5 things I’ve learned while writing a weekly (tech) newsletter

Newsletters are undergoing a Renaissance. Don’t believe me? Just ask Benedict Evans at a16z.

21 weeks ago, I started a writing experiment that was inspired by reading Benedict Evans every week. Everyone around me, at Google, was talking about the “next billion” people coming online, but I didn’t know much about these users. So I set my sights on India, gave myself a weekly writing deadline (Mondays), and vikarah.tumblr.com came out the other side.

I started “VIKARAH | Letters from India” as an outsider, for my own benefit, to track tech and mobile in India. Within the first week, I chose this picture to represent the Vikarah that I was seeing:

1 billion new people are coming online over the next few years, and India is at the forefront of this “vikarah,” the Sanskrit word for transformation. I try to capture this energy and excitement in a weekly newsletter: http://vikarah.tumblr.com/ (Source: Pooram festival in Kerala via @Oneindia)

As I’ve been writing, week in and week out, I’ve learned heaps about the tech scene in India (and what a scene it is).

But, to my surprise, I’ve also learned a lot about the mechanics of publishing a weekly newsletter that attracts new subscribers.

What follows are my observations about that. I hope these lessons can help you bootstrap your own newsletter.

What I’ve learned:

  1. How to find lots of high-quality content quickly — On my first day, I started out on Twitter, searching for clever India analysts like Subrahmanyam KVJ and the folks at Sequoia India. I messaged them and asked for other analysts that I should be reading. They were nice to send back some names. I then asked those people the same question, “Who should I be reading?” A percentage of those people wrote back, and I kept doing this, until I started hearing the same names from multiple sources. Bingo. In a matter of days, I had my list. In parallel, I discovered a few “TechCrunch of India”-type sites and also started regularly reading the tech section of three Indian newspapers. Suddenly, a lack of content was no longer my issue. I was swimming in it.
  2. Skim fast, clip faster, and don’t read any of it until EOW — During week one, I was following a dozen people on Twitter, reading multiple tech sites, and trying to keep up with three daily newspapers. Repeat after me, information overload. But my outlook never changed: err on the side of stockpiling data. Facts, ideas, valuations, quotes, impressions; I saved it all to Pocket. Looking back, I now realize that I developed a survival tactic around Letter from India #3: I began to decouple the act of finding articles vs. reading them. Before Week #3, I would find and read articles in one step, one after another, which was slow and exhausting. After Week #3, I’d set aside five minutes between meetings to race through Twitter, long-press links that looked interesting, and save them to Pocket. (Note: I now do this, in bursts, multiple times per day nearly every day.) Then at the end of the week, as the news dried up, I’d whip through Pocket in one go and pluck out the most interesting stuff.
  3. Type fast and learn keyboard shortcuts — During these Friday reading sessions, I buzz between tabs and windows on my Chromebox with clawhammer banjo music playing in the background. In my left Chrome window, I have Pocket open with its backlog of 20, 30, or 40 articles from the week, all tagged #vikarah. In my right window, it’s my master Google Doc that reflects the latest status of the upcoming newsletter. To speed things up, I’ve memorized the critical keyboard shortcuts both in Pocket (Press ? to see them) and Google Docs (Ctrl+/). That way, I can perform quick operations, like “j, j, j, enter, o, ctrl+l, ctrl+c, alt+tab, ctrl+shift+arrow left, ctrl+k, ctrl+v, enter” to add URLs to my newsletter in seconds, all without touching the mouse. This gets me to a skeleton newsletter in under an hour. From there, I write and rewrite for another 30 minutes. Most newsletters end up at 500 words or less.
  4. Use short sections, short sentences, and short words — I have four sections in the newsletter. Each is concise and serves its purpose. Section 1, “Some thoughts,” is the “long form” portion of the newsletter, where I develop two or three ideas in three to five sentences each. The remaining three sections feature a grab bag of one-liners, designed to be conversation starters with co-workers. Section 2, “Industry news,” hits on new features, product strategy, and the business climate in India. Section 3, “Deals,” covers M&A and VC funding. Section 4, “Statistics,” surfaces counterintuitive and hard-hitting stats.
  5. Write, measure, learn — Once my Pocket queue is drained and the draft newsletter is ready to go in Google Docs, I copy and paste it into MailChimp and Tumblr. MailChimp is great: it takes the hassle out of newsletter signups and provides loads of data so I can see which people are reading which articles from which countries. I use this data to refine the newsletter week to week. Sometimes the most popular articles surprise me. In my most recent Letter from India #20, an article about India’s “Great Wall of Floodlights” seen from space was a runaway hit.

And so it goes, week after week.

Josh Woodward is a Product Manager at Google. Vikarah is a weekly newsletter focused on tech and mobile in India. Sign up at vikarah.tumblr.com.