How I create Intentional Wisdom
A behind-the-scenes look at creating a weekly newsletter
One of the most common questions I get about this newsletter is how I actually produce it—where the ideas come from, how many drafts I go through, where I source photos, etc. So in this article, I've decided to give you a quick behind-the-scenes tour of how the sausage gets made.
It all starts with figuring out what I want to write about each week. If you're a subscriber, you'll know that my newsletter goes out on Thursday mornings at 7 am eastern. So typically, I'll start thinking about the next week's article either on a Thursday or a Friday. Fortunately, I'm not starting from scratch. I keep a running list of ideas in Evernote of the concepts that I may want to write about—importantly, this list is available on any device I'm on (phone, tablet, laptop, etc.) so when inspiration strikes—even if it's when I'm brushing my teeth with only one eye open—I'm ready to capture it.
Now there are different ways in which ideas can be generated—some more active and some more passive. On the active side, if I don't have anything obviously jumping out at me, I will ask myself some version of these questions.
What did I learn this week that others might want to know?
What caused me the most emotional distress this week? And is there something to learn from this?
What did I read, listen to, or watch that resonated with me this week?
What problem am I uniquely positioned to help my readers solve? (This is a bigger overarching question that I ask myself, too).
What did I fail or succeed at this week?
Typically, an answer to one of these questions will be enough to set me on the right course.
But other times, the idea generation is much more organic or passive. I wrote an article called Harnessing Creative Bursts in which I described ideas coming to me all at once as if I'm watching a fireworks show—one after another, coming fast and furious—before fading away. For me, this is the ideal scenario, because these are often the ideas that I get most excited about as I develop them in my brain in a quick two- or three-minute flurry of creativity. I've attempted to hone in on the conditions that result in these creative bursts and I've noticed two things:
1) It usually happens when I am showering. The second and third most common times are when I'm washing dishes and brushing my teeth, respectively. I *think* the commonality here is that my body/hands are occupied going through actions that are more or less on autopilot, while my brain is free to wander.
2) There is a definite correlation to physical exercise. So when I work out, usually a Peloton ride for me, and then shower, that's when the light show comes. The perfect scenario, therefore, is an intense cardio workout followed by a shower. Then I need to have my phone/Evernote list nearby to capture the action before it fades.
So that's where the initial concept comes from but then, of course, that week’s idea needs to be developed. I might have an idea like writing an article on the topic of resilience but I need to think about what exactly it will cover. Again, there are active and passive components to this part of the process as well.
On the active side, I may need to do some research. So when I wrote this piece on The Mother of Thanksgiving, I had never heard of Sarah Josepha Hale before, but I knew I wanted to write something Thanksgiving-oriented. A couple of hours diving down Google rabbit holes educated me enough on the subject that I had something I felt was worth sharing.
Another form of research, if you can call it that, is taking notes on what I'm reading. I'm still early in my system here but for the recent article on The Psychology of Money, I used the 'highlight' function on my Kindle to capture particularly poignant concepts as I worked my way through the book. When I finished it, I logged onto my Kindle account on my computer and had all of the quotes right there—easy to remember and to copy and paste right into my article. Pretty cool, right? I think so but then again, I’m a little nerdy when it comes to this stuff.
On the passive side, you know where I'm going for that—the shower, obviously. Thankfully for all involved, I'm not including any visuals from this part of the process, but one of the benefits to picking an idea 5 or 6 days in advance is that it gives my brain some time to work on it subconsciously. If I know broadly that I want to write a piece on the power of controlling our emotions, for instance, my subconscious brain will spend a few days putting the pieces together for me. These pieces can and often do include personal stories on the topic or historical examples. And then I'll sequence these together in the shower or while washing the dishes. I'll think about how the book I read two years ago might factor in, or how the baseball team I just finished coaching proves exactly the point I'm trying to make.
And then, I'm ready to write.
It's funny, it seems like a major process already, but most of this is just happening organically in the background as I’m going about my daily life, so it doesn't *feel* like a tremendous amount of effort.
Writing & Rewriting
Okay, then comes the writing part. So at this stage, I fire Evernote back up and sit down at my computer (or sometimes tablet) and start writing the article. Usually, I create a very rough outline if you can call it that. It's just a few words on the screen to remind me where I want to go with the article and in what order I want to present the ideas. Here's a snapshot of me writing this article.
So you can see how it's midway through transitioning from a super-rough outline to prose. Pretty meta, right?
Anyhow, I haven't actually logged how much time it takes me to write an article but it's probably a few hours. Often, I don't write the full article in one sitting. Some of this is due to me being overly verbose and some is due to other demands on my time.
Of course, as I write, the ideas become even more developed. I'm sure somebody smart once said "I write to find out what I'm thinking," which is true for me as well. And, of course, the process of idea generation to idea development to writing is not a purely linear one. Sometimes I've gotten halfway into a draft and scrapped it. Other times, I'll have written half the draft and then a day later I think of a much better way to tell the story. So it ebbs and flows. But eventually, I get something down on paper usually by Monday or Tuesday that I think more or less captures what I'm thinking.
