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Creating a Dynamic Newsletter

General Assembly 2000 Event 504
By Jean A. Griffiths

Create visually powerful newsletters that people will read and that will promote your church or organization. Jean A. Griffiths is a 20-year veteran of creating newsletters for churches, with extensive training and experience, now from the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church of Tucson, AZ.

How to Create High-Impact Newsletters

Connect to Your Audience

When newsletters are crisply written, tightly edited, and effectively designed, they succeed. Newsletters are among the most powerful of all written media because when they are well done, there's good likelihood they'll get read. Have a clear vision of why you are publishing a newsletter Know a lot about the people you are trying to reach Think of the newsletter as the bridge between your objectives and your reader's interests and expectations.

Purpose and Objectives

Typical purposes include to educate, to inform, to motivate, or to sell. Narrow down the purpose! One way is to ask yourself what action you hope your readers take as a result of reading your newsletter. Setting a clear and accurate objective is the critical first step to publishing a well read newsletter. Consider long and hard before establishing your objectives. People scan magazines. (75% of readers read magazines from back to the front) People skim newspapers (fewer than 20% of readers will follow a jumped article (one that says "continued on page....") and of those 20%, fewer than 3% will finish the article. People read newsletters. Because they are read more often and with greater loyalty, they can serve to create a sense of identity for your church.

Establishing Content

Content is more important than design, although design is very important.

  • Newsletter get read because they contain content that people want.
  • News is current information that is directly relevant to your readers.
  • Focus on your readers, and the newsletter will be read.

Cartoons and jokes create a lively appearance and foster a lighthearted mood. Only use if that is the mood you want to create.

Setting aside a section of the newsletter for personal news, usually in the back of the newsletter and not highlighted, encourages your readers to participate by submitting stories or information about themselves. They feel close to the newsletter when they later read something about themselves.


Every article should answer the five "W" questions:

  • Who?
  • When?
  • Where?
  • What?
  • Why?

Places to find content include:

  • Adaptations from other newsletters
  • Upcoming Events
  • Reader submission
  • Other sources—Keep your eyes and ears open.

Your calendar of events should appear in every issue either in the form of a calendar or a schedule of events. It should appear in the same place in every newsletter and always look the same. There is no one ideal place for it to be positioned, but if you want people to refer to it often, place it on a loose sheet that your readers can take out of the newsletter and post on a bulletin board.

Recurring Columns

These columns repeat each issue (i.e. Minister's Column, Religious Education column, etc.) and should always be found in the same place in each newsletter and should have a "standing heading." A standing head is a kind of title. It does not replace a headline. Each recurring column should have both a headline and a standing head.

  • Cleverly worded title can suggest that a column's content is relevant yet easy and quick to read.
  • Does not replace a headline
  • A Graphic device that helps the unit of content be recognized.
  • With different fonts or simple graphics you can create very different looks for your standing heads.
  • Use heavy, dark fonts to convey a sense of power
  • Use script to convey a sense of elegance
  • Use graphics to connect the standing head to the content

A newsletter with multiple columns conveys a sense of unity. Recurring columns are recognizable, and reassuring to the reader, and when there are many the entire newsletter gets a "familiar" look.

Six Techniques to Get Your Newsletter Read

Once you have determined what content categories you will use, there are six specific techniques that will help your newsletter get read. They will dramatically increase the impact of your newsletter. Even using two or three will help your newsletter get read.


  • Average sentence should be 15-20 words—SHORT is better!
  • An average of seventeen words per sentence is even better.
  • Paragraphs should be no longer than seven to nine lines.
  • Stories should have no more than five to seven paragraphs.
  • Ideal length for a newsletter article is about 250 words or less.

When it is difficult to keep articles under 250 words there are several strategies to make the copy look shorter and therefore more readable.

  • Sprinkle a lot of white space throughout the article by indenting paragraphs, increasing space between lines and columns, add space around headlines.
  • Well-written sub heads placed every three or four paragraphs will also serve to divide the copy into smaller, reader-friendly segments.
  • Sidebars are another means of division.
  • Avoid jumps. Jumping an article (asking the reader to turn to another page) lowers readership. Always print the entire article on one page.

