I backed into this writing gig through the same door you may have: newsletters. For years I wrote monthly ministry newsletters and taught writing to both ESL (in the US) and EFL (in China) without a thought of being a writer myself. Sixteen years into my work in China I started a blog.
About a year after my blog launched, I was in the US for a furlough-type rest that was anything but restful. The original plan was to land in Denver, spend two days with family while getting over jetlag, and then head off to a conference. My dad had fallen and broken his hip five days before I boarded the plane.
In those five days, I was supposed to pull together a presentation I was to give at the conference. Due to my dad’s health complications, the doctors had a prolonged process deciding whether or not to do surgery, with the risk of him dying on the table. Weighing the risks, the doctors decided to operate, and my dad moved to rehab after the surgery. Much of the five days prior to my departure, I was in shock and unable to do anything but wander my apartment. Eventually I pulled together the presentation, boarded the plane, and started my time in the US with a visit to my dad in rehab.
What does this have to do with writing? Near the end of my visit I was not thinking about writing when a pastor—a published author himself—came up to me and said, “You should write a book.” Multiple people had said, “You should write a book.” But something clicked, and it was time. He gave me two pieces of advice: write five hundred words a day and try to get an agent. Those were my marching orders and I started marching. I recorded in a notebook how many words I wrote every day until the book was done.
I sensed my time in China was coming to an end—it did eighteen months later—and had no idea how I could support myself in America. “What skills do I have?” I wondered. “What do I have to offer?” Nothing!!! NOTHING. I had been in China getting skilled at life and ministry in China! UGH. “Wait, I will support myself by writing books. Whew, that will pay off.” (Only later would I hear the laughter of my guardian angels on that day.) So I started reading a ton about writing, making writer friends through blogging, and driving my friend Joann nuts over my obsession with numbers and writing rough drafts and many other charming parts of my personality. More than once she said, “What have I unleashed?!” That’s how charming I was: she said it out loud; imagine what was going on in her head?
This is what I discovered: much of what is written about writing is for people who want to write a book or are trying to take their blog writing to a professional level. As a non-professional writer, it never occurred to me that improving my writing might involve more than learning how to use commas better. Commas are my Achilles’ heel, and for years my organization’s Communication Department and I had gone around and around over how few commas I used. I started studying the craft of writing in earnest and learned about word choice, poorly written first drafts, killing your darlings, and how to strengthen your writing. I wondered why I had never heard much of what I found. After all, I was not brand new to this writing thing (hello, sixteen years of newsletter writing and many semesters of teaching writing). It was both exciting to learn and improve as a writer and annoying that no one had told me about these aspects of the craft of writing.
My most recent book All The News That’s Fit to Tell and How to Tell It: How to Write Christian Newsletters is distillation of what I have learned and translated for the field of newsletter writing. This book is divided into four parts:
SECTION 1: The Unseen Battle
- Your Mind-set
SECTION 2: Newsletter-Specific Writing
- Know Your Why
- Resist the Urge to Only Explain (RUTOE)
- How to Write Intros and Wrap-ups
- Using Visuals
SECTION 3: Simple Ways to Improve Your Writing
- Use Strong Verbs
- Use Concrete Language
- Kill Your Darlings
- Tighten Your Sentences
SECTION 4: Developing as a Writer
- Finding Your Voice
- Poorly Written First Drafts
- Where to Find Material
- Checklist for Newsletters
Each chapter ends with a “Your turn” section, allowing you to practice what was discussed in that chapter. If you have already written newsletters, use your last five newsletters. If you are at the beginning of your newsletter career and do not have newsletters to use for practice, find other samples of your writing, such as blog posts, social media posts, letters, or school papers. Do not focus on length or content at this point. Anything you have written will work.
Um, you have lettuce on your teeth
I wrote this book with you in mind because the more I learned, the more I wondered how it was I had written newsletters for years—practically decades—and no one said a word. Instead “they” let me walk around with lettuce on my newsletter teeth. Would it have been too much to hope someone would give a friendly whisper? “Hey,” gesturing towards my tooth, “you’ve got some lettuce.” Sure, those moments are embarrassing. But I would rather be told I have lettuce in my teeth than find out at the end of a party looking in the mirror.
Lettuce is easy to deal with! Once it is gone, people are no longer thinking about the piece of lettuce; they’re thinking about what you’re saying. Lest the subject matter of this book—the craft of writing—sound too academic and ring of a boring English class lecture, I love to have fun and have done my best to let you laugh at me and the 5,379 mistakes made in my newsletter writing over the years.
This book is my gift to you. You have lettuce on your teeth, but the good news? The good news is that if you can enter this book with a sense of adventure, I can almost guarantee that by the end of this book, you will have improved as a writer while having fun. And, more good news, the lettuce on your newsletter teeth will be gone.
P.S. both Marilyn Gardner and Jonathan Trotter endorsed it. Thanks friends! You can buy a copy here.
Do you like writing newsletters? What is a closer relationship with supporters worth to you? Who could you give this book to?