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Spreading Your Message Through The Written Word

Number 8 - October 1993

J. Willison

Proceedings of the 2nd International Congress on Education in Botanic Gardens, p195 – 208.


Newsletters can take your message out of the garden to a far greater audience than you would otherwisebe able to reach through tours or education programmes. This article concentrates on the two basic ingredients needed to produce a good newsletter: writing and design, as both need to be considered if a newsletter is to be effective. It also includes guidelines onproduction, printing and distribution.


Botanic garden newsletters and magazines exist to keep readers informed of what is going on in the garden. The better informed readers are about the work of the garden the more likely they are to support the garden. Publications vary considerably from simply-produced, two sided, newsletters containing up-to-date news without elaborate design, to magazines with more pages, 'in-depth' articles and perhaps a specially designed cover. A newsletter isquicker and simpler to produce and cheaper to print, it is easier to start modestly and become more ambitious when the newsletter is successfully established.

Getting Started

It helps if the garden is able to finds someone willing to be the newsletter editor. Successful publication of a regular newsletter depends on someone having overall responsibility for it and this is helped by continuity. In many gardens, however, editing the newsletter will be undertaken by the public relations person; if so, it is likely to be one of the most important parts of her or his job.

Decisions to make first

  • Frequency - regular publication is essential in order to be topical and keep a high profile. It is better to publish a simple newsletter frequently and regularly. Once this is working successfully the newsletter can be developed.
  • Quantity - this will depend on who the audience is and the budget available. The larger the number of copies produced the cheaper it is per unit cost.
  • Production - printers will often handle all the production work - typesetting, design and paste-up - as well as the printing. After supplying the copy, all that will need to be done will be the proof-reading and checking the layout. However, if the garden could do some or all of the production work then it would be cheaper and would give the garden more control over how the newsletter looks.
  • Distribution - there is nothing worse than working hard to produce a good newsletter only to find copies languishing in the garden weeks later! Efficient distribution is essential for all publicity materials.
  • Budget - produce a draft annual budget.

Newsletter Itself

  • What will you call it?Choose a short name so that the title panel (masthead) can be displayed big and bold.
  • Contents

The editor will develop her or his own ideas, but a useful checklist includes:

  • new initiatives in the garden;
  • decisions that affect the public;
  • people - new staff, events that staff have been involved in (e.g. Charity work);
  • education courses;
  • short articles;
  • opening and closing times of the garden
  • contact numbers for the public;
  • 'fun' material e.g. quizzes, competitions or crosswords.

Editing and Writing

The responsibilities of the editor cover four main areas: editing, design, production and distribution. It is always helpful if other colleagues can be persuaded to take on specific jobs, such as design or distribution, but overall responsibility for the publication will remain with the editor.

Collecting the material

Newsletters do not write themselves, and the editor has to make sure that there is enough 'copy' to fill each issue. Some copy, such as information about events, may arrive without asking, but most of it will be written by the editor or will be commissioned for others to write.

Commissioning articles

When someone else agrees to write for the newsletter it is important to agree with them:

  • a deadline - a specific time within which to deliver their article. It is important not to underestimate how long it can take for people with other commitments to write:agree a dead-line which allows a day or two for late delivery and leaves time to edit the piece
  • the length of the article;
  • format-whether copy will be typed or sent in on a computer disc or CD or emailed.
  • photographs and illustrations including captions and logos

In-depth articles

In-depth features, providing information which isn't date-tied, can be commissioned in advance. Such features have a longer 'shelf lie' than news articles: if more articles arrive than can be used immediately, they can be kept on file to use in future issues.

The editor will be the person who is likely to write most news stories - people making the news do not often have time to write it as well! It is important to develop a good system of communication with members of staff and other sources. As deadline for the issue approaches, phone them to ask for any news. Organising questions into 'who?' ‘What’ ‘Where?' ‘When?' and "why" will provide all the facts needed to write a good news story.


The aim of an editor is to produce a newsletter or magazine which is easy to read, lively and informative. Copy will need to be sub-edited to achieve this aim. The following advice will be useful to take into account

Grabbing attention

Aim to catch the readers' attention right from the start with a good headline and a short, clear introduction.The main facts - the 'who?' 'what?' 'where?' 'when?' and 'why?'found out when fact-gathering - should all be given as near the start of the article as possible. The less important information and background material should appear towards the end.

'News is people'

Try to link news itemswith how they affect people and liven up the copy with 'quotes' from individuals. Talk to staff and (with their permission) use what they say. 'How have the staff found using biological control in the greenhouses?'. Using their own words, articles will come to life.

Be clear

Never assume prior knowledge of an issue; every newsletter may have new readers. If the progress of a new building is being reported on, for example, including details of the 'why' it is being built. Cutout jargon and always use the full word rather than the initials or abbreviations. Avoid unnecessary words and phrases and never use a long word where a short one will do.

Be concise


Keep sentences and paragraphs short and simple: copy will be more lively and its appearance when printed easier to read. Use active language wherever possible: not only does it read better, but it will generally be more concise.