Ease in Reading

  • Your newsletter MUST be readable in order to succeed.
  • Newsletter should be written at a sixth to ninth grade level. Keeping the language to a level that is easily grasped and quickly understood is not done in an effort to condescend to the readers, but to present them with valuable information in a clear and accessible format. Most college text books are written between the eighth and ninth grade levels.
  • To simplify language, shorten sentences and substitute easy words for difficult words.
  • Break up compound sentences into two separate sentences.
  • If your newsletter is read by people not familiar with UU jargon, be sure to spell out the abbreviations (i.e., UUA—Unitarian Universalist Association).


  • Headlines are used to grab attention
  • Readers determine whether they want to read the article by reading the headline
  • Generating headlines is an editorial function.
  • Draws the reader into the article
  • In order to succeed, a headline must address the "why."
  • Must include verbs and adjectives
  • Do not use ALL CAPS! They are hard to read.
  • Suppose you are writing a story about a dinner at the church. Use the following elements and create a headline:

    • Noun:

      • all-church dinner
      • potluck
      • special event
    • Reader:

      • members of the church
      • potential members
      • everyone
    • Verb:

      • are invited
      • welcome
      • encourage to participate

    You might come up with something like this: A Special Event Where Everyone Is Welcome!


  • A lead refers to the first several words or a phrase written to hook a reader's interest.
  • Three styles include:

    • Shared interest
    • Time
    • Questioning
  • Shared interest immediately grabs readers who share a specific interest: "Music Lovers: The church will once again hold regular concerts every Friday during the summer months."
  • Time-oriented words like "today," "immediately," or "right away" create a sense of urgency: "Call today for your tickets."
  • Pose a question which the rest of the article answers: "What is your dream for this church?"


  • Put important pieces of information in captions. Captions are read more than body text, so they can be as long as they need to be without losing readers.
  • Don't just identify things, but give the specifics on why the photo, chart, or diagram was chosen to illustrate the point.


  • Voice means the tone of the newsletter. It should be chatty, relaxed, and conversational.
  • Voice refers to a proper focus on your reader.
  • Take an article and count the number of references to "them"—the reader.
  • Then count the number of references to "us"—the writer.
  • When you subtract the number of references to "us" from "them" you should end up with a positive number.
  • References can be by name, by pronoun, or by implication.
  • Use active voice instead of passive—"the ushers collected the offering" instead of "the offering was collected by the ushers."

High-Impact Newsletter Design

A well-designed newsletter creates a mood, gets attention, and enhances the content.

  • Size, Length, Frequency: The size of paper you use and what size the end result is.
  • Nameplate: The name of your newsletter. Something that identifies your church or organization, yet is short. It can contain a graphic to help with identification.
  • Masthead: This is a box which gives the reader information about your publication.
  • Space Division: How many columns you will use.
  • Type & Fonts: What type face and size will you use for headlines and body text.
  • Graphic Devices: Symbols you will use like boxes, drop caps, rules, etc.
  • Color & Paper: Best types of paper and colors for readability.

Design Decisions

The consistency of design and format distinguishes your newsletter from others and helps build a strong image for you and your organization.

Size and Length, Frequency

The first decision you need to make concerns the size, length, and frequency of the newsletter. More than 80 percent of all newsletters are 8 ½ x 11, finished size. They are printed on 11 x 17 paper and folded, or photocopied on letter-size paper and stapled. About 10 percent are printed on legal-size paper, which is 8 ½ x 14; about five percent are tabloids, 11 x 17; and the last five percent are "other."

The 8 ½ x 11 newsletter fits into in-baskets at work, fits on top of kitchen counters at home, and is easy to hold and read. It's also the least expensive option, since it is the standard size in business and home.

Most newsletters are between four and eight pages in length. Longer newsletters are acceptable, but you should keep the length as short as possible.

