More Thoughts On Being Editor Of A Reenactment Unit Newsletter

by Jonah Begone

Some Thoughts On Being Editor Of A Reenactment Unit Newsletter, an informative article by Susan Lyons Hughes, appeared in the August 1992 Camp Chase Gazette. With acknowledgement to Ms. Hughes I would like to expand on some of the hints and information contained in that piece. I therefore humbly offer ten suggestions and comments based on my experience.

1. Your Newsletter May Not Even Arrive At Its Destination - In an effort to give you, the Postal Patron, faster and more cost-efficient service the Postal Service has initiated automated mail handling. This means that in addition to human beings, machines can now lose your mail. Another advantage is that the mail-handling machines can easily mishandle and shred your newsletter to smithereens. If you have wisely followed Susan's advice and show a return address, your newsletter may be returned to you, like a battle casualty, in a plastic bag. However, it seems that this is less likely to happen if you use tape to close your folded mailing rather than staples. I have no doubt that the Post Office's ability in this regard varies regionally, but where I live I got shredded newsletters back at a rate that would make Oliver North proud.

2. Just Because You Write Something, Don't Expect It To Be Read Or Understood. I wish I had a dime for every time I responded to a fellow reenactor, "Have you gotten your newsletter yet? The (event schedule, directions, whatever) is in it." One hammerhead arrived exasperated at a unit dinner, explaining that he showed up at last year's site and had to hurry to make the current year's site on time. This after he admitted that he saw my clearly illustrated road map and read my simple textual instructions to the proper venue. What was going through his head? I don't know. But he's still out there, educating the public.

3. Keep It Clean! Big emphasis on this one. I have seen more than one fledgling editor called on the carpet for locker-room stories and blue humor. While ribald merriment might go over great with all the manly men in your group safely assembled around the campfire, a unit mailing might be read by the entire family. By all means you don't want someone's wife to inquire "What goes on during these weekends, anyway? Did that really happen?!?" (Note: I often find myself returning to the subject of porta-johns and farting as material for comedy articles. These seem to be safe ground, probably because these are traditional Scouting themes. Avoid anything else, especially Heavy Metal-style images of Satan, scantily-attired posing Vivandieres, etc.)

4. The Two Week Rule. This is a reiteration of Susan's advice: Get your information out on time! I found widespread approval for a newsletter featuring a specific event arriving two weeks in advance of the event. Any closer to the event and people will probably have made other, non-reenacting plans. (This is a particular problem with a guy who has a life, for instance.) Any more in advance and people will put your event in their long term "Things to do in the distant future" memory and forget all about it. Publishing a "Schedule for the Remainder of the Year" in every issue is a good idea, too.

5. The Misuse of Graphics Technology. An entire article can and has been written about easily-affordable desktop publishing equipment being misused by those untrained in the graphic arts, and reenactment unit newsletter editors are no better than anyone else in this regard. As a simple guideline, if you have access to a sophisticated computer and laser printer, restrain yourself to one or at the most two fonts per page and don't scan unless you have to. Oftentimes a simple photocopied paste-up will look sharper and less jagged than a scanned reproduction. I realize you won't feel the same sense of high tech power and control doing this that you experience in manipulating images and different fonts around on your screen, but your object is to create an attractive layout, not a laser printer demo.

6. Their Money's Worth. Six sheets of typical copier paper, folded over in half, will mail at the usual first-class postage rate. Photocopied on both sides, this allows 12 full pages - plenty for event information, schedules, rosters and the frequent witty article. What's more, people feel like their getting they're dues' worth if they see a fat, attractive, regularly-mailed newsletter. (It also creates the illusion that the unit is functioning properly. Your eventual reenactment unit schism is pretty much inevitable, of course, but you can stave off the appearance of conflict and petty politics with a carefully-phrased newsletter.)

7. Publish Rosters Frequently. This is a good idea unless you're embarrassed about the number of people in your unit. Nobody ever seems to keep one of these handy and it'll give the perplexed members of your unit someone else to call besides you (like the Captain, the First Sergeant or one of your many Corporals).

8. The Corporate Connection. Corporations like to take part in the activities of educational groups because it makes them look human-like. Ask your boss - he might actually let you use the office photocopier for a good cause, if you present it in that light and deemphasize how much paper you'll be using. If he doesn't you can use it anyway but you must be discreet about it. Remember, your calling as a Living Historian is not more important than your job. (I well remember one Director waiting behind me and breathing down my neck at the huge Xerox, halfway through a run of newsletters. Then, of course, a paper jam and the resultant time required to clear said jam gave him a good long look at one of my many porta-john articles, this particular one with a photograph of a Lincoln impressionist exiting a "Havta Go.") If you find yourself using an office photocopier for newsletters you can rationalize it by reflecting how proud your company would be if they knew they were taking part in preserving our American heritage.

9. Keep It Short and Interesting! You might find yourself surprised at what turns your readers off. In my early days of newsletter editing I thought I had a sure fire article in the reproduced letters home of an actual private of the regiment, accompanied by an analysis of each letter by the unit Ph.D. Imagine my surprise when one of the members of my unit expressed a wish to go back in time and shoot the letter writer early in the Civil War before he had a chance to write home! Generally - and I have talked to reenactors about this - while the unit's Authenticity Guru is mentioned with respect his dry articles are rarely ever read widely. A good idea is to restrict articles to two pages, tops, and avoid the "Efficacy of Seam Threads of Federal-issue Trousers in the Eastern Theater March 1862 - May 1863"-style esoterica.

10. Try to use Good Gramer and syntax, those Typoes and poorly editted articals about how the Public is uneducatted looks terribal in a newsletter meant to Educate the Public with run-on sentances and such especialy if the readers in your Regiment have bettor then Third grade educations. For instance, the sentence "Admirers of John Pelham held a memorial service at the Kelly's Ford monument erected 10 years ago at the approximate place where Pelham died in 1863 and attended a lunch" (this really appeared in print), does not correctly describe the activities of John Pelham. If you cause stuff like that to appear in print you will be accurately labeled a "rube."

So there you are, a few painless tips. I have always felt an abiding sense of satisfaction in producing a good newsletter, and there are only two things that can benefit a reenactment unit more: a better captain or more cash in the treasury. Happy editing!

BEHIND THE BYLINE: Jonah Begone has edited three units' newsletters for a total of six years and has had writings published - with and without his approval - in the newsletters of many others. He was once granted a brigade-level medal and unit Captain's Cup for journalistic excellence (although his esprit de corps and fine military bearing helped, too). He has experienced the joy of favorable comments from his pards acknowledging his work as well as felt the anguish of getting eleventh-hour requests for directions to events (which appeared in the newsletter that the caller "...has laid someplace but can't find right now").