Be controversial

Do not shy awayfrom debate: a newsletter is not just there to transmit garden decisions but to stimulate discussion and community involvement. But beware of mixing facts and opinions. A news article should report the facts, with individual views attributed directly in quotation marks. If an editorial is written, in which events are commented on, or action urged, it should be labeled 'editorial’. Asan extrasafeguard, a standard disclaimer could be included in every issue - 'the opinions expressed in this newsletter are not necessarily those of the editor'.

... but not offensive

Do not write or publish any materialwhich is sexist, racist or offensive to groups of people.



An overall plan needs to be made of how the newsletter will look and where the different kinds of articles might go. One plan is to have the most important news on the front pages, in-depth articles inside, with notice boards, events and quizzes etc. at the back. Consistency can help: you will save time when planning each issue and readers will know where to find what interests them. Work out how many words on each page, taking headlines and illustrations into account; word counts will help when planning a page.

Page plans

When working within an overall plan, each issue will need more detailed planning to decide what goes on each page. A rough page plan willgive an idea of the length each article will need to be.

Sometimes, after all the copy and illustrations have been researched, it may be necessary to revise the plan. An illustration may not have turned up, an important news story needs more space. Or someone hasn't delivered their copy – be prepared to alter the plan to accommodate these changes.


No matter how well contributors keep to theguidelines, editors will need to ‘sub’ copy they get-that is make it more readable, and make it it. Sub-editing ones own copy can be harder; ask a colleague to read it and make suggestions.

Subediting for sense

If the author has not made the meaning clear the editor will need to rewrite the copy. Be careful not to change what the author intended to say (except where it is offensive).

Subediting to fit

Copy may need to be cut, either because it will not fit the allotted space or because the copy is vague and wordy. Again, be sensitive about keeping the author’s intended meaning but do not be afraid to précis points in order to make the copy fit. Copy may need to be divided into more paragraphs.If the article needs tobe continued on a different page, keep the continuation as close as possible to the first part. When it is laid out, the article will need a note telling the reader on which page it is continued.


You may want to decide on a 'house style' covering such things as spelling (where alternatives exist) and punctuation (what to capitalise, whether to use single or double quotation marks). Make sure everything is sub-edited into house style.


Articles benefit from a short introductory paragraph (generally set in bold type if possible). If the author has not started with such a paragraph, the most important point from the article can be selected and written by the editor. The aim is to catch the reader's interest, so make it concise and attention-grabbing.


A headline has two main functions: it should convey the essential point of the article and should make the reader want to read the story below. Headlines should be short, preferably taking up no more than two lines above the article and should use short words.


A strapline is a subsidiary headline usually used to provide additional information.


The line above this paragraph is a crosshead - a short, preferably one line, headline used to break up the text. It can make long articles much easier to read. A crosshead should pick a key word or phrase from the following section of text


If the garden produces its own typesetting (on a typewriter or word processor) the editor will need to correct the copy ashe or she goes along. Read through everything and check it. Typing mistakes can be picked up easily by working through the copy back-wards.It is almost impossible to proof read your own copy – get someone else to do it.

Model House Style

'House style' is an agreed set of basic rules for the production and presentation of a publication. It relates mainly to the use of language -spelling, punctuation and grammar- but may also include design disciplines such as typography and spacing. Its purpose is to achieve consistency of tone and appearance.

Establishing a simple house style is useful, even when a publication is produced mainly by one person. However, it isessential when a number of people are involved and needs to be available asa ready reference.


Type face

The typefaces used will depend on the ones available. Text typed on carbon ribbon electric typewriter can be made to look attractive with the addition of display headlines. If desktop publishing is used, there will be a variety of typefaces available plus the ability to use them in italic and bold. An even wider range may be available at an out-side typesetter.Choose one or twotypefaces to use throughout and use them consistently.

Except with typing, variety can be achieved by using different size letters and by using italic and bold fonts. For instance, bold type can be used for introductions to articles and italic or bold (or bold italic) for captions to pictures. However, be sparing with their use for emphasis in the main text Emphasis in typed text can be achieved by underlining (but not too often) or using CAPITALS (even less often!).

Type size

Type size must relate to column width: type that is too small or too large for its column width is hard to read. Avoid wide columns as they are hard to read, and never use the full width of an A4 page. They eye needs to read every word unlike columns where it can scan the page.

It is often tempting to try and squeeze too much text onto the page, but this will be self-defeating as generally people are not prepared to struggle through dense pages of text unless it is very interesting. Having decided on the typeface and size at design stage, be ruthless in sticking to that and always subedit the copy to fit the design rather than reduce the type size to get more copy in. Type is measured in points. Anything smaller than 10points is likely to be too small.


Headlines can either be all in capital letters (this works best with a short, large headline) or 'upper and lower case'(capitalising only the first letter ofthe first word and any proper names). Depending on the format, the leading headline could be about 60 points size with 48 or 36 points more common, and 24,1 8and 14 points reserved for small articles and snippets. Headlines can be 'ranged left' (starting flush with the left of the column) or centered.


