful, sure-to-be-viral reply which was in fact a pile of now deleted self-serving dribble?
Because writing is hard.
Here's my re-write:
Thank you for this. It inspired and encouraged me, and I know it inspires and encourage others.
The time and effort you take to share your insights with others is valued and meaningful.
I encourage every creator on the platform to read this and I hope @Substack picks it up for dissemination this week. There is no secret handshake in publishing. There never has been. There is no class, or workshop, or personal introduction, or marketing ploy that will bypass the cold hard reality that is publishing. If you want to be a respected writer, you have to put in the work. You have to pay your dues by elevating your craft and producing consistently at a high level.
I was once told that all good books find a home. The same is true of nonfiction pursuits. If you build the world for yourself and the passion shines through, that is what attracts the readership. It’s the simple formula of moth to flame. You just have to make your flame the warmest around. Not the shiniest, or the biggest, but the one that will sustain the lives of those around you because it is genuine.
Well done. @Summer Brennan.
@SummerBrennan - Thank you for a well thought-out and informative post.
Professional writing is like being in high school all over again. Whether in the classroom, athletic fields, drama club, marching band, computer lab, or yearbook committee, always put your best foot forward, knowing and accepting that human nature dictates whether your genuine effort will go viral or not.
In the spirit of your post, the writing mantra I live by comes from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, essayist and poet Barbara Kingsolver:
“Don't try to figure out what other people want to hear from you. Figure out what you have to say. It's the one and only thing you have to offer.”
Quality Value Investing
I really liked the thinking on big presses and small presses on Substack because, indirectly, it has a relationship to audience strategy and curation. Would you rather have a mainstream Substack that caters to everyone or would you rather have a niche, tightly engaged audience that likes the specificity of your content. Each route has trade-offs and I think it’s important for writers on the platform to think about this in relation to their goals.
This was so great. I have been seeing so many of those “how to grow” posts and felt both intrigued and icked out at the same time. The stats feature on here makes it easy to forget the sincerity of why many of us started these projects in the first place.
This also makes me think of Sister Corita Kent’s list of rules for her art students, which was shared recently by Marlee Grace on her (very successful) Monday Monday newsletter. You can find the whole wonderful list online but the best one is
Rule #7: THE ONLY RULE IS WORK.
From someone who comes to Substack to read rather than write:
I prefer the hard work to be reflected in the quality rather than the quantity of posts. Publishing new posts several times a week or even daily (!) is almost certainly hard work. But not only does the quality suffer, most normal people just don't have the time to read all that. It becomes something that piles up in your email inbox, a task to get through rather than a joy to look forward to. I realize the market pressures people to churn out new things at a fast clip, but your audience is almost certainly happier with one well thought out, edited, and polished essay a few times a month.
Hard work should be rewarded. But sometimes it is easy to mistake the hard work that is required for good writing for the ends rather than the means. An analogy: Building half a house is hard work! But if you want to make a living building houses, the goal is to finish the house. On Substack, I see a lot of people building frames or models, doing interesting things with architecture that might be deemed impractical for a mainstream house, or writing about building houses. In these cases, it might be more helpful to view your paid subscribers as investors rather than consumers.
One more thing: the desperation is sometimes palpable, and I have seen some writers get frankly angry at their readership for not choosing paid or higher tier subscriptions. "This is my job! I deserve a fair wage!" Just please keep in mind that pretty much everyone, regardless of their profession, is dealing with a lot of financial precarity right now and it probably isn't personal or slumming it if someone reads your stuff but does not pay for it when you offer it for free. In fact they are probably grateful and really like you. Don't take your economic strife out on them.