Card Making,  Life abroad,  Proofreading,  Sandy,  Writing

How to…write a family newsletter

Nearly every year since Phil and I have been married, we’ve written an annual newsletter of the highlights of our year to send to friends and family with our Christmas or Easter cards.  When I was a kid, I always fondly remember receiving these newsletters from many of our friends and family; Mom would get us to practice our reading by reading aloud the newsletters we’d received in the mail each day in the run up to Christmas.

One of my Mom’s cousins always wrote her family’s newsletter from the point of view of the house within which they lived, so the letter was always “from” La Casa (which is “the house” in Spanish).  The house would talk about what her inhabitants had gotten up to, and the work that she had had done (she got a new outfit the year that the house was re-sided, and a new hat the year it was re-roofed, for example.)  Those letters were so creative and a joy to read.

Other families’ letters were bullet points of the highlights of the year; some were a little write up from each member of the family, with the little ones talking about their friends or favourite toys.

One year, rather than a newsy letter, I wrote a poem that I had my Cricut machine write as a sentiment into my handmade cards.  I also created the poem as a printable in the shape of a Christmas tree that I framed and still have as a decoration for my mantle each year.

A Christmas poem by Sandy Parker: Tis the season of mirth, good will & joy, because of Bethlehem's baby boy. He wasn't glitsy or glam, but he is the great I am. We don't, we can't fully understand, yet ponder, we do at this greatest of plans. We pray that, by faith, you've received His gift, too. And enjoy the many blessings He's given to you. As you celebrate Christmas with family and friends, give thanks, rejoice, be safe and have fun. 'Cause you've got salvation through Jesus, God's Son.

Why bother with an annual letter?

Re-reading our annual newsletters remind me just how much life we’ve gotten to live.

There are nay-sayers on my Christmas card list who have groaned and teased when they see the long letter that accompanies our annual Christmas card.  Rather than get upset, I just think, if they don’t bother to read it, that’s okay.  It’s the thought that counts. At least they know that I thought of them fondly enough to send them a greeting, and, with the cost of postage these days, if I’m going to spend the money sending a card, I may as well include a proper letter, too.

But I do admit that, selfishly, most of the benefits of the annual family newsletter are ours:

  • Phil and I get the opportunity to look back over the year and reflect on our “highlight reel.”
  • And, when I’ve come across the letters in my files over the years and re-read them, the reminders of what happened in each year remind me just how much life we’ve gotten to live.
  • And while I admit that when I receive my friend’s newsletters, I usually read and then recycle them at the end of the season, there are a few from past years that still have a place in my file cabinet.  Every couple of years when the cabinet gets reorganised, I come across the letters and enjoy looking back on my friend’s lives, too.

The year I graduated from college, a wonderful friend who worked at the school was marvelling at the adventure I was about to begin in Bulgaria.  She said, “Sandy, years from now, when you’re old and grey and in your rocking chair on the front porch talking to your grandkids, you’ll talk all about the things you’ve done, rather than the things you wish you had done.”  Of course, unless God pulls out a miracle, I don’t anticipate having grandkids, but other than that, I marvel every year when I re-read my annual newsletters, at all the experiences we’ve had over our lifetime.

Here are my hints and tips for getting started writing your own annual newsletter and, whether you decide to send it to all your friends and family, or just add it to your children’s memory boxes for future posterity, I hope that you have a go at chronicling your life over the past year so you can recall your own “highlight reel.”

1. Re-read the note you sent last year.

Obviously, if this is the first time you’re attempting a family newsletter, you may not have anything to get you into the frame of mind. But, if you do have something from last year: What did you say was coming up for you in the new year? Did it happen? If so, you may be able to refer to last year’s letter and reflect on the things you were looking forward to last year.

Take a look at our letter from 2020:

2. Think back through the year – what are the key things you naturally remember?

Any big trips that you took?  Any big life changes?  What are your abiding memories from the year, without needing any other reminders?

3. Review your calendar or planner.

There may be some fun activities that you can sprinkle in… a great night out with friends, a great date, memorable films or books you want to highlight.  And, of course, there may be some sad or poignant memories you decide to put in… did someone significant in your life pass away through the year?  Did you have any health issues or concerns that you were dealing with?  You want to give people (and your future self) a digest of the things that were important in your life.  I was reminded by my previous letters about the year I broke my leg, and another year, it was fun recalling all the time that we spent learning and playing Settlers of Catan with our dear friends here in the UK.

4. If you keep a diary or journal, look back through it.

Any particular thoughts or feelings or themes that carried you through the year?  One pastor’s family I know chooses a Bible verse as their family theme each year. They build their family prayer and devotional life around that verse. What a neat idea for using that theme for that family’s annual newsletter, too.

5. Consider your audience.

Your friends and family are probably a very diverse bunch of people.  If you happen to be writing a Christmas letter from a Christian perspective, your reason for writing and celebrating the year may be very different from those of your audience.

Phil and I largely have an audience of two halves.  A group who share the hope and assurance that we have in Christ — who celebrate Christmas first and foremost as a celebration of Christ’s birth, and a group who have a less-sure, or no, relationship with him; who focus their celebration of Christmas solely as a time for family gathering and making that gathering fun and memorable (also an admirable reason for celebrating!). 

