Weekly email dispatches from a freelancer’s lonely desk

Newsletter as lifeline.

Artwork by freelance illustrator Tom Jellett.

The email subject line in edition #139 was “Clown doctors, giant pigs and public shaming”, while #99 was titled “Gay twins, shot elephants and friendly magpies”. The intention is always to pique the reader’s interest, so that if they see Dispatches among a few dozen emails in their inbox, mine is the one they’ll want to open first, because they are curious about these three unique phrases — taken from the recommendations contained within — and want to know more.

Every week, you see, I spend an hour or two compiling an email newsletter that is sent to people around the world. Some of them are my friends and family; others I have never met before, and have no idea how they came across my work. Since starting with zero subscribers in March 2014, I have now delivered more than 140 editions. The newsletter is called Dispatches, after the Michael Herr book of the same name. It is a space where I recommend excellent feature articles and books I have read and enjoyed, as well as podcasts, music, and my own recently published writing.

Its format has remained unchanged in the three years since I started. There are three sections: Words, Sounds and Reads. I choose a relevant image to announce each section, because I know that an email newsletter consisting only of text can be a little overwhelming.

Since the beginning, I have sent the newsletter on Thursday mornings. This was a deliberate choice: as Friday tends to be the busiest day for office workers scrambling to meet deadlines before clocking off for the weekend, I figured that seeing a long, considered email from me a couple of mornings before the workweek ends might offer a welcome reprieve. Setting an expectation around a weekly publication schedule might help to give others some structure in their work lives, too. (Perhaps I am projecting.)

For the first couple of years, I would compile the recommendations on Wednesday, and then wait until waking the following morning to manually press “send” using a free online service called TinyLetter. Now, I publish it just after midnight, in the wee hours of Thursday morning — which suits me better as a night owl, anyway. It’s the last thing I do before going to bed, and it pleases me to know that, by the time I’m back at the desk the following morning, more than a hundred people will have already opened the latest edition.

I am a freelance journalist who specialises in writing magazine-length feature articles, as well as occasional music and literary criticism. I work from a desk in my living room in inner-city Brisbane. I play loud music when my wife is not home; I wear headphones when she is, because we do not share an appreciation for loud music.

The structure of my work week varies greatly, depending on what I’ve got assigned. Sometimes I will spend 30 or 40 hours out reporting, while other weeks are spent entirely at the desk, in email and phone communication with editors and sources. The nature of these latter weeks can be lonely and isolating, and those are the times where I most look forward to pressing “send” on Dispatches, as I know I am reaching people who want to hear what I have to say. Some weeks, Dispatches can feel like my only significant contribution to the wider world: a lifeline to other sentient beings.

I started Dispatches for several reasons. My first book was published in July 2014, and in the months leading up to its release, I wanted to build an intimate community of dedicated readers away from noisy social media channels. But I also wanted to create a space for writing a little about great stories that moved me, in part to see whether others felt the same way. Previously, whenever I read a particularly good article, I would tend to share the link on Facebook and Twitter and say something banal to the effect of, “This is really good! Read it!”

Eventually I realised this wasn’t cutting it. I read a lot, and I wanted a single place to publish a collection of my best recommendations. As well as summarising an article, I might include some further context: in #137, for instance, I shared a profile of American astrophysicist Sara Seager, written by Chris Jones for The New York Times Magazine. “But there is a second story here that I wanted to briefly share,” I wrote.

Chris Jones was a longtime staff writer at Esquire, but […] as Jones revealed in an extraordinary Twitter thread at the start of this year, 2016 turned out to be the worst year of his life. So this piece has extra significance because it’s the first long piece he’s published since leaving Esquire. He is one of the best feature writers I know, and several of his stories over the years have moved me in ways that I still can’t quite get my head around […] He’s an absolute genius when it comes to the written word, and as a faithful Chris Jones fan, I’m really glad that he’s back at the keyboard, cranking out great stories like this one.

I wrote this paragraph mostly for myself, but at least one of my subscribers — a former library assistant who I have never met — read that paragraph and clicked its links, then emailed me to say: “That Chris Jones Twitter thread — really needed to read that at the moment. ‘More important, many of us present sunny illusions of ourselves on social media that only hurt those in the dark.’ I absolutely bloody loved that! Thanks for sharing, Andrew.”

Over time, I have come to limit myself to sharing a maximum of seven items in each category, because any more than that feels like I am being too presumptuous of my readers’ time constraints. To help with this, too, I include a short summary such as “4,000 words / 20 minutes”, or note the running length of a podcast episode, to give skim-readers an idea of the time they need to set aside to consume each recommendation.

I realise that having time to read is a luxury. In this respect, I am spoiled, because each weekend, I read The Saturday Paper, The Weekend Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Courier-Mail — not every page of every publication, but certainly the weekend colour magazines, as well as the arts sections and political analysis. These form the basis of my Australian writing recommendations; elsewhere, I cherry-pick the best bits of American outlets such as The New York Times and The New Yorker, as well as whatever stray articles I pick up from my social media feeds. If I see multiple people talking about a particular piece, I’ll usually take a look.

My life is built around consuming and telling stories. Few things excite me so much as a well-told story, either in text or in conversation. And so Dispatches allows me to collect the week’s best reads and listens, while also challenging myself to write a few sentences about what I liked about a piece of writing, or to describe what moved me about a particular podcast. As well, I quote from the opening paragraph or episode description, so that readers can quickly get a sense for the piece itself, and decide whether to follow my recommendation.

Within 24 hours of sharing my intention to start an email newsletter with my friends and family back in early 2014, I had more than 30 subscribers. Across the last three years, that number has slowly increased and recently surpassed 400. I share each edition on Twitter and tag writers whose work I mention. I enjoy supporting and praising other writers because I know fucking hard it is to write clearly and intelligently, as well as how quickly the public can move onto the next shiny object once a piece has been published. Reading and recommending so much great writing helps me in my craft, too, as everything I consume can only help me in my own creative efforts.

The best bit, though, is the unexpected correspondence I have struck up with my subscribers. “Another cornucopia to explore Andrew,” author and cruciverbalist David Astle wrote to me in response to #93. “I’m amazed by the range and relish of your filter-feeding. Oxymoron or not, you are an epicurean omnivore.” And in response to #86, a relatively new subscriber wrote, “Just wanted to drop you a line to say I’ve been reading your dispatches for a while now and I just bloody love them! Really on point recommendations and commentary.”

Reading these sorts of supportive notes and responding to Dispatches readers is often among the highlights of my week. It pleases me greatly to know that others read as closely as I do, and I have benefited from these dialogues: story ideas, interview sources and great media recommendations have all come from my subscribers, which gives the whole enterprise a lovely, circular sort of feel: they help me to help others choose where best to spend their limited time reading and listening.

And on slow weeks, when my freelance workflow ebbs, I know that I have at least one self-enforced deadline to meet — because every Thursday morning, my readers will wake up and expect to see me in their inbox.

Andrew McMillen is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist, author and host of the podcast Penmanship. Sign up to Dispatches, and find Andrew’s published journalism at andrewmcmillen.com.

Tom Jellett is a freelance illustrator. www.tomjellett.com

This piece is from Issue 88 (March 2017) of the Walkley Magazine.

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