by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter
At some point in the recent past, predictions were that newsletters would become defunct as people and organizations turned to the World Wide Web to promote their services, products, and activities. But newsletters continue to not only exist but thrive. Some may now be produced in electronic formats only, but print editions are still alive and well in many instances. With both businesses and entrepreneurs looking for ways to engage regularly with past, current, and prospective clients, and companies and not-for-profit organizations aiming to stay connected with employees, retirees, donors, and other important audiences, newsletters aren’t going away any time soon.
With that in mind, it’s worthwhile for publishing colleagues to think about writing for or editing newsletters as a business niche, as well as publishing our own newsletters to promote our freelance services.
Voice and scope
Writing for a newsletter is a skill like any other — it has its own conventions beyond good grammar, usage, spelling, and punctuation, and even beyond good writing in general.
What many people forget when they prepare to put a newsletter together is that a newsletter should focus on news. Not fluff; news. Not weddings, babies, bowling scores, etc.; news (although some newsletters do find a rationale for including some levels of such fluff — small chapters of larger organizations, for instance, might include personal news about members as a way to build connections and closeness, but a lot of professionals will find such information a little off-putting).
There are times when longer articles are appropriate for a newsletter, but the other key characteristic is that most newsletter stories are short. If a topic deserves more depth, it might make sense to keep the newsletter version short and tight and use the publishing entity’s website to provide additional details, insights, quotes, charts, and other material to flesh out the topic.
The writing voice of a newsletter is usually informal, although some organizations in the sciences and some businesses use a denser and more formal approach to newsletter content. The active voice is the best choice, and it’s fine to use the second person (you, we, us) to build connection with the readership.
Newsy and short: That’s the winning combination for newsletter writing.
Planning and process
If you are thinking about launching a newsletter, whether for your own business or someone else’s, plan to start small and to expand over time. If you aren’t sure there will be enough information to produce an eight-page monthly newsletter, start out with four pages every month, or four or eight pages every other month. It hurts reputation and credibility to have to scale back from an overambitious publishing plan, and it builds reputation and credibility to expand to more pages or a more-frequent publication schedule if the newsletter takes off.
If you have the opportunity to edit or produce a newsletter, fall back on one of our commandments for editors: Be prepared (see “On the Basics: A Fifth Commandment: Thou Shall Be Prepared”). If it’s for a client, ask for and read through everything about the organization you can find — old newsletter issues, if any; annual reports; the website; news clippings; grant proposals, etc. — both to see what’s been done before and to absorb something of the culture of the organization. Research the field or niche of the organization in general, and any national level if you’re working with a local or regional chapter. Talk to everyone — staff at all levels, clients, donors, volunteers.
Develop a story list for the first few issues — ideally, a year’s worth — and be sure to include a few “evergreen” or timeless topics that can be used if a planned article falls through for some reason. Popular evergreen topics include profiles of leadership, staff, volunteers, and clients/customers; trends in the appropriate industry or profession; new resources, from books to websites to events; unusual holidays; etc. Distribute the list to staff and other potential contributors — and invite them to add their ideas for articles.
In many organizations, a letter from the leadership is expected to appear in every issue of the newsletter — but the individual responsible for the column often doesn’t give the deadline much heed. Be prepared to draft a “from the president/executive director” column for approval; it will save you time and hassle, and should strengthen your value to the organization.
To put your stamp on the publication, look for people and topics that have not been covered recently. There is bound to be a pocket of people who feel left out and will be thrilled to be included in some way, whether you write about them and their programs or use their ideas for articles.
If employees or volunteers are expected to write for a company or organization publication, make sure they feel welcome. Provide brief style and writing guidelines. Give contributors bylines and consider including their photos, if they’re amenable. For those who are nervous about writing, assure them that you’ll make them look good in print by catching any errors. Suggest to management that contributing articles to the newsletter will be a factor in merit increases.
For a promotional newsletter of your own, keep the “me, me, me!” elements to a low roar, as the saying goes. Do let readers know of your recent achievements or news, but couch the information in ways that make it useful to others. Include how-to tips and resources of interest. And be sure to include an opt-out function so you don’t annoy people by sending something they may not want to receive.
The look of the book
Design is key to a newsletter being read and remembered, so don’t skimp on that element. There are plenty of template-based newsletter resources available these days, but the best course is to invest in having a graphic designer create a unique look for yours, whether it’s for a client or yourself. If you want to do the whole process, from planning to writing to editing to layout to proofreading, have the designer create a format you can replicate from issue to issue after the launch, so you only need the designer for that first issue. If you only want to do the writing and editing, and perhaps proofread the layout before posting or printing the newsletter, budget for someone to handle design and layout. A professional designer can provide a format that relates to the publishing entity, is easy and fun to read, yet still looks professional.
Newsletter design should be clean, uncluttered, and lively. That doesn’t mean a dozen typefaces, box styles, column formats, and other variables per page or per issue. It does mean an active writing voice and an interesting design that is easy to read and follow, with photos and graphics to brighten up pages.
The two computer programs best suited for designing, laying out, and producing newsletters are InDesign and QuarkXPress. Other programs may suffice, but aren’t considered professional-level publishing tools.
Producing and distributing an electronic newsletter is essentially free, while printing and mailing costs money, but don’t let that factor rule in dismissing the idea of a print edition. Keep in mind that many audiences have varying preferences for how they receive a newsletter. In any one company, association, or organization, some readers will still prefer a print edition while others will want an electronic one. Most organizations create one look and produce it in both formats. That’s easy to do; for my newsletter clients with dual format preferences, I work on the print version first, finalize that for the printer, save it as an interactive PDF, and provide the PDF for sending as an e-mail attachment or posting to a website.
Producing newsletters for clients can be a lucrative addition to a freelancer’s services; creating one to promote your business can lead to lucrative new clients while enhancing your reputation as an expert. Either way, the newsletter niche is well worth considering as you look for ways to expand and invigorate your freelance business.
Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader, desktop publisher, and speaker whose motto is “I can write about anything!”® She is also the owner of Communication Central, author of the Freelance Basics blog for the Society for Technical Communication, and a regular contributor to An American Editor.