newsletters

The E-mail Newsletter: Live-blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 13 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-12 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

So what should you put in this newsletter? The only limit is your imagination, and while the intent is to keep your name and work in front of people, you also want to keep it interesting—which means trying to provide value or otherwise focus on other people or quality content. (The Business of Being a Writer, pp. 191-193)

I’ve just sent out the latest copy of my newsletter. I try to do one once a month, but every once in awhile I slip up, and actually, I wish I’d started this whole newsletter thing a lot earlier. As has been previously discussed on my social media, I love letters, anyway, so what took me so long?

I thought for this post, we’d dissect my own newsletter, and then I’ll tell you about a few I really like, how’s that?

The first thing people see is the subject line. For awhile there, I had a cutesy name for my newsletter—Yi Shun’s MiscelLAIney—but I abandoned that quickly. I’ve never been known by my last name, really, and nothing in my name loans itself to a cute pun or moniker, so I just started titling it by whatever month it was. (“July News from Yi Shun,” say.) I’m not thrilled with this, but for now, it is what it is, and I’m okay with it.

The second thing folks see is a banner photo. I try hard to choose one that’s different each time, but lately I’ve been finding myself gravitating to the same style of banner photo–a bunch of fruit or a big swathe of something or another, like trees or blue sky, and that’s okay; I just need to be better about making sure I take one of these photos at least once a month, so I have a ready stock to choose from, and a photo that makes me feel good. What is the point in struggling when I can make it easier on myself? And I really enjoy the act of putting together the newsletter, except for when I struggle for one reason or another—like hunting down a stupid banner photo. Meh.

The second thing is the headline. This sets the tone for the whole newsletter. In my template, the headline reads, “You guys it is over 100 out,” or something colloquial like that. I like the chatty tone, but I have got to be better about crafting these headlines. They do not stick, and I’m not sure they invoke people to reading these newsletters.

After the headline, they get to the chatty intro paragraph. I think this is just a hangover from regular letters for me. It’s a certain amount of throat-clearing, but I like to see it as a little thank you and a tiny catch-up, the “So…how are you?” part of the newsletter. Whatever you call it, I’m going to hang onto it, for now. It seems weird to start any correspondence without it. I’m going to fine-tune it sometime in the near future, though, and play with some anchor links to the different sections of the newsletter, so people can jump quickly to those sections.

The first real section is the list of books I’ve read since I last checked in with my newsletter readership. These are preceded by a little paragraph, and sometimes a photo, of an indie bookstore I visited in the preceding month. Sometimes I don’t get to visit a bookstore, then that’s sad. I write a little something about the bookstore and I like every picture of a book cover to that book on the bookstore’s web site itself, so people can buy it. I don’t know that anyone’s done this yet, but I like this part of my newsletter and it’s not likely to change. The notations about the books themselves are typically capsule reviews. I feature three books, usually.

The next section is a relatively recent adjustment. It’s there to provide a little glimpse into my personality. It is Quotidien Object I Love. I pick an everyday object and tell people why I love it. It’s a break from the info-dump a newsletter can be, and it tells my readers a little something about me. This section—the Funny Little Thing About Yi Shun section—was always there, but it was previously an ArtFail. Like, a shit drawing or watercolor. The thing is, that title was mean to be self-deprecating, but I don’t actually believe much art is failure. I think it’s just nice to put pen to paper. So that section wasn’t ringing true at all. Out it went.

The final section is back to business. It’s Where to Find Me, and it tells people about any events I’m appearing at and what I’ve written and published recently. This section serves the obvious function of telling people where to read me and meet me, but it also serves the secondary function of making me feel like I’ve actually done something in the past month.

I used to end with a section called The Last Word, but I like to save things I actually have anything to say about for my actual web site, so I dumped that section too, recently, and just closed with something simple, like “See you next month.”

What am I doing right?

  • I am leaning on the things I like anyway—reading and chattiness and ordinary objects—and this loans the newsletter an element of authenticity.
  • I am trying to provide value, by way of sharing the books I read and the events I’m going to.
  • I am trying to be regular about this newsletter. It is not without fail. But it does appear mostly regularly, and it does get a good number of opens, although that number has been dropping over the months.

What could I be doing better?

  • I would like to provide more value. Maybe something like a writer’s tip or a tip from the editor’s side of the desk, or even a roundup of things I’ve found on the web that I really like.
  • I would like to be more germane to my work. Since I do teach writing for a good chunk of my work, maybe something unique to provide would be an exercise. Or I can draw from my personal desire to see writers draw more lessons from other fields, like business or visual art.
  • I would like to be better about marketing this newsletter overall. Things like tracking the number of opens and dialing in to see what I can do to improve that would be worthwhile uses of my time.
  • I’d like to drive more engagement as a result of, or as content on, this newsletter. Maybe this will take the form of asking more questions and posting people’s answers, or hosting some other more interactive feature.

Now. Here are some newsletters I really like:

  • Aspen Institute’s Five Best Ideas of the day. It is short and sweet and makes me feel smart.
  • Submittable’s Submishmash Weekly. Publishing opportunities and good reading for the week. I get a lot of good out of this one.
  • Erika Dreifus’s The Practicing Writer. Here, too: Useful, concise, and friendly.

I see there are no visual art newsletters that come to mind. This is too bad. Could it be that I am not subscribed to any? Meh. If you think of one you think I’ll like, please let me know in the comments below.

Now. Here are your tips, or rather, some best practices, for starting your own newsletter.

  • Really think about what and who you already do that you can offer via a newsletter. This will add to your enjoyment of the thing. Presumably, you do a thing because you like it; if you make it a component of your newsletter, you get to do this thing at least whenever your newsletter comes out. Really, the reason to do this is because you are what will make your newsletter great, and compelling.
  • Plan your newsletter, each time you write it. Do not do the thing I did for the first year or so where I just willy-nilly sat down and wrote the thing because I was on deadline. Inevitably I’d forget something. Or it would be riddled with typos. Don’t do that.
  • Ask yourself who your target audience is, and what you’d like to accomplish. Friedman’s book has some good ideas for content and some questions you may want to ask yourselves.

Right! That’s enough for this list-heavy, no-graphics-whatsoever post. If you have a newsletter, tell me what the favorite parts of your newsletter are in the comments below!

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.