Photographs, cartoons and other graphics to illustrate articles can liven up the appearance of the newsletter.


Nothing illustrates news better than a good photograph. Generally such photographs are likely to be taken by the editor or other staff members.

Taking your own

If possible, work in black and white - not colour which reproduces badly. Interesting pictures show people doing things (working, talking to each other, approaching members of the public). Take pictures of staff - the director and others who are likely to be 'in the news' in the garden - but avoid portrait shots.


  • Glossy prints screen better than matt prints.
  • Photos of people in profile should always be placed so that they look into the page.
  • Make sure your photos avoid discrimination.
  • Always put a caption under each photo describing what it is about and who is in it.
  • Always print a credit for the photographer (this can be run vertically beside the photo).


Unlike photographs, cartoons do not have to be screened. The can also be enlarged or reduced on a photocopier to fit the column size and then simply pasted direct onto the artwork. If no photocopier is available which can do this, mark them up for the printer as if they were photographs.


Alwaysuse standard paper sizes. A4 is most common. Careful consideration needs to be givento the basic format of the newsletter. It should look lively, interesting and beeasy to read and follow. This means using a two or three column format. Two column is simpler and better for larger type.However, three column format can be more versatile, especially if the text is typeset.

Ways to brighten the page

Using simple techniques can add variety and make the newsletter look more attractive. For example:

  • Turning a photograph into a graphic - photocopy a photograph and try different levels of contrast until a bleached out effect is achieved.
  • Reversing out - headlines can look very effective if they are reversed out.
  • Using tones - using tone as a background can be effective, either for reversing out head- lines or to give emphasis to a particular article on a page. Tones are described in percentages and can be specified to the printer.
  • Big quote mark - take a quote out of a story and make a graphic out of it


Choosing a method

The choice of method will depend on the resources available, how quickly the newsletter needs to be printed and to what standard you are working.


For print runs of between 750 and 2,500 copies, duplicating could be the cheapest option.


Depending on the cost, photocopying may be as cheap as duplicating,certainly for the first few hundred copies. It is quicker, cleaner and simpler to do. Modern copiers will reproduce graphics well but photographs less so. Most will reduce or enlarge, allowing a better fit on the page. Like duplicating, photocopying looks more attractive if it is used on a coloured, pre-printed masthead (make sure the paper is suitable for photocopying).


For a professional job, use a printer. Also, for a longerprint run printing will be more economical.

Correcting Proofs

Before the newsletter goes to print final proofs will need to be checked to make sure that everything is correct. Correcting proofs must be done as neatly and clearly as possible. It is worth learning the symbols for correcting proofs, as this reduces the amount of explanation needed. As far aspossible, all corrections should be made in the margin, the only marks made in the text being those needed to show the place to which the correction refers.If a mark may not be understood, put an explanatory note in the margin.

Other options

If desktop publishing is available, a diskette can be given to the printer or a bureau specialising in setting can be used to print the newsletter. In both cases itis important to check whether their equipment is compatible with the gardens.

Working with Printers

Before selecting a printer get quotes from two or three. Prices can vary considerably. Also find out whether they can undertake the quality of work required and how fast they can deliver.

Getting a quote

Be as specific as possible, to ensure that the printer can meet the requirements and that no extra costs will appear when the bill arrives. The following information needs to be specified;

  • whether finished artwork or typed copy will be supplied
  • the number of copies. Printers often work in 500’sor 1000’s.If unsure, ask for a price for a minimum quantity and the cost of run-ons. A small run will have a higher cost per unit;
  • the colours (black counts as a co-6 the sort of paper required (see below):
  • whether the work is to be folded, collated and stapled
  • how many photographs are to be processed
  • the schedule for production:
  • if the publication is to be regular, how frequent it will be;
  • the size and number of pages;
  • whether or not the finished copies are to be delivered

It can be very helpful to show examples of the typeof work required.


Paper sizes are standardised: A3 folded in half to A4, makes a good newsletter. Paper comes in different weights which are measured in 'grammes per square metre' (gsm). Recycled paper isoften more expensive.


It is vital to confirm an agreement in writing with the printer so there is no risk of misunderstanding. The following points need to be confirmed:

  • all the details in the checklist above;
  • a detailed schedule (for delivery of copyor artwork, receipt and return of any proofs, and delivery of completed job);
  • the price.


However good the newsletter is, it will not be effective unless it reaches the audience it is aimed at,and arrives on time. The way the newsletter is distributed will depend on the garden's circumstances but it is a good idea to set up a system. This will involve:

  • choosing the most suitable method of distribution;
  • working out who will need to be involved and discussing plans with them;
  • deciding on the frequency;
  • working out the cost
  • keeping the mailing list up to date;
  • ensuring that there is an efficient address system.Mechanical or computerised devices for addressing can save a lot of time and, in the long run, money.


A newsletter is a powerful vehicle for carrying a garden’s message beyond its boundaries. Its production requires great commitment and energy on the part of the editor, but it is worth the effort - particularly as it can play an important part in developing good relations between the garden and its local community.