Editing, Polishing & Publishing
Next comes the "cleaning it up" and "getting it out" part. I'm funny in that the editing isn't necessarily distinct from the writing for me. I constantly go back and read the entire article again and again as I'm writing it to make sure that whatever I write next flows with what I've already written. Inevitably, I change quite a bit as I go back. I try to make sentences flow better. I fix typos. And, to use a writers’ term, I “kill my darlings,” or in other words, I attempt to remove all the extemporaneous material that I thought was so clever but is really just making it a more difficult, meandering read for you.
When I'm more or less happy with what I've got in Evernote, I then fire up Substack and copy and paste the entire article into a draft there. If you don't know Substack, it's an online newsletter/publishing platform. All of the Intentional Wisdom articles reside on my site on Substack and the platform handles the distribution for me (it emails you) and tracks my stats (how many emails sent, how many opened, etc.)
When I drop the article in Substack, Grammarly, which is a web-based program that checks grammar, kicks in and shows me a bunch of spots where it suggests I make changes. Usually, Grammarly and I have lots of disagreements, especially on the subject of oxford commas. Don’t get me started. Sometimes, I give in. Other times, I stand my ground. It depends on my mood. But it's helpful to have another set of (artificial intelligence) eyes on the article before I hit send.
Finally, I go back through the article and add in hyperlinks to places in the text where I've referenced other pieces of work, as I've done many times in this article. And then I'll add in images where appropriate. Sometimes I'll add pictures that I took on my phone like the main image for this article (sorry about that one), other times I'll grab something from Wikipedia or another source that was relevant to the article; or if I just want to include a really beautiful image that visually tells the story, I go to Unsplash.com and search terms like “persistence” or “December” or “meditation” depending on what I'm writing about that week. The images there are free and include a wide selection of amazing photography. It’s nice to give attribution to the photographers, which I usually do in the notes at the end of the article.
Then, when I'm good with the text and I'm happy with the images, I will go to the scheduling function on Substack and schedule my email to be sent out at 7 am on Thursday morning. If you thought I was at my computer hitting send every Thursday at 6:59 am, I'm sorry to disappoint. Usually, at that hour, I am attempting to wrangle multiple children into a car while trying to decipher which one didn’t really brush their teeth and which one forgot to wear underwear. So the auto-scheduling helps.
I'm not always checking to make sure the article went out, but often I start receiving texts and emails soon after, which is always cool and much appreciated.
Then, in theory, I'm supposed to be promoting this newsletter. Right now, I'm trying to build a following on Twitter @gregorycampion where I usually post a tweet or series of tweets about each article. Sometimes it takes off and gets tons of interaction. Other times, crickets. I've spent most of my time to date on the actual writing of the articles and not much on the promoting. I'm trying to get more disciplined about posting regularly on Twitter so I can build a following and get more exposure for the content. Other than that, I am relying on word-of-mouth and many of you have been incredibly gracious about sharing these articles and that's led to most of the growth I’ve seen in the subscriber list. So thank you!
Monitoring & Feedback
In terms of monitoring the performance of the content, I'll keep an eye on the stats in terms of the growth in subscribers, and importantly, the open rate on the email. If I see high open rates, generally that's a sign that what I'm doing is resonating. If I don't, that's a good clue that my audience doesn't care so much about the topic I wrote about that week, so maybe I should do less of that.
I still get excited every time a new subscriber joins my list. And, I wish it wasn't true, but I do get bummed out when someone unsubscribes. But I rationalize it this way: What I'm doing here is not for everyone. In fact, even I'm still figuring out what I want to do here. Depending on what I do with it in the future, who knows, YOU may not like it. I know that a sure way to fail is to try to be all things to all people. So I'm going to try to create content that I find valuable and I think others may find valuable. Some will. Lots won't. And that's okay because it gets me a step closer to having a list of subscribers—and creating a community—around content that I hope really matters to those who want to consume it.
Finally, I go through the feedback that I receive on the articles. Thanks to those of you who send me emails and texts and who comment on the articles. I continue to receive really thoughtful feedback and comments which is really rewarding. I want to respond to every single piece of feedback. I know I've already missed a few, which I feel guilty about, but please keep it coming. I want to know what works and what doesn't. I'm thinking about how I should continue to transform this newsletter in 2021. I'm thinking maybe it needs to be shorter. I'm thinking maybe I need to do more audio and video... we'll see. But keep letting me know what you want. That's going to point me in the right direction.
So there you have it. Everything you ever wanted to know about how Intentional Wisdom gets made (and probably some you didn't want to know... especially that stuff about the shower).
Thanks as always for reading. I hope you're doing better than I am with that "workout every day in December" challenge. Just remember, it's like I tell my kids: "Do what I say, not what I do."
Have a great week.