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Copyright by Stephen Wilbers, Ph.D.


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Newsletters & Blogs

“Checklist will make for more effective newsletter”

“Quote wisely and well to add color to your writing”

“Make your blog or newsletter worth your readers’ while”

Also see engaging leads (or ledes).

Seminars & email courses

Checklist will make for more effective newsletter

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

One morning your boss walks into your office. She has a big smile on her face, so you know something good is about to happen to you.

“I want you to write article for our company newsletter,” she says. “I’m asking you to do it because I know what a good writer you are.”

You feel complimented and empowered that you would be selected for such an important assignment.


“By the way,” she adds. “We’re on a tight deadline, so I need your copy by 5 o’clock tomorrow. Thanks.”


With this new information, you feel not only complimented and empowered but challenged.


You are pleased with this opportunity to prove your worth. And as luck would have it, just this morning you read something in the paper about how to write newsletter articles. It was a checklist of helpful reminders by your favorite columnist.


You retrieve the paper from your briefcase and skim the items on the checklist. It is organized into five parts:


1. Supporting components (title, opening story summary, and accompanying photographs or illustrations):


Are relevant and helpful to the reader’s understanding of the topic or theme of the story.


Accurately convey the topic or theme of the story.


Engage the reader by arousing curiosity or interest in the topic.


2. Lead (or lede):


Announces or introduces the topic of the article.


Engages the reader by arousing interest or curiosity in the topic.


Presents material from the reader’s point of view (by recognizing or appealing to the reader’s interests, values or biases).


Optional. Indicates or suggests the scope of the article.


3. Body:


Presents relevant background and history to make the topic understandable to the reader.


Explains significance and broader implications of the topic or recommendation.


Illustrates main points or themes with specific examples and sufficient data.


Uses transitions to connect the article’s main points or major components.


4. Conclusions:


Emphasizes the significance of the topic to the reader.


Repeats the most important point.


Provokes the reader to think more deeply about the topic.


Provides the information (or incentive) necessary for the reader to respond or to take the desired action.


5. Language/miscellaneous:


Language and tone are appropriate for the audience and the purpose.


Word choice is clear, specific, accurate, unassuming, and free of misused jargon and cliches.


Sentences are free of wordiness, ambiguity, and unnecessarily involved constructions.


Paragraphs are brief and sharply focused (but adequately developed).


Quotations or testimonials illustrate and reinforce the main points.


Copy is carefully edited and free of distracting errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation.


Information is sufficient, relevant, and accurate, including all facts, dates, statistics, spellings of names, etc.


All necessary permissions, approvals, and authorizations have been secured.


Purpose – whether to inform, entertain, or persuade the reader, or to induce the reader to take action, or to elicit information from the reader – is clearly expressed.


No problem. You’ll write your article this afternoon, let it rest overnight, go over it one more time in the morning, and give it to your boss before lunch.


She’ll be so pleased. Maybe she’ll call on you again the next time she needs something on short notice. You hope she will.



Seminars & email courses

Quote wisely and well to add color to your writing

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere


Whether you are writing a blog, a newsletter article, a news release, an article, or a report, quotations will enliven your story.

“Whatever form of nonfiction you write, William Zinsser points out in On Writing Well, “it will come alive in proportion to the number of ‘quotes’ that you can weave into it naturally as you go along.”

See what I mean?

With a lot of work and more than a little luck, I might have succeeded in stating that point as articulately as my source did, but the direct quote carries more weight.

Here’s how to work effectively with quotes:

Find good quotes by talking with interesting characters. The best place to look for good quotes is all around you. As Zinsser reminds us, “Somewhere in every drab institution are men and women who have a fierce attachment to what they are doing and are rich repositories of lore.”

Find those people, listen to their stories, and note their words.

Collect good quotes from your reading. Read with an eye – or an ear – for what is memorable, and when you come across something good, copy it down.

I’ve been collecting good quotes for years. When I encounter one – such as Samuel Johnson’s “What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure” or Mark Twain’s “‘As a matter of fact’ precedes many a statement that isn’t” or Zinsser’s “Bad writing makes bright people look dumb” – I tuck it away. I know at some point it will come in handy in reinforcing a point or in stating it more memorably.

