The Art of the Newsletter

Originally published on LinkedIn in February 2021.


Something that’s really hard to do right is the newsletter.

No, seriously. Have you ever tried it? Or talked to the people at your company responsible for producing them?

Too often, it’s treated as something that can be put together and flicked out in one afternoon like it’s no big deal – as easy as making a cup of tea, right?

You could not be more wrong.

There’s so much mental legwork involved. Stop and consider, for example:

  1. What sort of tone should it have? Well, that depends on the size of the company, the kinds of people it hires and their personalities, the company style guide, legal policies around language, branding regulations – just to name a few factors.
  2. How long should it be? One page? Two?
  3. What information is absolutely necessary? Do you think readers will care about what Netflix series the staff have been watching?
  4. Should it feature internal links, external links, or both?
  5. Can you include photos? How about staff photos? Have you received permission?
  6. How often should you send one out? What’s the fine line between company updates and spam?

There are so many factors that merit considering when putting a company newsletter together.

What if you have different mailing lists with different content expectations? Now, suddenly you have to consider and factor in segmented marketing logic and implementing a more robust and careful filing system, to ensure the right content goes through the right content management delivery systems.

Speaking personally, I’m more likely to read a newsletter that doesn’t take itself too seriously, doesn’t overwhelm me with content, includes a few jokes or puns, some interesting insights, and even a helpful tool tip or two.

What sort of newsletter works best for you?

Clarity in the time of pasta

Originally published on LinkedIn back in August of 2016.


One day, at work, I was called over to look at a paragraph. I wheeled my chair over, not minding that I’d been interrupted in the midst of learning the latest information about when the next Chuck Wendig Star Wars book was coming out (Chuck’s a terrific writer – if you haven’t read his stuff, you’re seriously missing out).

I looked over at my coworker’s screen, and asked “Okay…so what am I meant to be looking at?” mindfully aware that populating his two monitors were Bloomberg terminal windows, chat windows, Outlook, at least two browsers, multiple word files, half-written emails, notepad files, assorted PDFs, and what I swear in the midst of it all was a cackling, fiendish imp of distraction, which builds a nest of imps in the back of each economist’s monitor(s), and then takes up permanent residence there.

“Look at this paragraph, just…look at it. Mate, I don’t even…what the hell”.

So I looked.

And kept looking.

And kept looking.

…Remember Neal Stephenson’s ‘The Confusion’? The second book in the ‘Baroque Cycle’? Remember how he had pages that were one giant paragraph with almost zero indentation?

It was the economics version of that.

I could feel the levator palpebrae superioris muscles of my eyes seizing up and attempting to somehow effect a wave-like motion of curling up into themselves.

It read like something I’d have written if I was in my second year of university and trying to be smart. And clever. And failing at both.

Firstly because – sweet buttery deity duct-taped to a pogo stick! – the lines just kept running on and on like a jogger who didn’t know when enough was enough, and secondly – no discernible structure, and too many random interruptions with semi-related sets of comparative numbers (PMIs for the jibwiddlestick* versus the last shreds of my sanity).

Three attempts at reading it later, some sort of discernible meaning was slowly beginning to reveal itself to me. The way that blood slowly begins to reveal itself to a person after they’ve been bludgeoned enough times by an oversized brick.

There were no sub-headers. The charts barely provided much in the way of extra information because they were formatted, well, within a hair’s breadth of actually falling within the definition of the word ‘formatted’. There were axes.  A data series seemed to exist. But the colours. My god. Why bother stabbing anyone in the eyes ever again? Just show them this chart. It was like a neon Cosby sweater of a chart. Rainbow Bright’s colour wheel of a spaghetti incident of a chart.

And we were expect to publish it.

Not in that state, we didn’t.

It is one thing to sit down and produce posts (such as this one) which function as a kind of blog to dispense my thoughts to an unsuspecting audience that should have known better. It’s something else to produce written material that looks like the world’s greatest Tetris match**.

