October 22nd, 2006

ozarque figure

Writing nonfiction; newslettering; part one...

I've written and published at least one newsletter every other month since 1981, and there've been times when I was doing as many as six of them; I've never missed an issue. What's most extraordinary is that I ever made it through the first year and into the second one, because when I started I knew nothing at all about newslettering, and I didn't learn anything about newslettering for a very long time. If there was any mistake I failed to make in the first few years, it was just blind luck.

My first newsletter was called The Lonesome Node. [That's the best title I've ever come up with in all the years I've been a writer. It's a linguistics in-joke, it's a comment on all the lonesome Ozark hills, it's a nod to my love for the set of English words ending in "-some," and it has a nice ring to it.] I sent out a pre-publication proposal and order blank for it, and 17 people subscribed; many of those 17 are still on my subscriber list. I wrote the newsletter, typing it on stencils; my husband ran off the copies on a Gestetner hand-cranked mimeograph machine on 8 1/2 x 11 plain white paper; we stapled the issues in the upper lefthand corner and mailed them out in plain manila envelopes. [A day came when I upgraded to typing on paper and having Kinko's run off my copies. And a day came when the amount of money I was spending at Kinko's for those copies was less than the monthly payment on a big fancy photocopying machine, at which point we bought our own machine. A big fancy one, with all the bells and whistles.]

Five of the six issues each year had a theme which was the focus of that issue and got most of the space, chosen from this list: Women and Language; Language and the Brain; Language in Healthcare; Ozark English; Verbal Self-Defense; Religious Language; Linguistics/Science Fiction Interface; Linguistics for Nonlinguists; Linguistics/Music Interface. The topics that weren't the theme of the issue got a brief "update" section. And then, one issue a year was the Editor's Choice issue: I would take some meta-topic that interested me -- the Sapir/Whorf hypothesis, or poetry, or linguistics materials for children ... something like that ... and write sections about the other topics -- the regular ones -- in the context of that meta-topic.

The Lonesome Node was unquestionably the ugliest newsletter ever to show its face in this world, and it got uglier before it was over, because -- in an effort to get ever more information into it without making it more expensive to mail -- the only white space I provided in it was the margins. It was single-spaced, with the items divided only by a typed line. I didn't leave a blank space between paragraphs; I didn't even put a blank space between sections. Very quickly, the issues were 18 to 24 pages long (which meant getting a bulk mail permit). You have never seen anything less likely to sell than that newsletter, and it got no marketing or promotion; a lot of my subscriptions were for one issue to an organization or a library or a university professor, which was then read by a lot of other people who weren't subscribers. Nevertheless -- and I cannot explain why -- from the end of the first year on, it made a profit large enough to more than justify going on with it.

From the very beginning, my subscribers pitched in and helped me, sending me clippings and articles and magazines and journals, and by the third issue I had set up the system I still use for production (except that now I have e-files as well as physical files). Which goes like this:

1. There's a filing system with a folder for each of the topics I cover. When I find an article -- or somebody sends me an article -- that I know I'll want to use, I throw it into the proper folder.

2. When magazines and journals arrive, I do a brute-force triage, going through them to find articles that I know I'll use. If it's a publication that I keep in my library, I photocopy the article and put that copy in the proper folder; if it's a publication I discard, I just tear out the article and put it in its proper folder.

3. Two weeks or so before time to write the newsletter I pull all the material out of the files and go through it, sorting it into topics and sub-topics; if I have too much material -- which often happens -- I put it back in its folder to use another time.

In January 2000 -- with a lot of my subscribers screaming and howling in protest, and me apologizing and doing my best to explain that I really had no choice, I was just getting old -- I made some radical changes. First, I switched from print to e-mail only. Second, I switched from one newsletter to three: The Linguistics & Science Fiction Newsletter, The Verbal Self-Defense Newsletter, and The Religious Language Newsletter. I still tried to address all the topics I'd always written about, but there was no longer a separate issue just on Women and Language, or just on Language in Healthcare, and there were no more Editor's Choice issues. My customers didn't like that. The process stayed the same, except that now I wrote the newsletters on the computer. And there was no more running off copies and stapling and sorting them and stuffing them in envelopes and hauling them to the postoffice in neat bundles arranged by zip code -- I just had to click on "Send" and it was done. And now I had e-files to put material in, in addition to the physical files, and my subscribers could just send me the URL for an article instead of having to send the article or publication itself.