The Nameplate

The nameplate is usually positioned on the top of the front page and is about a quarter of the page in size (about 2 ½ inches) . Ideally, it's immediately recognizable to the reader as yours. The name of the newsletter, the dateline, and the name of the publishing organization should be in the nameplate. You can also include a graphic such as your logo or subtitle.

If you want to give your newsletter a generic name like "The Bulletin," "The Newsletter" or "The Trumpet" be sure to add a subtitle.

The dateline should correspond to your frequency of publication: the name of the month, if monthly; or the time period the newsletter covers if more frequently. The dateline's format should remain consistent from issue to issue.

An alternative (or additional dateline) is the volume and number convention. If the newsletter's dateline is Vol. III, No. 8, for example, it tells the reader that you have been publishing for three years and that this is the eighth issue in the current year.

A powerful way to connect with your target readers is to name the newsletter after them. If the entire purpose of your newsletter can be summed up by focusing on your readers, this may well be an approach you want to adopt.

The Masthead

It is important that every newsletter have a masthead, because it lets the readers know who publishes the newsletter and how to get in touch with them should they want to.

There are six pieces of information which should be in the masthead:

  1. The name and mailing address of the publisher (including postal codes, phone numbers, email address and Internet information, as appropriate)
  2. Your name and title
  3. A list of the members of the editorial staff (if you have one)
  4. Copyright and reprint information
  5. Subscription information (or information on how to get on or off the mailing list)
  6. Any necessary disclaimers

List in the masthead all the information readers need in order to get in touch with you. Whether it is simple or complex in design and content, always include a masthead in your newsletter.

Division of Space

Almost all newsletters use a columnar division of space, and almost all of them use a one-, two-, or three-column grid.

A one-column grid suggests a newsy and informational tone. It is also the easiest grid to design because you have the fewest design decisions to make.

A two-column grid is perceived by your readers as formal, conservative, and technical. It is the most dignified and stately grid alternative and is an effective way to convey a sense of tradition.

A three-column grid creates the opposite image. It's perceived as relaxed, friendly, accessible, and casual. Use a three-column grid to convey a sense of neighborliness, imply ease of access, or suggest, "We're here to help."


Type is the most important design element, because it directly affects the newsletter's readability. Adhering to the rules of readability is important, but you do not have to follow them all rigidly.

Remember: Every time you break a rule, you are making your newsletter a little less readable. The topic of readability has been thoroughly researched. Follow the rules and your newsletter will be readable.

There are two broad categories of type: serif and sans serif. Letters in a serif font seem to be standing on platforms, and some parts of the letters are thinner than other parts.


  • Letters in a sans serif font have no thick or thin parts and there are no platforms.
  • People read sans serif type faster than they read serif, but with less accuracy because the hooks and feet of a serif font serve as a kind of "picket fence" that guides the eye.
  • A serif font should be used in body text, because its picket fence effect makes it easy to read. When someone makes the commitment to read the body of the text, they need the enhanced readability that comes from a serif font.
  • Your headline fonts should be sans serif. They need to be read quickly and easily.
  • Whatever you select for your nameplate or your standing heads doesn't count, as the nameplate and standing heads are graphic elements.
  • Nameplate or Standing Heads: Select standing head fonts to create a strong image.

Point Size:

  • Type is measured by point size, as it has been since type was set by hand. One point is equal to 1/72 of an inch. Body text should be set between 9 and 12 points, But keep in mind that fonts are individually designed elements, the same copy set in the same size in different fonts will take up different amounts of space.
  • A good choice for general audiences is 11 or 12 points. People who read well and see well can read 10-point type. But if the majority of your readers are over 35, you should stick with 11/12 point type.
  • Never use anything smaller than 9 points, no matter how well your readers read and see. The only exceptions to this rule would be when you have so much extra copy that even after adjusting the leading, alleys, margins and gutters, there is not enough space to print it, or when you want to convey a sense of depth of content or technical sophistication.
  • A church newsletter broke the nine-point rule for another reason. The newsletter was sent to the entire congregation, but the singles group wanted to sponsor a series of events targeting only those under age 35. Concerned about issues of age discrimination, the group ran the articles announcing the singles events in the newsletter set in 8-point type, which could be easily deciphered only by the age group they were targeting. (I am not recommending this approach as it is very age discriminating).
  • Sub-headings should be two to four points larger than the body text. Headlines need to be at least twice the size of the sub-heads. Example: If you are using a 12-point body type, the subheads should be 14-point and the headings should be 28-points. Don't be inconsistent in the size of body type within an article or within your newsletter. Point size is sometimes reduced for copyfitting purposes, but there are better ways to handle this problem.


