Posted on 11 Comments

How to make an e-course (using MailChimp)

I just launched an e-course version of DIY Writing Retreat–Your DIY Writing Retreat–and it’s been a lot of fun. I’ve taught before and I’ve taken online ecourses before–both emailed and not–so I had a pretty good idea of what I should make it look like. But actually making this course took longer than expected.How to Make an Ecourse in Mailchimp - Alicia de los Reyes

I thought I’d share a quick guide to how to make an e-course using MailChimp, my automated email service of choice.

If you follow these steps and add your own content, you’ll have an e-course that works like this:

  • People sign up to take your e-course on a MailChimp sign-up form (in other words, by joining a MailChimp list).
  • They receive an email that starts the course. Emails = lessons.
  • By clicking or waiting a certain amount of time, they get another email lesson.
  • The course sends automatically whenever someone joins the list.

If you’ve ever signed up to get a free mini-course from someone’s website, this is likely what you got–automated emails in a sequence that makes sense.

Here’s how to do it:

Step 1. Outline your e-course by breaking up an idea or a lesson into roughly half-page-long chunks. If you’ve ever planned out a syllabus or a lesson plan unit, this is a lot like that. Think of each email as a lesson that gives the reader one thing to take away. For example, when I was working on Your DIY Writing Retreat, I made one day “Pick a date” and focused on how to find time to get away.

How to Make an Ecourse in Mailchimp - Alicia de los ReyesStep 2. Add assignments to each day. For each day of Your DIY Writing Retreat, I wanted there to be a clear takeaway. The best way to do this is make that takeaway into a concrete task. So, for example, on the “Go shopping” day of Your DIY Writing Retreat, I made a printable grocery shopping list and gave the reader the assignment of printing it out and buying the supplies on it.

Step 3. If you have a free MailChimp account, upgrade it. You only need to sign up for the cheapest level of service ($10/month) to get access to “Automation,” or the ability to make emails that send themselves.

Step 4. Make a MailChimp List for your e-course. You don’t want everyone on your regular email list (if you have one) How to Make an Ecourse in Mailchimp - Alicia de los Reyesto get your course–just the few who sign up (unless you’re making an intro-to-you course–then this list can be your newsletter list!). So, make a separate list for these folks and design a sign-up form.

Step 5. In MailChimp, go to “Automation” and click on the “Create Automation Workflow” button. Set it to send to the list you just created and choose the type of workflow that you want to send–I used “Educate Subscribers.” Your list should be empty, so this won’t actually send to anyone–yet.

Step 6. Design your first email, then click “Add new email” and design the next one. Repeat.

Step 7. Making any printables? Create them in the program of your choice and save them as PDFs. Then, upload to Dropbox (another free service–isn’t the Internet great?) and click on the “Share” button to get a link you can put in your emails/lessons.

Step 8. Decide on the trigger for each email. If you want the emails to send automatically (so that once someone signs up, they get one email per day or one email per week), then change the settings for each email so that it sends periodically after the last email has been sent (or opened). If you want the e-course to be self-paced (so that the reader controls when to get the next email), change the settings for each email so that it sends after the last email Capturehas been clicked. (You get to choose what they click–I made a button for each of mine that sent them to a page on my website that just says “Thanks for clicking! Your next lesson is on its way.”)

Step 9. Test the e-course! Add yourself to the list you made and make sure everything works: links, downloads, triggers. Look for typos. Have someone else try it out and ask them for feedback.

Step 10. Confirm! Add start sharing the sign-up form on your website. (Like this: Are you interested in running Your DIY Writing Retreat? Buy the course here!) If you want to offer it for sale, keep the link hidden and send the code to customers who buy it–if you buy my course, you’ll get the link in a spiffy PDF so you can sign up and take the course at your leisure.

Have you thought about making an e-course? Please share in the comments what’s stopping you if you have!


Posted on 2 Comments

You should take writing advice from actual writers

Over these writing-focused few weeks (check out the whole series here), I’ve been thinking about writing advice. I’m always torn about reading and writing it.

