Your heart knows that each friend or relative on your list deserves a thoughtful, personal holiday letter. Your mind knows that there are just 365 writing days in the year, and those letters would consume far too many of those days. The obvious solution is a holiday newsletter -- but you've sworn never to resort to one of those ghastly, 7-page mimeographed monstrosities that you receive each year.
Don't worry: You don't have to violate that oath. Using your writing and editing skills, you can send warm and thoughtful greetings to everyone on your list. The key is to forget the word "letter" and concentrate on "news" -- with an editor's eye to what is, and what isn't, fit to print.
As a writer, you wouldn't dream of starting an article without some idea of who your audience is. Before you write the first headline of your newsletter, ask yourself who will be reading it. Close family? Friends? Distant relatives? Chances are, your newsletter will be a way of keeping in touch with people who only hear from you once a year. What do you want to communicate to those people?
But don't limit your audience to relatives and friends. Think creatively about your readership. A newsletter could be used to keep in touch with editors, to keep your work before their eyes in a fresh, entertaining manner. Use it to keep in touch with business associates. Give your coworkers a laugh. Brighten the holidays for your children's teachers, your veterinarian, your printer. Broadening your potential audience helps you focus on articles of truly general interest, rather than the family trivia that makes most holiday newsletters so deadly.
Now that you've built your mailing list, you must write for that audience. Your newsletter is for your readers, not for you. This means defining what is "news" and what is not.
Stop thinking like a writer for a moment, and start thinking like an editor. As you look at the past year with a critical eye, you'll discover that "all" the news from your household really isn't fit to print. Phrases like "We all had a wonderful year and really enjoyed sharing visits with our many friends and traveling to beautiful places" aren't news; phrases like "Jim got promoted" and "we had twins" are. Keep in mind, too, that your friends and acquaintances want to hear about you and your immediate family, not the doings of your distant cousins. Let relatives who don't live in your house or qualify as tax deductions write their own newsletters.
The typical holiday newsletter rambles from Aunt Mary's operation to cousin John's amateur opera solo. In your newsletter, however, any item worth mentioning should be treated as a separate "story." Start by separating "front page" news from "inside" news. Reserve the front page for major life events -- a new job, a promotion, a marriage, a move, a new book published. These are the highlights of your year -- and your newsletter. Notice I've highlighted positive events here; while negative events may also be newsworthy, they should generally be given a secondary position. Remember that you want to inform your friends, not burden them.
Events such as travel, hobbies or activities, minor publications, or your children's roles in school productions, are "inside" items. They don't deserve front-page coverage, but they do make your newsletter more interesting. This is also the place to include such items as your son's poem or your daughter's valedictorian speech (or excerpts thereof).
Flesh out your news with supporting features that provide additional information or entertainment. The more humor you can include, the more your readers will love you. Write about what's going on in your part of the world. If you traveled somewhere interesting, include a "travel article" as a sidebar to your piece on your adventures. If you've started a new hobby, describe it in a short "how-to" piece or recount the history of the activity.
Finally, round out your newsletter with special columns that cover the ongoing events in your life that need to be updated routinely. Include a "books" column to list the latest titles you've published, or a column on "careers" or "weather."
Contributions from other family members can also add interest. Allow your spouse and children space for input. You could even add a column written from the perspective of a family member who can't write -- a pet, or a baby. (My cat's column became such a popular feature that I began to feel no one much cared what "I" had to say!) Consider a column of fillers or newsbriefs for items that deserve only a few lines of coverage.
Once you've written the stories, create headlines that will tease, tantalize, amuse, make a play on words, and generally draw the reader into the story. Add subheads to break up long articles. Be imaginative.
Once your text is ready to go, it's time to decide on a format. An ideal size is a single standard page printed on both sides; this folds easily to fit into a card. If you have lots of news, a four-page newsletter printed on both sides of an 11x17 page works well. Anything longer than four pages will increase your postage and printing costs.
While a desktop publishing program such as Pagemaker is ideal for laying out a newsletter, most word processing programs will also allow you to design an attractive layout. If you're having trouble getting such a program to work, however, or if you have elements that aren't computerized, cutting and pasting the old-fashioned way still works just as well!
A huge block of type looks dense and boring, so divide your newsletter into columns. While three columns is a fairly standard approach, sometimes elements such as a photo will require a different layout. A long article will take up less space in two columns rather than three. Or, you may combine three-column, two-column and even one-column elements on the same page. (This is easily done in Pagemaker, but may not be possible in a program like MS Word.)
Choose readable fonts, and use only two or three at a time -- e.g., a pleasant "serif" font such as Times or Century Schoolbook for the text, a bold non-serif font such as Arial or Helvetica for headlines and subheads. Avoid overly fancy fonts that may look nice but are awkward to read -- no one will appreciate a newsletter in "Old English" or script.
Artwork can be the key that brings your text to life. Look for photos, clip art or line art that complements your stories. Be creative; again, look for humor. When you travel, look for artwork that can be included in the newsletter. Line art often works better than photographs; unless you want to pay for color ink cartridges or color photocopying, chances are that your newsletter is going to be reproduced in black and white.
Finally, your newsletter needs a name -- preferably something more interesting than "The Smith Family Times". It also needs a masthead -- your family's "who's who". This is also the best place for your address and phone number -- so that your friends won't have to search holiday envelopes for your return address.
I purposely haven't told you how to write your newsletter. That's where your unique skills as a writer come in. Your options are virtually limitless. You could take the role of participant/narrator, of roving reporter interviewing yourself or family members, or even of the teddy bear in the corner that has observed the year's events through shoe-button eyes. Or use a combination of all of these! By letting your imagination run wild, you can turn the holiday newsletter into a creative writing experience that is as much a treat for you as for your readers.
You'll know you're a success when people start asking to be added to your mailing list. You may even inspire some imitations that enliven your own holiday mail!
A Note for the Digital Age:
In 1990, our options for sending out a holiday newsletter were pretty much limited to paper and... well, paper. Today, Pagemaker is no more, but one can achieve many of the same effects in MS Word -- or, if you want more flexibility, MS Publish.
There is also the option of keeping one's newsletter completely electronic, bypassing the costs of printing and mailing. You can, for example, create your newsletter in a program like Word and then save it as a PDF file and attach it to an e-mailed greeting. You can also post it online to be downloaded by the recipient.
One can also, of course, add more electronic elements into a newsletter: Links to online photo albums, Youtube videos, favorite articles and more. Don't assume, however, that just because you post a link, your readers will actually follow it!
In 2010, I decided that I had had more than enough of printing, folding, and stuffing 200 newsletters, and divided my Christmas list between "close friends" and "folks I never hear from except at Christmas." Close friends get a physical card and a printed newsletter. Everyone else gets a nice e-card, and an e-mail with the newsletter attached.
There are pros and cons to going electronic, however. On the plus side, I figure I save close to $200 per year by sending most of my newsletters electronically, avoiding the costs of cards, printing, and postage. However, E-mails are easily ignored; attachments get filed away and forgotten; and a greeting with an attachment is all too likely to end up trapped by a spam filter. In my experience doing it "both ways," folks are more likely to open and read a newsletter sent by mail, in a card, than one sent electronically.