  • Decisions about right margin justification should be based on the image you want to create. A justified right margin seems formal and conservative where a ragged margin seems friendly, relaxed and casual. However, if you have a lot of body content you may chose to use a right-justified margin. Be sure that if you do use a right-justified margin you leave enough white space in other places. Otherwise your newsletter will not read easily.
  • Mixing and matching these two elements is rarely a good idea. Choose one and stick to that style for the entire newsletter. Start out with a ragged right margin and only make it justified if you have a problem with space.
  • Indent paragraphs in your newsletter for maximum readability. An indentation of four to five characters increases readability by seven percent. If space allows it, add a little extra space between paragraphs as well.
  • Italics are hard to read. You should assume that ten words or more set in italics won't be read. So use sparingly and only to emphasize a word or two, or to highlight a certain category of content.
  • Headlines: Setting headlines in all caps conveys a powerful image, but it is hard to read. Be cautious, also, about using decorative, ornate, or specialty fonts in either body text or headlines. They can be used effectively in standing heads or to highlight a few key words. For example, for an upcoming Renaissance Fair you could set the R and F of those two words in a Gothic face such as Percival for an interesting and dramatic effect.

Graphic Devices

Graphic devices are symbols that signal things to your reader such as:

  • Drop caps
  • A rule
  • Reversed text
  • Tinted backgrounds, graduated screens.
  • Boxes

They serve multiple purposes:

  • to help organize the layout,
  • keep the content accessible; and
  • help readers keep their place.

In a newsletter, it is best to limit yourself to two or three graphic devices and then to apply them consistently throughout the newsletter, and in every issue of the newsletter.

Keep the device simple. Too many graphic devices look fussy and may distract the reader. Remember that simplicity is a virtue in design.

When using boxes, please limit their use to one per page. Two many boxes make the newsletter look cluttered and makes it harder to read.

Graphic designs are powerful—so powerful that it is better to under design rather than over design. Keep your design simple by choosing no more than three graphic devices and using them consistently throughout the newsletter.


There is no right or wrong color, so long as it is consistent. If you choose to change the color with each issue, that's okay, because change is expected and therefore consistent with the principle of static design. Just as if you choose one color and stick to it, that is expected and is consistent.

Most newsletters are one- or two-color publication. Your readers want to read black on white, or near black on near white, so be careful before you get too wild with color. In order to succeed, your newsletter must be read, and therefore your use of color should never interfere with readability.

On the other hand, research does clearly indicate that color gets attention and helps create an image.

Black ink is the best choice. Blue or dark green would be second choices.


Paper is very expensive.

Decisions about paper are complex because there are many variables to consider:

  • Opacity
  • Runnability
  • Basis weight

Since the primary objective for any newsletter is readability, glossy paper is not an appropriate choice. If you have no photos in your newsletter, the decision becomes easier: use uncoated paper such as a 60- or 70-pound offset. If, however, you do run photographs, they will not produce well on uncoated paper. Choose a coated paper with a matte or dull finish so that the photos are crisp but the text is easy to read.

Color of paper is another decision you need to make. Remember READABILITY. The easiest to read is white paper with black ink, the second is yellow paper with black ink.