On the one hand, writing advice has made me better. I went to school for writing. Some books about writing have changed my life (you can read about this in my newsletter).

But writing advice is definitely a timesuck. You can fall down an Internet rabbit hole of writing advice and find all your writing time suddenly, magically gone.

And nine times out of ten, after reading a bunch of advice on writing online, I don’t feel any better. I haven’t gotten anything done, and I haven’t found that silver bullet that will make me a shiny, successful writer. I’ve just wasted a bit more time that I could have spent writing.

I’ve been pondering why writing advice is such a double-edged sword–there have been times when reading a writing book has literally made me write. I used Tara Swiger’s automated e-course on making an automated e-course to write How to Be a Writer in…about a day. That was pretty fast. I read Stephen King’s On Writing and made myself get in the habit of writing 1000 words a day–that made me finish a novel. Those are tangible results.

Mid-run the other day, I realized there is a simple filter you can apply to the Internet to get good writing advice. It’s not fool-proof, but it helps.

Get your writing advice from other writers.

If you want to be a novelist, get writing advice from people who have actually written novels. If you want to be a magazine writer, look for magazine writers’ advice on pitching, researching and writing. If you want to finish a big project, talk to a writer who has completed a long manuscript.

It’s not rocket science. You wouldn’t ask for career advice from someone who’s not in the career of your choice, right?

But often, writing coaches are just writing coaches. I’m not trying to put them down: successful writing coaches are good at writing blog posts that go viral and drawing in a loyal crowd. These are good skills to have, and maybe you want them. But if what you really want is to see your name in non-writing-related publications, then you have to look for people who have written for them.

There are plenty of people who have been published widely who offer great writing advice. Here are a few:

  • My friend Craig sent me this article about pitching by a freelance travel writer and contributor to Paste. Priceless.
  • Lots of web magazines have an article or post by the editor that gives you insight into what she/he wants. This one on The Billfold is more ethereal than you might expect from a publication that is all about money, but I felt like I could pitch Mike Dang after reading it.
  • The e-course by Tara Swiger I mentioned looks like it’s no longer for sale, but her other guides are useful. Tara writes e-courses for a living, and you can tell.

And of course, the best writing advice is good writing.

  • I devour every literary personal essay Kate Bolick writes, most recently this one. How does she make having an affair into a gorgeous, thoughtful thing? Because she writes so damn beautifully!
  • Longform is where I go to find out how to write long nonfiction: how writers organize epic essays, what types of experts to talk to, nailing that killer quote.
  • Also, I really like the variety of The Archipelago. I’m a bit biased, having been published there, but I love the voices that get shared: a wide variety of mostly women.

What writers do you know that give useful writing advice? Share a link in the comments!

Posted on Leave a comment

How I Got an Agent for my NF Manuscript

Meanwhile, I found out about a Twitter event called #PitMad. #PitMad stands for Pitch Madness, and it happens every quarter (there is a thorough and awesome summary here). Agents and writers participate online; agents share that they are participating using the hashtag, and they also share their guidelines and what, specifically, they would love to see. Then, authors pitch their books using both #PitMad and their genre — in my case, #nf, nonfiction. If an agent likes your pitch, she favorites it, and you are welcome to query her. You have a massive leg up by sharing that she found you through #PitMad — the agent has already told you that she likes your basic idea, so chances are good that she will 1. Read your proposal and 2. Ask to read the manuscript.

Short story: I used Twitter and finally had to stop whining about social media. Read the rest of the long, sordid tale on We Heart Writing.

Posted on Leave a comment

How I write, Part 2: Getting Away

Shameless plug! DIY Chick Lit is free this weekend on Amazon—get yours now (and tell all your wannabe-chick-lit-writer friends).

Everyone loves to get away, and it’s something writers dream of. But like I wrote in DIY Writing Retreat, you don’t need a bunch of money or time to get away. “Getting away” just means changing your scenery, and there are ways to do that every day, if you want to.

