Three things I’ve learned by writing a newsletter
This past week I sent out issue #100 of my weekly newsletter. Too Long; Didn’t Read is a weekly, quirky look at education, technology, and literacy. For those of you that already subscribe…thank you very much.
In a previous post I discussed three questions to consider as you develop an awesome newsletter. This post will unpack three of the things I’ve learned in the process. The earlier post is more for those of you that are considering writing a newsletter. This post is for the people that have already started…and will hopefully stop you from giving up.
What have I learned?
Writing a newsletter is a labor of love. It takes a lot of work and time throughout the production cycle. It’s important to have some goals and a rationale for this work. More importantly, it’s important to focus on the process, stay flexible, and witness serendipity.
Focus on the process
As I stated in the earlier post, you’ll want to guide the development of your newsletter by considering focus, format, and function. As you continue to write and publish your newsletter, it’s important to focus on the process. The work will normally take some time, but if you have a system in place, you can follow the process for each issue and try to keep it simple.
My process regularly involves tweeting out, and/or saving links to Pinboard during the week. I automatically archive my tweets to Pinboard, so this creates a quick archive of my work. As I read online, I find things of interest to me. If they’re (possibly) of interest to the avatar I’ve created of my prototypical audience, I’ll tweet it out. If it may not entirely be of interest to my audience, I save it to Pinboard. At the end of the week, I sit down with Pinboard and review the links for the week before synthesizing and selecting the materials I’ll focus on for the newsletter. The process up to this point takes me a couple of hours (2–3) during the week before I actually sit to write the newsletter.
I currently write my newsletter in Mailchimp. I have a theme set up with the different categories for my newsletter. I have sections for:
- Introduction — a greeting and what I did that week;
- WATCH — a great YouTube clip of the week;
- READ — five blog posts and stories I think you need to know;
- MAKE — something you need to do;
- CONSIDER — a reflective prompt for the week;
- Conclusion — a general thank you and call to action.
This format has been tweaked over time. The template is saved in WordPress and this allows me to simply edit the template each week when I sit down to write the newsletter at the end of the week. The process of writing the newsletter consists of compiling links, copy/pasting links, adding editorial commentary, and building an image for the CONSIDER section. This process takes me about 2 to 3 hours per week. Sometimes the writing flows…and sometimes it’s like getting blood from a stone. Nevertheless, I keep writing and get it done. On the weeks that it feels like it’s not resonating…thankfully I have some of my dear readers that send an email or a tweet indicating how great the work is. That does a lot in keeping me going. :)
The key thing I’ve learned is to develop a process and stick to it. My newsletter format and focus works for me. It may not work for you. Make the process easy and focus on the content that you’re sharing. You don’t want to mess around with the process all of the time.
Stay flexible and iterate
Now that I’ve talked about the importance of developing a process and sticking to it, let me make the point that it’s important to be flexible and quickly change. :)
I’m always tweaking things in my newsletter. They’re small things, but I’m always testing new ideas. This might be the inclusion of an audio podcast of the week, a book I’m reading, or ten links as opposed to five. In these (and many more) instances, I’ll think about a change for a week or two and then finally add it in. I’ll let the change sit for a week or two and see if there are any reactions. Some of the changes still around…while others are quickly eliminated. By remaining true to the focus, format, and function of your newsletter, you’ll know what fits.
I’ve learned that even with all of these changes, I rarely mess with the process that I’ve detailed earlier. Up to this point, I write my newsletter in MailChimp and can easily add or remove a section or content. But, it’s important to have a starting point, or a master template for your newsletter. From there you can quickly revise, test, and then iterate.
Witness the serendipity
When I first started writing my newsletter, it was because I wanted to stay in touch with colleagues, friends, and students. I was leaving an institution and moving to a new academic (and geographic) home. I also wanted to a way to stay connected with people that I met on the road as I present workshops, keynotes, and webinars. In all of my work, I indicate that this (my presentations) are a much longer discussion…and that I wanted to stay in touch. The newsletter would help provide a pipeline to stay in touch with these groups.
As I have been writing my newsletter, I’ve witnessed other benefits in this work. I believe there is enormous change happening in the intersection between technology, education, and literacy. Even with this near constant change, there are very few regular sources that try to make sense of these changes over time. I’ve had interest from multiple individuals in fields outside of my own (business, technology, financial tech, health information, future of jobs). I never would have thought that audiences outside of my own would take interest in my work. As we put our work and ideas openly online, there is a greater opportunity for others to serendipitously connect with your ideas.
While the writing of my newsletter has been an opportunity to build up my digital identity as a pipeline to keep me in touch with my audience, it has also been a benefit to my work. One of the only constants in my field of research (literacy practices of individuals in online/hybrid spaces) is change. Another challenge is that the focus of my newsletter (technology, education, literacy) is extremely nuanced. As an example, the recent news about the role of online and social media, information hacks, and the role of education has been an extended focus of recent issues of my newsletter. Taking the time each week to stop, reflect, and document my thinking over time has been an invaluable resource in my scholarship. This has shown effects on my writing, my thinking, and understanding of the field.
I’ve learned that it’s important to pay attention and be willing to witness the serendipity that exists as you share your ideas openly online. At first I was primarily writing and publishing my newsletter for colleagues and students. As I’ve worked on this publication, this newsletter has been an invaluable tool for reflection to document my thinking over time. In a way, I’m writing for myself. I never would have seen this occurring at the start of the process.
I’ve learned a great deal as I have completed 100 issues of my weekly newsletter. Many of the benefits of this work I see occurring as I started publishing these materials.
If you have started writing and publishing your own newsletter, my advice is to start writing, and don’t stop publishing. In just the same way that my blogging voice has developed and changed over time…so too has my work with the newsletter. I believe that you do not really find out what you want to write until you start writing. Allow for it to blossom and change. Now that I have completed 100 issues of my newsletter, I can start to think about what I really want to do with it.
“Write relentlessly, until you find your voice. Then, use it.” — David Sedaris
Originally published at W. Ian O’Byrne.