From the Editors'
Association of Canada
Hooking and holding readers
By Jim Taylor
I started thinking seriously about newsletters a few years ago,
when I was trying to edit six or seven at once the numbers
varied with my clients' finances without making them all
look and read as if they had come out of the same sausage machine.
Those views crystallized when I spun that experience into a seminar
for EAC/ACR (then FEAC). A request to see newsletters brought in
over 200 one year. Some were awful, some superb. Surprisingly, though,
the quality of the newsletter bore little relationship to the money
spent on it or the size of its readership. Some of the worst cost
big bucks; some of the best were done on a shoestring.
So what makes a good newsletter?
First, it must be a NEWSletter.
I want to read it to hear about things I wouldn't have heard about
otherwise. I don't want to read it out of loyalty to the editor
or the organization that sent it.
It must be "newsy." I don't want to read a collection
of opinions I can get those at any pub. I want to know what
has happened and what's happening.
Too many newsletters become bulletin boards. Everyone remembers
the newsletter when they want to get the word out about the picnic,
the fund-raiser or the work bee. And it's true news about
coming events is news. Unfortunately, few newsletters bother following
up to inform their readers what actually happened at these events.
Perhaps they assume that everyone who mattered was there. But in
fact it's never possible for everyone to be there. And even those
who are there often find themselves preoccupied with one small area
of responsibility and don't get to see the larger picture.
A few newsletters very few, in my experience thrive
on analysis. Usually such newsletters are a labour of love by someone
with profound insights into politics or economics or some other
discipline usually obscured by murky thinking and turgid terminology.
An author who can cut through the crap deserves to be read. But
the dozen or so newsletters I currently get from financial institutions
don't cut through anything. They simply repeat what John Kenneth
Galbraith once called "conventional wisdom" the
un-thought or ill-thought clichés of that particular trade,
glitzed up with graphics and presented as valuable information.
They contain neither significant news nor penetrating analysis and
go into the recycle bin unread.
Second, it must be a newsLETTER. The news must be written as directly
and as personably as a personal letter. When I read
it, I should be able to imagine that it started, "Dear Jim
That's what makes the difference between a newsletter and a newspaper.
The newspaper deals with a mass audience; the newsletter with a
selective audience. And this is a known group. They all have something
in common. They work for the same company, they live in the same
community, they support the same charity, they share the same passion
Whatever that common link is, I should be able to recognize it on
every page and in every story.
And the stories should make me think they were selected and written
for me. As a reader, I'm extremely egocentric. I don't care about
self-congratulatory press releases from head office or the planning
priorities of the association's president. I care about me, me,
ME! I expect the editor to be on my side, culling and sifting the
news to match my interests and writing it so that it will appeal
Too many newsletters become corporate mouthpieces. They get all
their content from the executive level of the organization. Their
dominant pronoun becomes "we." I call these "little
piggy" newsletters because they go "we, we, we" all
the way home. They put a message from the party leader, the parish
pooh-bah, the vice-president of corporate relations, on the front
page. They're all about new products, new programs, new policies.
Would I send a press release to a sweetheart and call it a personal
letter? Neither should I send the same kind of material to a reader
and call it a newsletter.
Third, the newsletter needs a distinct IDENTITY.
Some of that identity will come from the stories, of course. A
newsletter for birdwatchers will inevitably be about either the
birds or the watchers. If one of those watchers also happens to
be classic car collector, that's fine. But as soon as that newsletter
starts running unrelated stories about Swiss watches, computer viruses
or tax breaks for acne victims, it loses its focus and its identity.
But identity goes beyond content. As soon as I open my mail, I
should know which newsletter I'm looking at. It should look like
I expect it to look. I don't want to have to guess whether this
came from the church, the water-ski club or the credit union.
Identity calls for consistent design. It may be a logo. It may
be an unusual way of placing titles and stories. It may be a particular
typeface or use of drop caps, a particular thickness of rule. One
low-budget newsletter had the same artist draw sketches for every
story. Another preprinted all its pages with a second-color frame.
Whatever it is, the editor needs to know what creates a newsletter's
visual identity*and then avoid monkeying with it. Don't play around
with weights and lengths of rules; don't juggle the spacing above
or below items; don't experiment with new typefaces for titles.
Newsletters are the poor cousins of the publishing world. They
lack the glamour of magazines and the immediacy of newspapers. They're
chronically short of money, staff and time.
But if a newsletter can provide news that I want to hear about,
written so that I can feel it is addressed to me and presented so
that I can recognize and welcome it, I won't care how much or how
little it cost. I will read it.
And that's all any publication can ask.
Jim Taylor is an honorary life member of EAC/ACR and originated
the Eight-Step Editing and newsletters seminars.
Our four cents' worth
We asked (begged, cajoled, pleaded with) Jim to write this article
for us for one very big reason: We wanted to know. We also thought
a lot of our members produce newsletters too and so it would have
general interest and value.
Because while we agree wholeheartedly with all Jim has to say-and
the way that he says it--there is one other thing we believe a newsletter
should provide: value. Somehow it must enrich the readers' lives.
Maybe it makes them re-evaluate their beliefs or just
Perhaps it teaches them a little something that helps them do a
better job. Maybe it allows them to increase their earnings. Or
maybe something in the newsletter just gives them a much-needed
chuckle during a day that is otherwise no laughing matter.
Whatever it is, when the reader is done, she must believe she has
received something of value in return for her time.
And if by chance the newsletter is also engaging, interesting and
useful, well, sorry. We'll do better if you start to contribute.
Or at least let us know what you want in a newsletter.
Sheila Wawanash and Ron Jette, co-editors, Active Voice/La Voix
Every newsletter is different, of course, but a good-albeit rough-rule
of thumb might be this: Expect to spend an average of four hours
on each page. This includes getting the material and writing or
copyediting it, layout, proofing and delivering to the printer.
Adjust accordingly if you perform more or less of these tasks.
One school of thought would be that you take that number of hours,
multiply it by your hourly rate and charge accordingly. The other
school believes in something called the value proposition: What
is it worth to the client and how much can they afford? That's what
And, in truth, most newsletters are likely like this one: a volunteer
Make a list, check it twice
o provide news
o make it personal
o develop an identity
o offer value
o use graphic images (photos, illustrations, pull quotes) to add
o apply contrast for visual attraction
o group similar items together
o use repetition (colour, visual elements, shapes, textures) to
strengthen the identity (but don't be annoying!)
o pay attention to word d e n s i t y
o break rules with a purpose, not by accident
o use two logos with equal weights
o go overboard with typefaces
o be inconsistent in the use of drop and standup initials
o forget captions
o use tombstoned headlines (see below)*
o use dissimilar rules
o make everything symmetrical
o mix text alignments
o be inconsistent with styles
o overwhelm readers with visuals
o fill every bit of white space
* Okay, both co-editors had to ask Jim about tombstoned headlines
so don't feel bad if you didn't know either. Here's what he told
"Tombstoning" is a term that probably betrays my age.
That's when you have two headlines for separate items, but the headlines
line up across the page (like tombstones in a cemetery, hence the
name) in such a way that readers could conceivably read right across
as a single line. The results can sometimes be hilarious.
Let's see if my fertile imagination can generate some examples
Two killed in Secret liaison
traffic mishap embarrasses premier
Jean Chrétien voids Contaminated water
defence contract hospitalizes hundreds
Mike Harris cuts Cock fighting
welfare rolls on the increase
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