Use the tricks of the journalism trade to improve your newsletters

Words You Can Use Limited
Don’t be daunted by the prospect of writing your newsletter – use our tricks

Sitting in front of a blank document on your laptop screen is daunting.

It’s sometimes difficult to know where to start when it comes to writing an article for your newsletter.

I’ve seen a number of small business newsletters which look and read more like the parish pump magazine than the professional face companies wish to present to their customers – and potential customers.

What every journalist will tell you is that it’s all about practise. All of us started out with that same fear of the blank screen until we learned a few key tricks which I’m about to share with you.

Who will be reading your newsletter?

All journalists writing a story know for whom we are writing – we have a picture in our heads of the ideal reader. We imagine their age, where they live, what interests them, what they do with their leisure time. Sometimes, we know that specific stories are more interesting to a different type of reader, and we adapt our writing style and story emphasis to cope with that.

For example, the average reader of a newspaper might be aged 45 to 70, care about issues such as local transport links, pensions, work opportunities for their teenage children, local crime rates. A story about the opening of a new primary school, however, would speak more to people in their 20s or 30s with younger children, who care about issues like local play and leisure facilities, waiting lists at other local primary schools.

How would you know your reader profiles? Take a look at web and social media analytics. Who are your Twitter and Facebook followers, for example? Both platforms can give you invaluable information about your customers’ ages, gender, location, and about what subjects they post. Who follows you on LinkedIn? In what kind of industries are they employed and at what level?

Take a look at the Google Analytics for your website – who are your web visitors? Of course, you will also have your own customer records, and they can tell you a great deal too.

Armed with that information, pitch your newsletters towards the interests of the largest numbers of your followers/customers.

Knowing your ideal reader, what writing style should you use?

If you’re writing a news article, the best advice anyone can give you is to imagine that you’re telling this story to someone you’ve met in a local coffee shop or pub. Don’t assume they know the same things you know. Don’t assume they understand your subject as you do.

Write in a clear style which is accessible to them. Don’t try to impress them with your flowery use of language – the whole point of a news article is to convey information in the most direct way.

People have a natural cut-off point in their interest. Where that falls depends on the content of your article. I have read every word of a 10,000 word long-form magazine article on the female survivors of capture by IS, for example. However, most business newsletter articles will not have that kind of staying power.

A good rule of thumb is that your most interesting article should be between 300 and 500 words long. Unlike a blog, where there is unlimited space to develop articles, your newsletter articles will be constrained by the size of your pages, the other pieces you wish to include, the photographs you intend to use, and the headlines and sub-headings you need to draw in the reader’s eye.

I’ll take a look at good newsletter design in my next blog.

If you have a great picture or graphic for your article, write it around that.

There should be a good marriage between your words and your images.

Having a great image is pointless unless you use it well in your design, and make good use of it in your article. Images are, all too often, an afterthought in newsletter design. In newspaper design, they are the starting point for the page.

A direct way of marrying words and images together is the journalistic standard introduction: “This picture shows…..”

You could also choose an introduction which reflects the content of the picture in a more features style: “John Edwards, the first customer in the new, multi-million pound shopping centre, beams with delight – he’s won a luxury trip to Australia thanks to the centre’s owners.”

Where do you start?

The introduction is everything – it is the thing which will decide whether someone gives up on the piece or reads on.

Make it short, to the point, and summing up the most important thing about your article. Ideally, aim for a maximum of 25-30 words. Think back to the person you met in the coffee shop – what’s the most important thing about your article? What would you tell them first?

Back up what you say in the introduction in the next two paragraphs. Need to introduce a different line to the story? Do that in paragraphs four to six.

Think of your article as a pyramid. The introduction is the most important part at the top, the next few paragraphs hold that up, the next few hold up even more, and so on.

How do you create flow in your writing?

Each paragraph should underpin the previous one in some way. A statement of fact in paragraph four could be underpinned by relevant quotes in paragraphs five and six.

Think of it as advancing a logical argument. You can’t jump ahead without fleshing out what you’ve said, and you can’t jump back and forth between points, without seriously affecting the flow of what you’re saying. That will confuse your readers.

Each article should have a starting point, a middle which flows from there in a sequential way, and a clear ending.

Sometimes, a nice little twist in the tail of a piece is possible. Journalists call that the “pay-off”.

Don’t use huge slabs of quotes. That, also, is a turn-off for your readers.

Read through your article at least three times. Don’t be afraid of re-writes.

It’s what we do all the time. We write out our articles, read them through a number of times, looking for “typos”, spelling errors, grammatical errors, ensuring the sense of what we’re writing, accuracy, that quotes are used well.

We may well decide the emphasis of an article needs changing, and we’ll completely overhaul it, changing the structure.

Of course, no matter how much we look at our own writing, it’s never as good as a fresh pair of eyes to check it over. Other people see what we can’t, sometimes because we’re too close to a story as we’ve researched it heavily.

Editors and sub-editors look for “holes” in an article – things which aren’t there like basic facts (ages, names, for example), and things which simply don’t make sense because they aren’t explained clearly enough.

Here’s an important rule when writing a newsletter article: If you don’t understand something, you cannot explain it properly.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. You’re not foolish, you’re thorough. Better to ask lots of questions of one person than get something wrong in print and get numerous complaints.

Happy writing!

Maria Williams is a copywriter, professional blogger, and PR for small businesses. Visit www.wordsyoucanuse.co.uk

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