Weekly Musings 128

Welcome to this edition of Weekly Musings, where each week I share some thoughts about what’s caught my interest in the last seven days.

As I did with Musing 015, I’m going a bit meta with this edition of the letter. It’s another one of those ideas that has been tugging at various ganglia and I needed to get that idea down and out. So here it is.

For the record, a chunk of this musing started life as a post in my personal notebook. I’m reusing that post here because … well, because I can.

With that out of the way, let’s get to this week’s musing.

On Publishing a Letter, Not a Newsletter

Almost from its inception, I’ve tried to refer to Weekly Musings as a letter rather than a newsletter. Being a fairly flawed human, I’ve slipped a few times in doing that. I have, however, done my best to keep the distinction active in the 8-bit computer that’s encased in my skull.

Over the life Weekly Musings, more than a few people (readers and otherwise) have asked me why I call it a letter. To me, there’s a distinction between a traditional (if you want to use that word) email newsletter and what I’m trying to do.

Newsletters are often put out by people who are reporting to their followers — what they’re up to, what they’re thinking about, what they’re selling. Often, those newsletters include more than a few links. Others are purely linkstations, consisting of outgoing links wrapped in an intro and an outro. Regardless, most of what’s in those types of newsletters is in small, bite-sized chunks.

With both of my experiments in email publishing, past and current, I tried to take a different tack. With my past, and current, experiments in email publishing I took a different tack. I used George Orwell’s “London Letters” to the magazine Partisan Review, Alistair Cooke’s “Letter from America” on BBC Radio, and Harlan Ellison’s “An Edge in My Voice” column in LA Weekly as my models. No, I’m not comparing myself to Orwell or Ellison or Cooke — I have nowhere near the skill and talent they had as writers or communicators.

But like Orwell and Ellison and Cooke, my goal with this letter is to share a slice of time. My goal is to share ideas, often partially formed or still gestating, that have grabbed on to and held my attention. My goal is present what I hope is an informed opinion on a subject. My goal is to share what interests me with others.

That said, I’m definitely not the first person to choose this format. While I took a similar approach with my previous letter, I’m following in the footsteps of others who came before me. I can’t be sure how many email letters are molded in a shape that’s similar to this one, but I’ve been seeing more and more of them over the last couple or three years.

So why did I choose this format? Not just to write, but to read as well? I like to believe that a letter provides a richer experience than a newsletter. Readers get (at least I hope they do with mine) some depth, not something that’s light, that floats out of their brain minutes opening it. On top of that, this is a more flexible format. It offers the scope to experiment with writing styles, with ways of arranging information on the page, with lengths, and more.

Sure, it’s a lot more work on my part to write these dispatches (and, I’m sure, for people who publish letters in this format). And I’m sure it takes a bit more patience, concentration, and attention to engage with what I send out each Wednesday than it does to, say, engage with a linkstation newsletter. In that way, what I write and send is more like a personal missive rather than the breezy copy found in many a newsletter that lands in someone’s inbox.

It’s the potential for engagement that sets a letter apart from a newsletter. The fount of that engagement is the ideas and opinions, whether fully formed or not, that are packed into a letter. Those ideas and opinions can provoke thoughts. They can inspire you to form your own opinion — whether for or against. If you’re truly engaged, the ideas and opinions that the writer of a letter shares can make you reconsider a position that you hold. That engagement can lead you to looking into a topic or subject more deeply.

Like many of you, I subscribe to several letters and newsletters. They’re a mix of longer form writing and linkstations, with more than a couple inhabiting the space in between. To be entirely honest, I prefer the longer form ones. I’m more engaged with them. I find myself skimming linkstation newsletters which I use to discover interesting reading, but with which I don’t spend much time.

Letters, on the other hand, hold my interest. The ones to which I subscribe always inform, they often challenge, and they generally teach. With each of them, I discover something new or they poke my brain in such a way to get me thinking.

Those letters also display varied writing styles, which make them even more engaging in their own ways. Sometimes, I’m a bit jealous of the craft, of the skill with shaping words on display in some of the letters I read. I don’t know if I’ve ever, or will ever, reach those heights of writing. It can be humbling, especially if you’ve been putting words to paper or screen as long as I have. It’s not uncommon for me to learn a bit more about my craft by reading an email letter.

Does the letter, rather than a newsletter format work? As far as Weekly Musings goes, I’m still trying to figure that out. But it is a format that I enjoy and which challenges me — both as someone who writes and as someone who reads. And, I hope, it’s a format that challenges the fives of people who stick with this letter week in, week out.

Scott Nesbitt