On Being a Good Newsletterer

Notes and tips on how not to be a newsletter ding dong


They’re everywhere, newsletters. Do you have one? If so, are you being a good citizen of the newsletter universe?

This is something I ask myself each and every time I send out a newsletter. In 2019 I shot some 150,000 words into the ether between my two newsletters, Ridgeline and Roden, to tens of thousands of readers. I also subscribed to upwards of thirty newsletters last year. And then unsubscribed from upwards of thirty. I stuck it out with only a few, and noticed some patterns in Newsletter Goodness. Here they are:

  1. Who are you? Answer this question in every newsletter, preferably in the first paragraph. Unless you send a daily newsletter, readers will forget. New readers will have joined since you sent your last edition (even if it was just a week ago). People are busy, exhausted, overwhelmed. Help them. They may have subscribed in a three-second impulse, they may be subscribed to 20 different publishing-related newsletters. As much as it may feel from the side of the newsletterer, one’s newsletter is not the only newsletter in the world. Link to your about page or, at the very least, your Twitter or Instagram account. Something. Throw the readers a bone. Who is this putting extra words (and work) into my inbox? (Substack newsletters are especially egregious about this, because Substack writers tend to not do this and Substack itself offers no “bio” or “about” section on a Substack newsletter page.) For good measure, stick another single-sentence mini-bio in your newsletter footer, too.
  2. Be liberal in your unsubscribability. The most confident newsletters offer a single-click instant-unsubscribe link in their opening ’graph along with reminding us who they are. As a newsletter writer you don’t want half-hearted hanger-oners. And absolutely, under no circumstances, require a reader to “login” to change their “subscription preferences.” If you’re using a mailing system that requires this, consider ditching the system and upgrade to something modern. Forcing users to login will almost certainly result in them hitting the “report spam” button in gmail, hurting your deliverability for all other readers. Normalizing logins also opens a vector for malware / phishing. (On a whole, nobody should login to anything via an unprompted email link.) Furthermore: A person’s inbox is a sacred space. Don’t be an unsubscribe ding-dong, make it easy and obvious.
  3. Don’t use images-as-text. Indie fashion brands tend to be egregious about this — sending giant san-serif’d images of nothing but text laid out in single-sentence paragraphs. I suspect there’s a beautiful variation on this using real text, making it more accessible, more flexible on a variety of devices, and less web-designy-circa-1997. (Using images-as-text also often means you’re forcing readers to load images, and in doing so, often forcing them to opt-into tracking.)
  4. Consider only using system fonts in your newsletter design. “font-family: -apple-system;” gets you 70% of the way to a good looking newsletter.
  5. Have killer voice. How do you develop killer voice? Be confident. How do you develop confidence? Read oodles and write oodles more. If you’re sending a “list newsletter” you better have one hell of a point of view because, well, there are oodles-upon-oodles of list newsletters out there. Generally, like with much good writing, the magic for readers is in feeling like they’re traveling along with someone who truly cares and is exceedingly curious about their chosen topic. Be that person / guide / spirit animal!

Here’s an example of some openings I use in my newsletters. Feel free to steal / mad-libs at will.

Hi, I’m Craig Mod and you’ve signed up for Humidity Monthly, a monthly newsletter on all things humid. Just kidding. (Although I could very easily write such a thing.) You’ve signed up for the Roden newsletter, which has no explicit theme and threatens only to inspire you to one-click unsubscribe

I’m Craig Mod and you (in theory) signed up for this weekly letter on walking — yes, walking (you know: the literature of walking, walking experiments, publishing and walking, talking-and-walking; the permutations of walking abound, and we are here to drill down into them all).

I’m Craig Mod and this is the Ridgeline newsletter about walking, mostly walking in Japan. You signed up on my website. If you’d like to unsubscribe, just click that link or the one at the bottom. One click, all done, good bye.

Before I get into why I’m — as they say this time of the year — THANKFUL, for trains, let me remind you what this is: I’m Craig Mod, and this is my monthly so-called *Roden * newsletter. You can find old ones here. Last month I wrote about the iPhone 11 Pro’s cameras. This month: planes, trains, perfect workspaces, walking experiments, and more.

If you’re new here — HELLO. I’m Craig Mod, and you signed up for this monthly newsletter on my website, craigmod.com. If you were forced to input your email address by a kidnapper or had recently attended an Ambien and vodka party, if you subscribed amidst a fog of war, or if you’re just tired, so tired, and the thought of deleting another one of these next month is too much, then unsubscribe in one click. Otherwise, welcome to the ever-growing crew.

Newsletters aren’t genetic engineering, but it’s amazing how many folks send newsletters ignoring these simple precepts which, in aggregate, I think make things much nicer for readers. So please consider adopting some of these strategies if you’re a newsletterer. And if you have anything to add to this list, email me@craigmod.com.

See you out there in Bloggosphere 2.0.

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