Newsletters as Data
15 Oct 2020
Newsletters are all the rage in the tech industry right now. A link to a substack profile is quickly becoming a prominent feature of many Twitter profiles. While building Novus Bestiary, I stumbled upon a valuable approach to building my newsletter. Thinking about my newsletter as data allowed me to stand up a 40+ page website in a couple of weeks with no outsourcing.
Building blocks shaped like newsletters
Long term thinking was the key to my success. I didn’t start with my “newsletters as data” idea clearly fleshed out. I started with a long term vision: build a modern bestiary that chronicles thousands of mythical creatures.
When I decided to start building Novus Bestiary, my plate was pretty full. I was a full time dev lead at Shopify, and a father with three young children. Jumping straight to building a large scale website was not possible. I realized I could cut scope and still work towards my goal by writing about one creature at a time. A newsletter was the perfect format to share as I went.
My text-based setup
I knew that my weekly newsletter about mythical creatures would eventually become the main data source for a website. With that in mind, I came up with a lightweight process to write newsletters while simultaneously building a usable datasource. I sketched out a basic folder structure to create newsletters as markdown files. On top of that, I created a simple system with NodeJS scripts to move the newsletters into Mailchimp.
Here is snippet of the file structure for a newsletter:
basilisk.md - The main content file. This is where I write the newsletter in markdown. I am free to add headings and notes to myself which I can strip out later using a custom showdown extension.
basilisk.json - Metadata about the creature. I want the main writing experience to be in markdown, but there are additional facts about the creatures I want to capture as I go along. Things like sources, origins, aliases, habitats, etc. All of that stuff goes here.
basilisk-mc.html - When I am ready to move to Mailchimp, I run a script using showdown to convert the markdown file into HTML. I use a custom extension to strip out content that I like to have while writing but don’t want appearing in the Mailchimp template.
Powering the system are a handful of NodeJS scripts. I’ll highlight the two I use for the process of creating a newsletter.
npm run new basilisk - Spits out a new creature directory that is ready to write in.
npm run convert basilisk - Transform a markdown file for a given creature into Mailchimp-ready HTML.
Simplicity, comfort, and reusability
Text files organized in folders are a fantastic data source. They are completely transparent so you can see exacty what’s in them. They are trackable in Git. They are highly portable. They require no fancy dependencies. Using markdown allows for a nice writing process and the ability to adapt the content to any HTML-based platform.
By thinking of your newsletters as data, you can incrementally build up a large body of reusable content and apply it in different ways.
If you want to follow along as I learn to build a business, you can follow me on Twitter or enter your email below.
Email subscribers will know first when I write new articles and release products. I value your trust and will repay it in kind.