How to write a better newsletter

Newsletters are a common tool of communication for many organisations, businesses, clubs, schools, groups and charities. Indeed, it is rare to come across any of these that do not produce a newsletter of some kind.

Written by
John Grain
Added
May 21, 2012

However, as with all things, there are good and bad examples of the craft. It is no good producing a newsletter if no one actually reads it and this short ‘how to’ guide is intended to assist all newsletter writers and editors with some practical advice and ideas to make your newsletter as compelling and engaging as possible.

Why send a newsletter at all?

Start with some fundamental questions – do you need a newsletter? What is your purpose? Is a newsletter the best method to achieve your goal?

Ask yourself some fundamental questions: why do you need a newsletter at all? What is the purpose of your newsletter? Is this the best method for achieving that purpose?

It is helpful to summarise the purpose of your newsletter in one sentence and to list its three or four primary objectives – keep these as a reminder of what your newsletter is there to do.

And remember that newsletters are strongest (and best) at creating and reinforcing on-going relationships. That means building friendship and trust, and being willing to invest in a rapport with your audience, one which they will want to reciprocate.

Audience

Knowing your readers is crucial to the success of your newsletter.

What is their donor profile? Do you know their age? Are they more likely to be female than male? Is there any other useful demographic information that can help tailor the newsletter to be as engaging as possible?

Once you've answered these questions, you can then consider the most important issue in writing any newsletter: what does your audience want to know? If you write your newsletter with your audience in mind, you will avoid the single largest pitfall: filling the newsletter with stories of importance only to you or your organisation. It is no good if you find something interesting, but your readers do not.

Planning a newsletter

Above all, keep it new.

Newsletters work best if readers value the information or features you deliver. You need to offer articles or information that they can’t find as easily anywhere else. The newsletter should make them feel like an insider. You’re asking your audience for time and attention, so you had better make it worth their while. This means being honest and realistic about the amount of high quality content you can consistently produce. There is no point trying to produce something too often –where you are regularly struggling to fill the space you have.

Pay attention to the appearance of the newsletter. Give it a title – something eye-catching and memorable. Lead with strong items that have a broad appeal because people decide within seconds whether or not to keep reading. Any editorial or chief executive’s message should have a regular spot after the lead items. Internal or more regional news should have a spot much further in. This gives you the best chance of gaining the attention of new readers, whilst those familiar with your newsletter know where to find what they want.

Add variety to newsletters by having different items such as:

  • Opinion columns.
  • Detailed case studies or programme stories.
  • Interviews or ‘day in the life’ pieces.
  • Appeal or project updates and success stories.
  • Letters.
  • Regional and events round-up.
  • (Relevant) internal news.

Plan what articles are going to be written well ahead of the publication date. You can start collecting ideas and articles long before you put fingers to the keyboard.

Adding articles written by others (with their permission) can add to the credibility of your newsletter. When dealing with writers, decide on the topic, length, treatment and deadline of the article before assigning it. Also include the key questions or topics you want the story to address and important sources to use.

Be aware of copyright infringements ­– give credit where it’s due and quote your sources.

When considering the use of colour in your newsletter, remember that the most readable combination is black ink on white paper. If you use colour in the newsletter, consider highlighting the artwork, headlines, or other graphics or symbols, but not the body of type.

Commissioning, writing and editing

Some golden rules:

  • Write a punchy headline.
  • Use a summary sentence in articles or features.
  • Write a lead paragraph of the key information.
  • Write news stories in descending order of importance.
  • Make sure the story flows between paragraphs.
  • Use quotations and examples to change the pace and add variety.
  • Use lots of short items to make the newsletter interesting.
  • Avoid long articles. If you have to use them, break them up with headings or illustrations.
  • Use photos, graphics and cartoons to break up the page.
  • Rewrite or scrap contributions that are boring or too long.

Good writing and good editing require direction and hard work. Your copy should sing rather than drone. Write compact copy using active verbs, this means minimising sentences that use ‘is, are, was, were’, and substituting vivid, active verbs that sparkle and snap. Instead of writing a sentence where you ‘show’ the reader the worthwhile work your charity has been doing, ‘reveal’, ‘illuminate’ and ‘illustrate’ it. Look to cut out adverbs as well: e.g. actually, in fact, generally, on the whole – most adverbs are merely padding.

Use the inverted pyramid format as much as possible in articles. This is where the main point of the article is made in the first paragraph. The paragraphs that follow then support the main point in decreasing order of importance. This format ensures the reader gets the gist of the article even if they don’t read it all. And it makes it easy to trim some inches off the story if you run out of column space.

Define acronyms the first time you use them (‘The Department for International Development (DfID) have made a grant of £300,000…’). Vary the length and structure of the sentences you use. Changing sentence length and structure moves the writing along with the reader firmly attached.

Edit for clarity, concision, jargon, length, and accuracy.

Your font should be easy to read and not distract from the message you are trying to impart. Serif typefaces have a more traditional appeal and should definitely be used for print letters and there has been some argument recently that maybe sans serif type isn’t better for electronic letters. The body copy of your newsletter is best set in a type size of 12 point – especially if it is a traditional donor audience. Capital letters and italic type shouldn’t be used too often, only to emphasise certain words or phrases.

Space between lines is called leading. Too much space between lines of type makes it difficult for a reader to move smoothly from line to line, too little and the type runs together. The best leading is about two leads more than the type size.

Read it out loud. If you read it out loud and the sentences flow easily, it will be easy to read. If you find yourself tripping over your words, the reader will probably stumble as well.

Publishing

Develop a publication structure, an editorial calendar and, if appropriate, writer’s guidelines.

And remember, deadlines are sacred. If you plan your newsletter every quarter, then stick to it. Don't publish erratically. You will lose readers or they may forget they subscribed to your newsletter because of your irregular publishing schedule.

Proofreading is very critical to the publishing process. Take the time to correct any spelling or grammatical errors. This will improve the quality of your publication. Go over the text yourself looking for mistakes and then get someone else to read it. Pick someone who knows more than your readers about your topic and ask them to proof it, but be vigilant that technical terms and jargon don’t slip through.

Be aware of postal regulations, such as bulk mailing rules, size restrictions if appropriate, and any sorting, enclosing and mailing instructions.

© John Grain Associates Ltd, 2011

About the author: John Grain

John Grain

With nearly 30 years experience of direct fundraising, John has held senior posts in within Oxfam and Practical Action, and was Director of Fundraising for Western Europe for Habitat for Humanity International. He founded John Grain Associates (JGA) in 2004 since when he has worked with clients large and small to develop innovative, sustainable and long-term individual giving programmes. He is a passionate advocate of permission based, ethical fundraising with an emphasis on understanding our donors and how best to deliver an inspiring and motivating experience for them with every interaction they have with charities. He led the recent Commission on the Donor Experience’s project into Thanking and Welcoming and last year launched the Secret Giver, the sector’s most comprehensive mystery shopping and competitor benchmarking programme.

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