by Gary Shogren
I calculate we’ve now sent out 100 editions of the Shogren missionary newsletter. Plus, I’ve received a thousand or two from other missionaries. Since we won’t ever be Tweeting, it looks like our communication style has settled into an e-letter we send off every two months. All said, if I’m going to offer unsought advice on how to write missionary newsletters or a blog, this is probably the time to do it.
Here are the tips I consider worth sharing:
From the Communication Department comes the most important point: you are the one who wants to deliver a message. That means, it’s your job as writer, not mine as reader, to make sure it’s clear and interesting. If the reader has to read a sentence twice, or something is left fuzzy, then it’s not well-written.
From the Apologetics Division: Never start by begging their pardon for not writing in such a long time. There’s no use confessing the same sin every six months, especially if you have no plans to repent of it.
From the Avoidance of the Obvious Committee: Never say, “Wow, the time has just flown by!” “The kids are growing!” “Is it the New Year already?”
From Domestic Affairs: yes, tell us about your family. However, keep that information in balance with what a newsletter should be about – not missionary families, but their mission.
From the Garden of Avoidable Vagaries: unless for some reason you need to be discreet about your activities, be specific about what it is you do. Please do not “facilitate,” “help,” or “manage.” Don’t “come alongside of” people and then “pour yourself into” them; the image of those physical contortions will just give me bad dreams. The other day I listened to a missionary testify. He seemed an earnest man, and yet, at the end I could not tell you what he actually does. I discussed it with my friend who was in the same meeting, and we decided that – maybe! – it was “youth work”.
From the Style Office: Aim for short, declarative sentences.
From the Interior Decorator: Make your letter attractive, not cute.
From the Irony Board: Avoid clichés like the plague; and if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times, don’t exaggerate.
From the Gag Writers: If it’s appropriate, use humor, but only if it’s truly as funny as you think it is. Avoid inside jokes.
From the Censor: Don’t complain about the spiritual hardness of your people or criticize your co-workers – assume that everyone you’ve ever met will read every word you write.
From the Amnesia Clinic: Don’t assume your reader remembers who your friend Mgutu is or what landed him in prison 8 months ago – it’s a courtesy to remind us.
From the specialists down in Jargon Filtering: Don’t use unexplained terminology, even if they’re expressions that Christians really ought to know: TCK, 10-40 Window, Two-Thirds World, NGO, Form WD-40, Trans-Regional Empathy Coordination.
“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut the scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written (from A Moveable Feast).
My term for all the “ornament” that comes before the real story is “verbal throat-clearing.” Don’t tap the mike and say “testing, testing.” Don’t say, “Well, I’m sitting here at my computer and thinking about all the things that have happened.” Just tell us what’s on your mind. We’ll come back to Hemingway in a minute.
Notice how the following fictional story has a title that tells us nothing vital to the plot, is long on set-up, and short on punchline:
A very interesting Tuesday
I walked to the store, because it was the day when I usually buy my meat. It was early, but still I passed some bicyclists on the way, and the sun was out but it was a little hazy, and I was worrying about that afternoon’s team meeting. Well, after I ordered my chicken, the butcher turns to me and he says, “So what is this Bible of yours all about? I’ve been kind of, not depressed, but confused …”
Why not put the important stuff right up front, in the first few words? A newsletter is like a meteor, it should flash across the page. Here’s the same story, with a provocative title and a “hook” to grab attention:
“What’s this Bible of yours all about?”
Suddenly, he wasn’t just my butcher; he was a confused soul who was asking if God’s Word had answers for him.
You see? And now you go back and say what led up to this interchange and what resulted.
When you’re building a campfire, you move slowly: you start with a match to the paper, which lights twigs, which lights logs. With luck you’ll have a fire in a half hour. A newsletter is not like that; it’s more like a pile of leaves that you have doused with gasoline. When it ignites, in the first sentence, you should feel a “whoompf” in your chest and see a sudden blaze.
This brings us to a word from the English Department: We live in an era that favors a spare, lean literary style. Sorry to you Thomas Hardy fans (and I count myself one), but I would avoid a Hardyesque style:
On an evening in the latter part of May a middle-aged man was walking homeward from Shaston to the village of Marlott, in the adjoining Vale of Blakemore, or Blackmoor. The pair of legs that carried him were rickety, and there was a bias in his gait which inclined him somewhat to the left of a straight line. He occasionally gave a smart nod, as if in confirmation of some opinion, though he was not thinking of anything in particular (from Tess of the d’Urbervilles).
