The Science of Shelf Life
Thanks for coming over to this section to nerd out with me about Shelf Life. If you're on this page you might be a superfan or you might be thinking of starting your own newsletter. FYI, I appreciate you either way. You can reach out to me through the contact page if you want to chat about the info herein.
I wasn't sure I'd make a good newsletter author. I'm still not sure. Let's be real, you're probably not sure yet either.
I like talking to people about publishing, editing, writing, books I read and recommend, the art of storytelling, typography, words I think are neat, all that kind of stuff. After one too many late-night text explosions, my best friend said:
"You know, you should do a newsletter."
"I would, but I'm not sure I have enough ideas to write about," I said.
"Well, make a list and see how many you come up with," she suggested.
I filled two pages in my journal from edge to edge before deciding, yeah, okay, I have enough topics to do this for awhile. After a few days, the list had grown to 100 topics and I committed to writing Shelf Life twice a week for one year to see how it goes. If I never came up with another article idea, I figured I had at least enough to go on for that long. The list has grown so that although I have now written 19 of those original 100 articles, I still have 112 more ideas in the calendar. I still want more ideas. Send me ideas.
After I started Shelf Life, I studied up a bit on what readers want from the content they read on the web. I probably should have done the studying first, but I got excited and jumped the gun. Anyway, here are the things I learned are important:
Consistency. They want to know when to expect their content, what to expect from their content, and then they want to get that content when you promised it.
Reasonable time commitment. Articles that take 6 to 7 minutes to read get the most shares and engagement. Most people don't want to waste a click for a 45-second read, and most people don't want to deal with a War and Peace-level missive at 9AM (or ever).
I realized that if I wanted to be successful, I would need:
Delivered consistently when promised (Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9AM), and
Clocking in at a palatable reading length (5 to 10 minutes).
Anatomy of Shelf Life
I didn't arrive at the perfect Shelf Life configuration right away. I'm still working on it to be honest. Not every edition gets the formula exactly right. But most articles in Shelf Life try to follow this 10-part format:
Headline—I'm not great at writing headlines, but I try to keep them short and direct, and I try not to begin them with an article like "a," "an," or "the" (for indexing and alphabetizing purposes) unless I can't avoid it. There's a whole science of headlines that I'm not wise to. Scientifically speaking, Shelf Life does not have good headlines.
Subtitle—I use the subtitle space to make it crystal clear what the article is about in case the headline didn't do the trick or was metaphorical. If a reader is not interested in the day's content, I don't want them to have to wade through 500 words to discover that.
Epigraph—I try to start you off with a relevant quotation; I consider this a slam dunk when it seems tangentially relevant at first but deeply relevant by the end of the article.
Intro—I take a paragraph or a few paragraphs to tell you a funny story or anecdote that introduces the topic. In this section I try to tell you exactly what the rest of the article is going to be about, so if you're not interested you don't have to read any more. As I mentioned in my article on Getting Your Reader to Pony Up, I try to hook my reader in the first 5% of the article by word count.
Topic—The meat of the article. This is the section that has all the real information about whatever it is I'm talking about. I try to break this up with a logical progression of level-1 and level-2 headings (at least) but not every article has a good heading structure or any heading structure.
Outro—The outro is a single paragraph in which I try to wrap up the topic at hand in a meaningful and succinct way. This is where I try to put my best sentence, to leave the reader feeling positive about the article they have just read.
TL;DR—About 6 weeks into writing Shelf Life, I put a TL;DR at the bottom of an article and then I thought, "I should put one of these on every article." TL;DR is Internet slang for "too long; didn't read." Mine is a one-line summary of the article: the main takeaway. If someone is interested in the topic but doesn't have 5 to 10 minutes to devote to reading the article, they can search on "TL;DR" and get the memo.