Using Art Effectively

Clip Art

Clip art is a great low-cost way to add life to your newsletter. While an all-text newsletter can be appealing, if you want your newsletter to look relaxed and accessible, consider using clip art.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Clip art is line art which is sold and organized by subject matter either in book form or on computer disks. Most of it is old and gathered from a variety of sources. New images become available from time to time.
  • Integrate the clip art into the design. Clip art that is unrelated to the content looks silly, so if you have no clip art which is harmonious with the content, then it's better to have none.
  • Remember to size the art sensibly when placing clip art in your newsletter. A quarter-inch image of a mountain should not be placed on the same page as a three-inch bumblebee.
  • Also, size the art so that it's in relative proportion from one page to the next. This means that if Page 2 devotes 15 percent to 20 percent of the layout to art, then each page with art should allow approximately the same amount of space. You do not have to use clip art on every page, but it should be evenly spaced throughout the newsletter. Keep it balanced.
  • Remember that since a lot of clip art was gathered from older sources, it may be out-of-date. Check the haircuts on people, ties and collars on clothes, etc. Clip art can be edited so you can use and reuse the same images in many applications. If you don't have the ability to edit, use white-out and a felt-tip pen to bring dated art up to date.
  • Be especially aware of potential problems in the background where you may not think to look. Inspect the clothing and hairstyles of people, modes of transportation like cars and airplanes and backgrounds.
  • Choose a style appropriate for your newsletter and use it consistently throughout.


Another category of art appropriate for newsletters is photographs. They are extremely effective because they add visual interest and serve to illustrate and explain the copy. It creates empathy and helps readers forge a connection to the newsletter. It also pleases people to see themselves in print. Be sure that your method of copying the newsletter lends itself to copying photographs clearly or they will not be effective.


Once you make these eight static decisions, you will have created a design unique to your newsletter. If you make your decisions thoughtfully, your design will not only be unique, but will support the content and enhance the probability of your newsletter achieving its objective.

Changing the Newsletter

Change your newsletter's design only when you have a good reason—and designer's boredom is never a good reason. Some reasons to change would be:

  • You have a new minister who would like a new look.
  • If your church or organization shifts its strategy or changes its objectives.
  • If you decide that your newsletter is not readable enough for your audience.

If you want to be sure a potential redesign is on the mark, consider making incremental changes and building in tests at every step of the process. Change is always a risk. When a newsletter looks the same issue after issue, it becomes a familiar friend to your readers. If it suddenly looks sharply different—it's no longer a familiar friend. Make sure that change is necessary and then stick with the change. If you decide that change is needed, go to the eight static design decisions and review each. If you change just a couple of them, your newsletter will look "the same, but different."



  • How To Create High-Impact Newsletters, Cleland, Jane K. CareerTrack Publications, Boulder, CO. 1996.
  • The Congregational Handbook, Peers, Lawrence X. Unitarian Universalist Association, Boston, MA, Third Edition, 1995. p. 217-219.
  • "The NEWSLETTER Newsletter," A newsletter for church newsletter editors from Communication Resources, PO Box 2625, N. Canton, OH 44720.
  • Look Great In Print—Desktop Publishing Techniques That Work, Success Systems, Inc., 13004 Pratt Road, Lee's Summit, MO 64086.
  • Design for Desktop Publishing, Miles, John. Chronicle Books. 1987.
  • Editing Your Newsletter, Beach, Mark. Coast to Coast Books. Portland, OR. 1988.
  • Quick and Easy Newsletters on a Shoestring Budget, Floyd, Elaine. EF Communications. St. Louis. 1994.
  • Outstanding Newsletter Designs, Partisan, Polly, et al. Coast to Coast Books, Portland, OR. 1990.
  • The Newsletter Source Book, Beach, Mark. North Light Books. Portland, OR 1988.


Clip Art Resources

  • "Click Art, Graphics Workshop" by Broderbund, 500 Redwood Blvd, Novato, CA 94948-6121, (415) 382-4400
  • "Chalice Clip Art" by Uni-Uniques, PO Box 101, Webster, NY 14580, (716) 383-4822 (Can be found at the Uni-Uniques display in the Exhibit Hall during General Assembly)
  • The Newsletter Newsletter by Communication Resources, 4150 Belden Village St., 4th Floor, Canton, OH 44718. Monthly subscription. Artwork includes standard Christian art work plus much, much more (pick and choose). Plus a newsletter to give you tips on improving your newsletter.
  • Check your local Office Supply stores for inexpensive clip art packages.