Ask a Freelancer

Ask a Freelancer: Do I Need My Own Email Newsletter?

By Nicole Dieker April 14th, 2015

I’ve seen writing sites talk about the importance of a mailing list. Do I need a mailing list? What should go into these emails?


In spirit, a mailing list is similar to a social media following, only a bit less casual and a bit more regimented. You’re able to communicate your work and thoughts with people who actively signed up to read them. The risk is annoying your subscribers with irrelevant content or too many emails. The reward is developing what every creative person wants: a loyal audience.

You do not need a mailing list to be a successful freelance writer. However, building one can certainly benefit your career.

You might be thinking mailing lists are mostly the provenance of writers who focus on marketing or the business of freelancing—the type of newsletter that might include the words “Sign up for my webinar!” in the opening paragraph and a PayPal link at the bottom. If that is the type of mailing list you want to create, there are plenty of online resources to help you get there. I suggest you start with IttyBiz, which I love.

But if you’re not in marketing, most people probably don’t want to pay to see that webinar. They may, however, subscribe to a free newsletter that highlights good content every week. That’s where journalists come in; just ask Ann Friedman, Alexis Madrigal, or Andrew Sullivan. Each has an extremely popular mailing list that helps them build lasting relationships.

If you’re a journalist, your mailing list should offer readers a little something extra, something they aren’t likely to get by reading your articles or following you on Twitter. Alexis Madrigal’s newsletter, for example, “delivers five tidbits from the past and future,” and one of his most recent emails includes thoughts on the nature of paying attention paired alongside the history of computer storage.

Can you also use your mailing list to promote your own work? Absolutely. Ann Friedman sends her mailing list recent work as well as updates on what she’s reading and a weekly GIFspiration. (That’s an inspiring animated GIF, but you knew that.)

I don’t have a mailing list, but I do treat my social media platforms the way another writer might approach a mailing list. On my Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook accounts, I reblog my articles, share behind-the-scenes thoughts or tidbits about pieces I write, and post short personal blog posts. I could share this type of information via MailChimp, TinyLetter, or another mailing list service, but doing it over social media feels more immediate to me. Plus, I get to see in real time when people like and share my posts. They have yet to invent a way for me to see how many people like my emails!

They have, however, invented ways for you to see how many people don’t open your emails—and that’s another key component of the successful mailing list. You want your list to be something people look forward to opening, not something they immediately archive or delete.

What’s a good metric to track? Well, Fast Company reports that Alexis Madrigal has the second most popular mailing list on TinyLetter, and he still only gets a 60 percent open rate. So be happy if half of your readers don’t open your emails, but pay attention if 90 percent of your readers are leaving you unread, which probably means something about your newsletter strategy needs to change.

How should you promote your mailing list? Well, once you’ve decided what type of content you want to share, and once you’ve set up your list on something like MailChimp or TinyLetter, start sending out the sign-up link on social media. Include the link in your writer’s bio, especially when you get articles published elsewhere. When you send out emails to your list, put a little call to action at the end asking readers to share your newsletter with other people who might be interested. (This works, by the way. I found out about my favorite newsletter, The Skimm, when a friend shared it with me.)

Building up that list will take patience. There are already a lot of good newsletters out there for freelancers, but if you’re able to fill some sort of niche with your work, it can really help you make more money. Not only will you be able to tell editors and clients that you can bring a substantial audience to their sites, but there’s also a chance those people will reach out to you directly if they subscribe to your mailing list and see you’re consistently sending out interesting work.

Nicole Dieker does not want you to sign up for her mailing list, but she does want you to email her your questions about freelancing! Send your Ask a Freelancer questions to

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