Teaser—This paragraph teases the next article coming up in Shelf Life. At first it wasn't easy for me to consistently write this because I didn't always know which article would be coming up next. Now I usually always have the next one in the bag or, if not, I can pick something from the editorial calendar and declare it "next."
News—I devote the final paragraph above the boilerplate to one new and noteworthy thing I would like to let the readership know about, and I try not to change this too often (my goal is to refresh once per month). For the month of October, for instance, it was an invitation to join the community Discord server to participate in a November writing challenge.
Call-to-Action—This is the boilerplate that ends every article and requests that the reader subscribe, contact me, visit my website, and share Shelf Life with a friend.
Time and Timeliness
The next thing I needed to determine was when to publish. At first I was hesitant to overcommit but I found that twice a week was comfortable. I picked Tuesday and Thursday at 9AM pretty much out of a hat, because I pictured my colleagues sitting down to work in the morning with their coffee and easing into the day with Shelf Life. Everyone knows Monday mornings are too hectic to read a newsletter and nobody wants to do any extra reading on Friday.
Science shows that Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays are the best time to send email campaigns so my hat trick paid off. After a couple of weeks I started looking at how much engagement Tuesday articles received versus Thursday articles. Thursday articles stay "fresher" for longer—they stay at the top of the feed from Thursday through Monday. Tuesday articles only stay at the top Tuesday and Wednesday. Since my plan was to publish primarily content on writing, I arranged my editorial calendar so that Thursday articles will always contain writing content while Tuesday articles contain "anything" content—could be writing, editing, publishing, or anything else.
Finally, I needed to figure out how to write for the optimal reading time. The commitment I made was 5 to 10 minutes of content, with 6 to 7 minutes being optimal for most readers. I decided that 6.5 minutes was the target with a minimum of 5 minutes and a maximum of 10 minutes. How does a person write to that specification?
The average American reads at a rate of about 275 words per minute. Now, I think Shelf Life subscribers probably read a lot faster than that, on average, because fans of Shelf Life are accomplished readers and very intelligent people overall (and also are more than usually attractive). When Shelf Life includes illustrations, which isn't often, they're not simple photos or drawings—the ones I have done so far were demonstrations of journaling techniques. Those take time to read and understand. Medium calculates 12 seconds for inline images, so that's the amount of time I consider a picture to take.
I have a reading time calculator that works like this: (((Word Count (X) divided by 275) times 60) plus (Number of Images (Y) times 12)) divided by 60. That gives me the number of minutes it takes to read an article. Based on that formula, I've committed to delivering an article between 1375 and 2750 words (if there are no images), with the ideal article being right around 1800 words (with no images), or 6.5 minutes to read.
When calculating reading time, I count everything except for the news and call-to-action. Everything that is unique to the specific article, including the teaser for the upcoming article, gets counted.
I routinely write well over my hard limit of 2750 words and have to cut text. There is a large collection of Shelf Life excerpts living artlessly pasted into a document on my Google drive.
Lucky for me, editing is my specialty.
I'll say just a few words on process and metric-keeping before I go.
I have what I call the Shelf Life Editorial Calendar, a spreadsheet that keeps track of all my ideas for topics with the following details:
Target publication date
Draft complete (yes/no)
Staging complete (yes/no)
I have a few trusted friends with access to the sheet. They let me know which articles are of particular interest to them and I prioritize those ones. I drag rows around according to what I feel like writing, what topics are timely, what has been requested by friends or readers, or what I have promised in other articles.
Each article takes one to three days to draft depending on how busy my life is. Most get written in one sitting. After drafting is finished I let them sit for at least 24 hours before I edit them. During this time I might ask someone to beta read for specific issues or for general interest and readability. After editing I stage the article in the Substack environment and schedule it for publication at 9AM on its target date. The day before it is scheduled to publish, I proofread it and make any last-minute fixes or tweaks.
That's it, that's the Shelf Life life. I hope this has been interesting or helpful to you in some way. As always, thanks for reading. Oh no, I’m one word short.