Which is why I am a big, big fan of architectural writing.

No no. Hear me out. This is actually a thing.

In my mind, there are two types of long-form narrative writers: architects and gardeners. The former are those writers that outline the structure of a given product to ensure that they have some kind of road map.

The latter build as they go, letting the subconscious go wild a bit and produce and/or shape the product in a quasi ad hoc style.

Each has its own merits. Each has its own downsides.

In this instance, for a product designed to be ready by people wearing nicer suits than I will ever own, and who probably have types of sewing material named after them somewhere on Savile Row, it’s important to ensure that we communicate the information clearly, in short, Gatling gun burts of text, to ensure no one gets overwhelmed.

Yes, I may use colourful sentences and apply peculiar, if not comical metaphors, similes, and analogies, but this is a blog post, not Financial Times. I’m really only writing this for myself and whatever poor suckers I managed to convince to read this on the promise of alcohol.

Did I say that out loud?

Pretend I never said that.

But I digress.

We have an obligation to make material accessible, digestible, and meaningful.

And no, that does not mean we have to dumb down the language, use less complicated terms (because sometimes jargon is inevitable, and the sooner we all accept this the better), or even necessarily write less.

But we can structure things more clearly, and avoid overly stylistic prose where it’s not appropriate.

Example: Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon = Appropriate.

A Primer on US Treasury Bonds by a rates strategist = Not Appropriate.

In such instances as the latter example, providing a clear explanation for every single instance of new jargon is a good idea. As is my favourite approach: having material-specific sub-headers, to break up the material.

Sub-headers can be a writer’s best friend. They let you break up numerous interrelated thoughts or ideas without having to try and distill them all down into a few paragraphs. It provides room to play, and to structure a paper out in such a way as to flow properly without being overwhelming.

And doing so makes it all that much easier to produce transition sentences. Especially when it’s a long-form piece days or weeks in the making. As sub-header stand out in comparison to the body text, it becomes easy to examine the text before/after each sub-header and see if it flows logically.

As opposed to analysing the text at the start and end of every paragraph. That would hurt. Oh boy howdy that would sting.

Which brings us back to the question of architects versus gardeners.

Research articles, in my experience, more often than not, strive for the architectural system, due to assorted rules around word counts, page counts, etc. Short stories, novellas, novels – they have the luxury to be gardeners.

Research articles written by writers who think they’re gardeners scare me. I can understand the impetus, but not the end result. Audience expectations matter. And breaking up text with shorter sentences, sub-headers that are clear and meaningfully titled, paragraphs between 4-6 sentences in length, will all ensure improved chances of being read and – possibly more importantly: retained – by readers.

Gardeners…leave that to the long-form writers. The audience expectations around books are a matter for another post.

TL;DR?

When writing for a busy, time-pressed audience, clarity of thought, tight, focused, easy to read and process text, meaningful and properly ordered sub-headers: all of this will ensure a better chance of being read – and possibly even remembered! – by readers.

What more could a writer ask for than to be remembered (and hopefully even liked!) by a reader?


* I don’t know that what I just wrote was actually a word; I just made something that up that might sound faintly ridiculous enough to be real.

**LinkedIn’s native spell-check does not recognise ‘Tetris’ as a legitimate word. This is vaguely distressing and upsetting.

The pen fantastic, or the unconscious rhythms of an editorially-minded brain

Originally published on LinkedIn back in August 2016.


Sometimes, during dinner parties, or when out at the pub, or even when being introduced to friends of friends at some social occasion (to be honest – we’re probably at the pub), inevitably, despite attempting to avoid being asked (or asking) the question, somehow, the looming, Cthulhu-like question presents itself before me, setting my social alarms on fire (because this is one of probably two questions that I try to avoid being asked): “What do you do?”

I loathe that question. More than I loathe bad coffee. Or warm cider. Or that awful cider-beer car crash of a concoction that my partner and I once failed to drink (even after we added vodka).