Here are some reasons I need to get away:

  • I have to write a brand-new pitch letter and I really don’t want to.
  • I have to revise something, and I really, really don’t want to.
  • I want to research something.
  • I want to get some new ideas—I’m feeling bored with what I’m working on, and it needs some facts/background/new ideas to make it more interesting.
  • I can’t make myself write anymore, but I want to get something
  • I haven’t left my house in a few days and I’m starting to feel like a hermit.Getting Away - Alicia de los Reyes

And here are some ways I get away:

When I don’t want to do something, I go somewhere totally new and random. My personal favorite is a library in a different town. Thanks to the Rollinsford Library, I revised my thesis. In a new town, there’s very little chance you’ll run into anyone you know, so you don’t have to explain yourself or worry about distraction. It’s fun to be in a new place, and a library doesn’t require you to interact with anyone. You can put on your headphones, open up your laptop, and be “that” guy/gal.

Going somewhere different somehow makes it clear that this task is a departure and not what I have to do every single day for the rest of my life. When I’m done, I can go home. So that means that I will, at some point, be done.

When I need to research something, I try to go to an actual physical place related to what I’m doing. Maybe that’s a library (I’m lucky to be able to go to the gorgeous downtown Seattle library, which has almost every book anyone could ever want). Maybe it’s a setting related to a story I’m writing: a dock, a baseball field. Maybe it’s a place where people who I’m writing about hang out, and I try to interview them (for me, that’s usually a church).

The Internet is vast, but people are deep. They will give you much more information than you can get from the most well-researched article; they can point you to other people, give you the real story, make you consider your story from a viewpoint you hadn’t thought of. Getting out and talking to people is scary, but people love talking about their experiences. So don’t be a hermit. Sometimes I give myself a reward for being brave and asking a stranger questions (a latte with a crazy amount of sugar in it).

When I want to get new ideas, or I’m just feeling kind of bored with whatever I’m working on, I go to a museum or a new place. I go with Andrew on a day trip to a new town and we explore all the local stuff there is to see there: cafes, shops, local history museums. Travel, even to someplace an hour away, wakes up my brain and makes me feel like the world is a big, interesting place. Because it is.

When I can’t make myself write anymore but I really want to feel like I finished something, I go to a coffee shop, even just for 45 minutes, and bang out a draft of something. I either set myself a bite-size task (“just write one blog post”) or I free write for a while. Sometimes I get ideas, sometimes not, but it’s all practice. Not every day is going to be a stellar writing experience.


I have the luxury of having mornings and early afternoons to myself, the trade-off of working in the evenings. If you work a regular job, you might try going somewhere new after work: a new bar or coffee shop where you can sit and write for a bit before you go home, or the library in a different town. If you have kids or home duties, try thinking of it as taking a class or joining a book group, and trade your buddy for another free night. If that’s not possible, you might try joining a writing group; then, at least occasionally, you can host it at your house. It’s not a new setting, per se, but it will shake up how you think of your house (I certainly like my living room a lot more when it’s clean and filled with snacks and friends).

If you tend to be a homebody, I can’t recommend a writing group enough. Even if everyone else in the group is a terrible writer who gives awful feedback, you will have talked to other people about being a writer. You will have said “I usually write X.” A writing group affirms that you’re a writer, which is always a good feeling. I’ve rarely left a writing group feeling anything but inspired and happy about writing. Contrast that with how I feel after trying to make myself revise something alone in my house…

Getting away can be tricky, but it’s worth it.

If you’d like some more motivation and ways to get away for a retreat, check out DIY Writing Retreat. It includes a schedule for what to do every hour of a day- or weekend-long getaway, and even includes a shopping list and recipes, so you can focus on just writing. I’m also creating an e-course based on this retreat that includes worksheets and email-lessons tohelp you actually take a retreat. If you’re interested in test-driving it, you can sign up here.