August 20, 2003
How To

High-impact Email Newsletter Writing: How to use strong, bold words in your intro


Although the advice in this article is meant for marketers writing email newsletters, we think anyone who has to write a press release should print it out and tape it to their wall.

The absolute hardest part of writing for your company email newsletter (or press releases) is doing the intro.

That is because most of us were taught in school to start with a broad generalization ("Business is picking up for everyone") and then to narrow it down over a paragraph or two until you get to your point ("hiring will increase 12% this quarter").

Try doing that in email and your readers will click "delete" in a heartbeat.

Our best tip for writing email-friendly intros is:

Write whatever you want to get yourself into the body of the story. Then afterward, scroll back up and cut off your first paragraph or two.

Want more help?

Here are four best-of tips reprinted with permission from the report 'The Editorial Process' by Harry Baisden:

Tip #1:  Look for the 'So What?' Angle

Your job is to come up with the 'so what?' angle. This happened. So what? What does it mean to your readers? The more you can tell your reader what the impact of an event or condition will be on her, the more likely she will read it.

For example, which of the following leads do you think readers of a transportation newsletter will be more likely to read?

Option A:
"President Bush last week signed into law a new tax on over-the-road transport of heavy goods."

Option B:
"Over-the-road freight haulers face a 15% increase in federal taxes thanks to a new tax bill President Bush approved last week."

Tip #2: Have People or Things Acting on People or Things

Forcing yourself to write an active lead makes you clarify your writing. It makes you think, "Who did what to whom?" In answering that question for yourself, you do a much better job of answering it for your readers.

One giveaway you should look for is the word "by."

Any time you see that two-letter word in your copy, you know you are having something or someone being acted upon "by" someone or something else. Get rid of the by's in your copy and you have gotten rid of most of the passive voice.

Not only should you look for the active over the passive in your leads, Rene Cappon says in 'The Word,' "The more action your lead conveys, the better. Strong verbs are important."

Cappon abhors verbs like moved, scheduled, expected and prepared in leads.

Another clue to look for is any form of the verb "to be" in your lead. While it's ok grammatically to write "Wall Street traders were tense as they awaited news from the Far East markets," you will have a much better chance of catching your readers with something like, "Tension gripped Wall Street as traders waited to hear what was happening in Asia."

Tip #3: Keep it Short

Short leads are not a luxury in newsletters [and press releases]; they are a necessity.

It is your job to put these often-complicated ideas into the simplest, most direct statements possible so your reader does not have to wade through swamps of technological or bureaucratic verbiage.

Just how long can a lead go before it is too long?

I have yet to see a newsletter story that required a lead of more than one sentence. Sometimes a quick two or three-word sentence at the end of a longer one can be used for effect:

"Republican Senators were planning to celebrate a victory in the Clean Air debate this week. They won't be."

Often constructions like this can be set off with a dash. Two sentences work just as well. Cases like this are rare, particularly in newsletters. The one-sentence guideline is a safe bet.

If the lead runs into a fifth line on your computer screen, look for ways to cut it down.

Tip #4: Strong Words are the Most Economic

Adverbs are the bane of newsletter writing. A good, strong verb usually does not need an adverb. If you want to get across strong
feeling, use a strong verb. And and you do not have to add to it with an adverb.

"He ran swiftly around the track" conveys the thought ok, but why not use a stronger verb and get rid of "swiftly:" "He flew around the track."

Even more annoying is the use of a needless adverb with a strong verb.

One of the worst adverbs I see cropping up is "actively," as in: "This agency is actively pursuing a course of strict interpretation of the rules."

Could that agency be "inactively pursuing" that course? If the verb is active, it tells the reader that the subject is "actively" doing whatever the verb says it is doing.

Adjectives can be overused too, and nouns should be descriptive.

A trek is considered an arduous or difficult journey. Why have someone take an "arduous trek?" Adjectives that tell the color of something whose color is already well-known get in the way, too. Why have "red stoplights" or "green pines?"

Finally, stay away from qualifiers like "very" or "quite" or "a bit." While "very" can be useful when you want special emphasis, it usually is just that much more clutter.

William Zinsser says it best in his book, On Writing Well:

"Every little qualifier whittles away some fraction of trust on the part of the reader. He wants a writer who believes in himself and in what he is saying. Don't diminish this belief. Don't be kind of bold. Be bold."

Note: Our thanks to the Newsletter & Electronic Publishers Association for permission to quote from Baisden's report:

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