Dispatch from Rhûn—a new newsletter

After 100 issues of ‘Briefings’ it is time for newer, better things: an all-new newsletter powered by Buttondown.

Sunday, 3 May 2020

What prompted me to start Briefings a decade ago was a sense of adventure. I had been blogging for three years at that point and wanted to shuffle things up. Starting a newsletter seemed like a logical addition to publishing a blog but I was new to e-mail newsletters in general so I looked no further than the most popular solution available then, the good old Mailchimp.

The initial challenge was growing a subscriber base, which took time but was as steady as my writing was interesting. That, however, is fodder for another article. Last month I sent out the 100th issue of Briefings and even as I was writing it, I realised this was the perfect time to improve and refresh things in a meaningful way—both for my readers and myself.

I.

Mailchimp is great, but it is bloated. It is the Wordpress of newsletters, and I quit Mailchimp for the same reason I left Wordpress: a yearning for simplicity. Likewise, I moved to Buttondown for the same reason why I moved to Hugo; in a lot of ways Buttondown is the Hugo of newsletter services.

Mailchimp is still great for someone looking for a complex management system and a drag-and-drop template-based set-up, but I was myself on the lookout for something simpler. With Mailchimp writing each issue was a chore. It was fun because of what I had to say, but the way I had to put it into words was bothersome. It involved clicking on several boxes, writing in a WYSIWYG editor, hoping any HTML additions I may do not completely mess up, and the process of sending an e-mail took me through a handful of pages.

With Buttondown, things are a lot more streamlined. The interface is second to none. In fact it could be a great example of how a no-frills interface should work. Things are fast and the entire process of writing and sending are on one screen. Designing is done separately which allows for—and this is my favourite part—writing newsletters in Markdown. The usual capabilities exist of course: subscription via RSS, double opt-in, newsletter archival, customised welcome e-mails, a dedicated signup page, optional embeddable forms, spellcheck etc. But the greatest aspect of Buttondown remains its pleasant writing experience—and I am not alone in saying this.

Buttondown also offers a premium newsletter option where we can charge for subscriptions—with Buttondown and Stripe taking a cut of course. This is not on the horizon for me, but it is certainly nice to know the option exists. Analytics is also available along with an option to disable it. More important, it does not focus on building a subscriber profile with names and a myriad fields for each subscriber. I have always only collected subscriber e-mails to keep things lean and straightforward and Buttondown is built around that approach.

It does, however, offer tags for people who want some level of grouping for their subscriber base and emails can be sent based on interest tags. Personally, I like to reduce the number of decisions a reader has to take while considering subscribing to my newsletter which is why there is just one field and a ‘Subscribe’ button. Simple is good.

II.

So much for how this improves things for me. Now how does it better things for my subscribers? Put simply, the ease with which I can send out issues with Buttondown brings back focus to the content of each issue. That helps me make sure things are better than ever before. Once again, this reminds me of how Hugo and iA Writer streamlined my workflow to return all my focus to the content—once I had the design in place, like Buttondown.

However, the changes I plan to make go beyond this. The biggest change is in the length of each issue. I plan to keep it around 300 words, aiming to stay under. This allows me to be concise which prompts me to be careful about what I choose to share. We do not have a dearth of information to consume, so if I can make each issue brief but meaningful—whether that means three links or ten per issue—readers are sure to find it eating into less of their time while offering the same value as before or greater than that.

Also, the idea is to make Dispatch more personal than Briefings. Whereas Briefings had an almost corporate tone to it, I see promise in eschewing that facade for a more personal tone. I intend for Dispatch to read like a letter but with the added perks of its digital format. It will carry an image or two, if necessary, to break the monotony of a wall of text; but it will not have as many images as an issue of Briefings mainly because of its reduced word count.

The structure of each issue will change too. On the outside, I have restarted numbering from Issue 1 rather than continuing at 101 to make it amply clear that this is a whole new thing which carries forward everything my existing subscribers loved about Briefings. But because the two newsletters are so alike in spirit, the final issue of Briefings asked people to opt out of Dispatch if they want to. It was humbling that not only did an extremely small number opt out but a considerable number of new subscribers came onboard. Many asked about the new name which prompted me to put up a new page dedicated to Dispatch.

Finally, what bothered me most about Briefings from a materialistic standpoint was that its design was in no way aligning with that of my website. With Dispatch that issue has been solved. The rickety drag-and-drop interface of Mailchimp has given way to a simple custom CSS text area on Buttondown so everything—from the typefaces (on e-mail clients that support it) to the colours and overall design—is exactly like on the main site.

New issues of Dispatch will be sent out in the first week of every month. If you have not subscribed yet, you can do so right here:



If you ever find yourself looking to continue the conversation about something discussed in an issue, simply hit reply. If you have ideas too, simply reply to any issue to let me know. As with Briefings, my commitment to keeping my newsletter ad-free is renewed for Dispatch. It is one of the things my readers have expressed they like about my newsletter and, since this is a passion project for me, I find it perfectly reasonable to continue ad-free. Thank you for joining the ride; it will no doubt be an exciting and knowledgeable one.

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