What topics are you likely to write about in the years ahead?

Break up your quotations to make them livelier. No matter how good your sources, don’t relinquish your role as narrator or guide. It’s still your story.

A good place to break a quote is at the first natural pause. If you were quoting the preceding sentence, for example, you might insert a phrase of attribution such as Wilbers says between the words quote and is.

As a rule, short quotes are more effective than long ones.

Use simple verbs for attribution. As Zinsser advises – not as he avers, asseverates, or expostulates, “Don’t strain to find synonyms for he said.

Depending on the quote and the context in which you are using it, you might sometimes replace says with advises, point outs, explains, declares, contends, maintains, adds or continues, but as Zinsser continues, “please – please! – don’t write he smiled or he grinned. I have never heard anybody smile.”

Use quotes for openings and closings. Because beginnings and endings have natural emphasis, quotes work especially well as first and last sentences in paragraphs, and as openings and closings in stories.

“The most important sentence in any article is the first one,” says Zinsser, and a quote is a good way to get your reader’s attention. Likewise, you might want to save a good quote or even your best quote for the end. And when you get there, as the King advises Alice in Lewis Carroll’s tale, “Stop.”


Seminars & email courses

Make your blog or newsletter worth your readers’ while

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere


If I were asked to judge the effectiveness of a random sample of blogs and newsletters, I would begin by sorting them into four categories: slick and interesting; slick but irrelevant; amateurish but interesting; and amateurish and irrelevant.

My criteria would be appearance, relevance to the intended audience, and quality of the writing.

The initial determination between slick and amateurish, based primarily on appearance, would be simple: Do the graphics, layout, visual variety, etc., make the publication visually appealing?

The next step, assessing relevance to the intended audience, also would be easy.

I would begin not by reading the text, but by skimming the headlines to see what proportion of the articles promoted the organization (material relating to reputation, history, internal matters, etc.), and what proportion appealed directly to the readers’ interests and concerns (advice, information, resources, etc.).

In other words, I would ask, does the newsletter focus on itself or on the reader? To the creators of the inward-looking or self-absorbed publications I would say, take a lesson from good conversationalists: It’s not about you. It’s about what is interesting or useful to your audience.

Finally, I would assess the quality of the writing in three areas: content, style, and correctness.

If you were a writer or editor involved with producing one of these newsletters and you wanted to score well in these areas, you would have to do the following:

Know what matters to your audience. In choosing a topic, ask yourself what your readers value. What are their concerns? What’s on their minds? How will your information or the service you are offering benefit them?

Write a lead that captures your reader’s attention. Begin with the unusual, the urgent, or the topical. Keep in mind William Zinsser’s observation in On Writing Well: "The most important sentence in any article is the first one."

Look for memorable, human detail. Move beyond the general to the particular. The right detail can make a story. Rather than "Prolonged drought causes many families to lose their farms," write "Because his alfalfa crop was killed by last summer’s drought, John MacDonald of Becker County has no seed for planting this spring."

Avoid newsletter clichés. Use the same natural, conversational word choice you would use in a letter to a colleague. Rather than "Prior to his arrival at our firm, John Smith had the opportunity to serve as a publicist for Reliable Service, Inc.," write "Before coming to our firm, John Smith worked as a publicist for Reliable Service, Inc."

Avoid language errors. Errors in grammar (such as non-agreement between subjects and verbs, as in "Our network of resources are impressive"), usage (or incorrect word choice, such as effect for affect, as in "How will this effect morale?"), and punctuation (such as unnecessary apostrophes in plural words, as in "We have the solution’s") undermine credibility.

Check for accuracy. Make certain that your facts and figures are correct. Take special care with numbers, dates, addresses, and the spelling of names.

Note that these four categories, three criteria, and six points of advice apply not only to newsletters but also to Web pages, which often perform the same functions of their paper counterparts.

So, if you or your company produces a newsletter or maintains a Web page, how does it measure up?




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