I’ve always been very aware that my annual newsletter is being read by these two very different groups and have worked prayerfully to make sure that my message reflects the opportunity to share our reason for celebrating the season, whether I’ve sent my note around the Christmas or the Easter holiday. I look forward to the chance, every year, to share our assurance with those who may be struggling with their faith, or who may be questioning God in their lives.  I always hope and pray that the Holy Spirit will use me, as needed, to reach each person who receives my annual newsletter.

Whether you are a Christian, or not, I urge you to consider your audience when you write your newsletter so you are ready to share your stories and anecdotes about the year in a way that will be interesting, entertaining, thought-provoking or encouraging to your family and friends.

6. Draft your note.

I usually try to organise the highlights of the year chronologically to start off, although sometimes it’s more natural to talk about current events or even future events before going backward through the year.

7. Weave in your theme, phrase, Bible verse or song.

This will be very personal to whatever you’ve chosen to use as your theme and this is where your creativity can really shine through.  Perhaps like my Mom’s cousin, you’ll choose to write the letter from someone (or something) else’s perspective — as if you are the family home, or the family dog or the family car, or perhaps a newsreader.

Another idea could be that you write your note as if to one specific person, like a recently deceased relative. Your readers will get an insight into your relationship with that person as if they were copied on the letter. 

You can get as corny or sentimental or silly as your creative juices will take you; afterall, it’s your letter and your family and friends want your personality to shine through when they read it.

This year, my theme was pretty loose, but focused on the word, “Ponder,” and specifically, “Ponder anew, what the Almighty can do” a line from one of my favourite hymns, Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, originally written by Joachim Neander in the 17th century.

Praise to the Lord, who will prosper your work

and defend you;

Surely his goodness and mercy will daily attend you.

Ponder anew, what the

Almighty can do,

As with his love he befriends you.

Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, vs. 4
(Christian Worship, 234)

8. Consider name checks.

If there are family or friends that feature in your highlight reel through the year, name them and describe them to the rest of your audience.  They will enjoy reading and recalling the memories that include them, and other family and friends will feel like they’re getting to know these other people in your life whom they may not have ever met.

9. Get someone in your household to review your draft.

Especially if you’re writing a family letter, it’s a good idea to let your family members review what you’ve written.  They can proofread the note, give you suggestions for other family highlights that you might have forgotten and reminisce about the year with you. Crucially, they’ll also then have a good idea of what you wrote in case one of your family or friends mention something from the letter in a future conversation.

And, shameless plug time… if you want my help, I’d be happy to practice my proofreading and copy editing skills. For the next few months, I’m offering an introductory price as I attempt to build my freelance writing reputation. Just check out Our Services for more information.

10. Read your letter out loud.

This will help you spot mistakes and make sure it reads correctly. If you want, you can download a sound recorder and playback your reading.

Listen to my reading of our Christmas 2021 letter.

11. Enjoy the process.

This is the most important part, and it’s one of the reasons that I very rarely actually write our family newsletter in December.  Many times over the years, I’ve written it in October, or November, or even February or March (as an Easter greeting).

I never want to feel like writing the annual letter is a chore.  I want to give it the space and time that it needs to be a good experience in and of itself.  There have been years when my friends and family haven’t received a Christmas card or letter from me.  And many years, what I’ve sent probably hasn’t arrived before Christmas.  Not because I didn’t want to send them, but because if I was going to bother spending money on the postage stamp, I wanted it to be something worth sending.  I wanted them to know that I was thinking of them, not that they were simply another name on a list I felt obligated to get through before the last posting date before the holiday.

12. Save your work!

This is where I strongly urge you to practice what I say, not what I’ve done. Learn from my mistakes.

Keep at least one paper copy of your annual letter in your filing cabinet each year.  No one else is likely to do this on your behalf.  While your friends and family may have appreciated reading it once, for them, it is unlikely to have a shelf-life.

The beauty of a paper copy is because, if you only save it electronically:

  • you may not have a floppy disk drive to read it anymore,
  • or the hard drive on your computer might get corrupted,
  • or you might lose the password to the cloud-based storage system
  • or the company may go bust
  • or you decide to stop paying them and lose your work.

and then you’ve lost the electronic memory for good.

  Unfortunately, there are years of our annual family letters that I no longer have, and it pains me. 

If you are going to go through the effort of writing an annual letter, print yourself a copy and keep it with your important documents.

I speak from experience in relation to these electronic storage “solutions.”  Unfortunately, there are years of our annual family letters that I no longer have, and it pains me.  If you are going to go through the effort of writing an annual letter, print yourself a copy and keep it with your important documents, or in your kid’s memory box, or maybe with your family heirloom Christmas decorations — wherever you will come across it in future years.

Some day, when you’re old and grey and can’t remember what you did yesterday, your newsletters can act as a reminder of your life’s highlights, from your perspective. 

And, when the inevitable comes and the executor of your estate is closing out your affairs, they may come across this digest of your life and get an appreciation for the person that you were, not just the assets that you left behind.

What about you?

Do you write an annual family newsletter? Or, do you capture your “highlight reel” in some other way? Perhaps your life is all on Facebook or other social media. If you do rely on your social media posts, are you happy that they are a good reflection of your life, overall?

If you’d like some help crafting your family newsletter this year, I’d be happy to help. Just check out Our Services for my rates this year as I’m building my freelance writing and copy editing skills and portfolio, and get in touch using the form below.