That’s the start of an amazing novel, but for a newsletter it doesn’t fly. Think a little less Hardy, a little more Hemingway, and just jump in:
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish (from The Old Man and the Sea).
There isn’t a word to spare in that sentence: even “alone” “gone” and “now” contribute their part. “Old man,” “skiff” and “Gulf Stream” will turn out to be vital elements.
When you write, edit, then edit some more, then edit again.
Let’s move on.
From the Field Camp of General Specific: Steer clear of flabby statements such as: “we’ve been really busy”; “we’ve had to face many challenges”; “the devil has been pressuring us, but God has been watching over us.” They might be true, but they don’t arrest the reader’s attention. Don’t tell me the Lord’s been good to you, show me how! And in Prayer Requests: don’t ask me to pray that you have wisdom, or direction or that God will fulfill your needs – describe what you want us to pray for!
From the Thesaurus, some suggestion, proposals, and hints: Use muscular, vivid words. Avoid weak adjectives (good, nice, cool, hard) in favor of strong ones (unsettling; hilarious; relieved; aggravating). Use sense words (those which have to do with seeing, hearing, etc.), not just “is, are, were”. Don’t use three weak words where one strong word will do.
From the Polygraph Operator: Tell the truth. First, you will not make things up or exaggerate your victories in battle. Second, you will communicate a portion of the negative side of your work: homesickness, difficulty with the new language, discouragements. Too many missionaries never seem to have a sad experience or a dull moment. But telling only the fun stuff is, well, bearing false witness (see Exodus 20:16).
From us Wearers of Reading Glasses. Never use fine print (anything less than 12pt). Leave margins. Format, but don’t change typefaces every other sentence. Arrange the space to help the reader.
From Microsoft Outlook. Be a faithful communicator with your supporters. Keep your eyes open between postings: whenever I see something that looks usable, I jot it down so there’s no panic about “what do I say?” on Newsletter Day. MS Outlook reminds me every other month, on the 15th, that our next letter is due out in two weeks. We send a regular mailing 6 times a year, plus the occasional update or urgent prayer request. Everything is integrated into Facebook and our blog, http://www.shogrens.com. Some missionaries write, well, nearly every day, and they will experience “diminishing returns” – if you write too often, a higher number of people will simply filter you out. A greater percentage of missionaries hardly write at all, a practice that is both unethical and damaging to your work.
From the boys down in the AV Room (Audio-Visual). Use pictures (and videos!) wisely. Pictures of people are nice, but a “line-up” is not as interesting as a picture of people doing something. Be sure to tell your readers what’s going on the photo.
From Mercy Hospital. One would think that if you put so much effort into writing a newsletter, that everyone who receives it will be right up to date on your life and ministry. They will not. Of all the people who receive our letter, only about 35% open it. Of them, only a fraction will read all of it and retain it. This means that a donor might ask you “Hey, why don’t you do something about such-and-such?!” and on the tip of your tongue will be “Well, I just wrote you a three-page letter on how we’re doing that exact same thing!” Mercy, always show mercy!
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Finally, from the Bible. Paul’s epistles were missionary letters; he asked people to pray for him and he gave some details about his work: “Finally, brothers, pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honored, just as it was with you. And pray that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men, for not everyone has faith” (2 Thess 3:1-2). If his letters seem less detailed than ours, it is because he sent them via his assistants, who would catch everyone up on all the apostolic doings (see Eph 6:21-22). He also didn’t want to leave a paper trail of some of his extra-legal activities.
Like Paul, you should minister to your readers (our newsletter always contains a link to a devotional I’ve written); you should educate them; you should challenge them to pray. They should be better Christians for having read your letter.
And you’ll be a sharper missionary. You will gain new perspective and fresh sense of gratitude, as you crystallize in writing what exactly the Lord is doing through you. And as you describe God’s mighty deeds, you are engaging in worship.
Your newsletter is ministry, not mere paperwork. Let us never regard any facet of God’s work as a “necessary evil”. Composing a newsletter, like evangelism and church planting, like teaching in a foreign language, like washing floors and taking out the trash, like being a good family member, like everything you do, is an Act of Worship. Let us do our duty, promptly, cheerfully and wisely.