It’s an awful question. Because it doesn’t bear any relation to what I think, do, feel, or contemplate (I’m still trying to understand cats; I suspect this is a losing battle). So the lump bobs in my throat, and I answer: “I’m an editor”.

Here’s the most common response I get to this admission:

“So you’re a spell checker.”

Klaxons go off. Somewhere, red lights flash about a room full of people scrambling for their dear lives. Shadows bounce off walls faster than a year old with an espresso and a puppy

“That’s…not actually what we do. I mean, it helps to not have glaring typos in one’s works, but that’s not reeaaaaaaaallllyyy what editors do.”

And so the discussion begins. Once again, I have to justify myself. Guilty until proven innocent.

(Dear reader: you can surely understand, if you’re capable of experiencing sympathy, empathy, or even pathos, how much this is like wandering into the Eternal Tomb of Mediocrity and Bad TV Programming – all of it hosted and announced on loud speaker by Richard Simmons .)

Because you see, it’s easy to forget the struggles writers go through. It’s them versus a blank screen. And the blank screen doesn’t blink. Facing off against Weeping Angels is almost preferred to the numbing, soul-shriveling terror of facing off against a white screen.

Writers can be a nervous, uncertain lot, especially after having tussled the White Screen of Anxiety, to produce something that they hope to all the dark and ancient gods that walk in the forgotten alleyways just out of immediate eyesight, that they’ve produced something actually worth reading. And they hope that it made at least some sense, if not total sense.

And sometimes it does, right from the get-go. But there are so many nuclear launch codes that need to be in perfect nuclear winter harmony for this to happen. And hot damn but it’s a rarity.

More often than not, work will need to be done. Never mind the typos.

Do the paragraphs follow in a consistent and logical order?

Is there a central thesis?

Is the argument consistent throughout?

Is there a beginning, a middle, and an end?

Questions, so many questions.

And then us editor folk enter the process with our own set of questions:

Is the language style consistent throughout?

Those terms which appear more than once – are they spelled the same way each time they appear? Or does page 1 feature ‘specialise’ and page 19 ‘specialize’?

Does the piece flow? Are the paragraphs consistently of a similar size? Do they have a similar number of lines?

Is the tense correct?

So many questions.

We’re there, essentially, to make sure the whole is (ideally) greater than the sum of its parts. And that means ensuring that the piece is consistent throughout.

Think of it like a skeleton on an examination table. If parts of the thigh were suddenly up near the shoulder, and the ankle bones were swapped with the bones around the arms and wrists, more likely than not, our brains would tell us (upon seeing this madly mis-Lego’d skeleton) that “something is wrong”.

We should look at a skeleton and not notice, not think that anything is wrong.

When we read an essay, a novella, a short story, a full-blown brick of a novel, whatever it might be – we shouldn’t stop to think that something “doesn’t quite feel right”. It should flow effortlessly, and logically. The correctness of the skeleton should be an invisible obviousness.

And that’s what editors are there to do. To ensure the skeleton is consistent. At work, I call this “making invisible edits”. And it’s a thankless task sometimes. And reader – you know why. Of course you do.

No one ever notices what you do right, only what you do wrong.

So often times, what we do is thankless.

But if you noticed that something was wrong, however subtly, even if it’s just your unconscious nagging at you the way mine was when I watched ‘Suicide Squad’, noticing that something was wrong (in this instance – the editing and pace was inconsistent throughout the movie), then we, as editors, haven’t done our job entirely correctly.

Because it’s not an all or nothing proposition. Sometimes mistakes slip through and it adds to the final product. Or at least makes for a funny oddity. It’s a question of degrees, naturally.

But in essence, the editor’s job is to be invisible. And to make the experience seamless and consistent, to maintain the hook…the pull…to make sure the magic show of reading is never disrupted.

It’s a kind of strange magic. And I don’t know that any of us will ever be able to explain it. But it’s our magic. And who can ever really explain magic? More to the point: who’d want to have it explained to them? Where’s the fun in that?