Earlier this week, we announced Substack Reader, a new way to keep up with all your newsletters – so this time, we’re flipping the script and interviewing Substack writer Kushaan Shah about his reading habits.
Kushaan is an avid newsletter reader in addition to writing Mind Meld, a newsletter that explores a different question around human behavior each week, whether it’s the success of ASMR or what makes an advertising jingle stick.
We sat down with Kushaan to learn how he finds new newsletters and keeps up with his reading. This interview has been lightly edited for length.
You read up to 30 to 40 newsletters a week. How do you find the time to read so many newsletters?
A lot of it is mental mapping! When I first subscribe, I really focus on understanding the style of each writer over time.
There are some newsletters I really love (ex. Packy McCormick’s Not Boring about new topics in business) that I know [will] take time to read due to their depth of analysis. I star and keep them unread until the weekend.
There are others that tend to be a lot shorter (ex. Louis Pereria has a fun one called Complexity Condensed that covers a topic within 500 words). I can read [these] right when they come into my inbox, typically the same morning. There are some newsletters that [are] extremely topical (ex. Casey Newton’s Platformer) that I can’t risk taking time to read in order to keep up with the news, so those I also open immediately irrespective of length.
There are also newsletters that have “once in a blue moon” relevance, where I’m not necessarily the target audience, but there is a topic every so often they write about that compels me. I usually stay subscribed to those but don’t necessarily read every week. So it usually boils down to:
Do I want to read this in the coming week?
How long will it take?
Do I need to read this today?
Once I’ve made a mental map, I set aside some time on the weekend, usually Saturday or Sunday morning. [I’ll] pour myself a hazelnut cream coffee and just spend an hour or two reading through the newsletters.
I set aside some time on the weekend, usually Saturday or Sunday morning. [I’ll] pour myself a hazelnut cream coffee and just spend an hour or two reading through the newsletters.
If I’m able to, I do like to leave comments, email back one or two really valuable insights I got from them, or share it on Twitter. As someone who writes, I find even small things meaningful when you put your heart into your writing.
How do you find new Substacks to read?
I’d say Twitter is usually the first place I find out about new Substacks, either from someone having announced via “personal news” that they’re starting one or seeing a compelling one retweeted into my timeline. I was also recently part of the OnDeck community and found a number of writers there through word of mouth.
Something recently I’ve seen [are] Substacks promoted as links in other Substacks, and I find that to be a fun virtuous cycle. Since I’m already on the site, it’s easy to be able to read something on the fly.
When you come across a new Substack, how do you decide if you want to subscribe?
There’s a framework I learned from Nathan Baschez [called] the STIR framework (make your writing surprising, true, important, relevant). I find some of the best writing does for that for me: consistently calls out new insights or revelations. They’re not simple things you can search on Google, but often answers to layered questions.
I [also] index on visual formatting – people who use emojis, images, attractive column spacing always get a big plus from me. Full caveat, I do also have a big friends and family bias on Substack. I know how hard it is to will yourself to start one, so I’ll usually always subscribe for the first few when someone I know takes the leap regardless.
I have a big friends and family bias on Substack. I know how hard it is to start one, so I’ll usually always subscribe for the first few when someone I know takes the leap regardless.
How do you triage your reading? Do you have a reading routine, in terms of tools or habits?
I wish I had a more fun answer to this question but honestly just block off early mornings and weekend mornings for in-depth reading with coffee. I mentioned earlier that I dog-ear thought-provoking reads that I know will be longer, so this usually consists of about 50% of my Substacks. I’m a big early bird, so that definitely helps in establishing a reading routine that doesn’t interfere with the day (no one is really calling to make plans at 7 am on a Sunday morning). I do take some mornings to write, and that’s the primary challenge in balancing with a reading habit.
I sometimes run into Substacks that aren’t in my inbox, and for those I use Pocket or DM myself articles on Twitter that I want to bookmark for reading later. I do also use Notion to track some of the best things I read, which I’ll usually share again on Twitter at a later date, or sometimes promote in my own newsletter.
How do newsletters compare to other forms of media that you consume, like books or Twitter?
I absolutely love newsletters. Books have been great for learning mental models and frameworks, but one challenge there is that you don’t really get to interact with an author. It’s a very unidirectional process, but it’s rare that any praise, feedback, or commentary for the author is received. It’s also very pristine, focus-grouped, edited – there are gatekeepers to publishing that don’t exist at the same level for newsletters.
With newsletters, not only does it feel like you can actually interact with the author (whether via Twitter or comments), but you feel like the author is okay being imperfect. The lack of gatekeeping opens one up to hypothesize, speculate about the world and write more raw, unfiltered thoughts. That to me is beautiful.
Twitter is also a platform I’m a fan of, and I’ve seen some newsletter pieces work well as Twitter threads. But it’s also far too noisy – insights get drowned in pictures of puppies, memes, sports highlights etc. It has the bidirectional incentive of a newsletter without the focus. That’s what I love about newsletters: when I start to read, I know it’ll just be me and the author’s thoughts for the next five minutes.
That’s what I love about newsletters: when I start to read, I know it’ll just be me and the author’s thoughts for the next five minutes.
Who's a Substack writer that you wish more people would subscribe to?
This is a tough question, I have so many!
One I’ll recommend is Lyle McKeaney. He writes a newsletter called “Just Enough To Get Me In Trouble”, and his writing is a breath of fresh air. I read a fair amount of business, product, and marketing focused Substacks, but I always look forward to Lyle’s: he writes with a crafty stream of consciousness, personal and vulnerable anecdotes about his life that really make you think. Very evocative, reminds me of a Chuck Palahniuk or JD Salinger type of storytelling.
Ready to catch up with your reading? Check out Substack Reader for a distraction-free space to read all your newsletter subscriptions.