No matter how many RSS feeds, blogs and news alerts you receive it is likely that to this day you are also a subscriber to multiple email-based newsletters. One of the oldest content distribution vehicles, in existence since before the Web even became a reality, email-based newsletters still represent one of the most effective means to subscribe to information, news and commentary without the need to wrap your non-technical brain gear to RSS or other fancy acronyms.
But if when you open a prestigious and highly regarded newsletter as the Poynter Institute e-Media Tidbits or Stephen Downes OLDaily and you see content formatted as if it was emerging from a 1984 newsletter, I am sure you won't be reading as much as you would have liked.
Photo credit: Poynter Institute e-Media Tidbits newsletter
This is how e-Media Tidbits text-based newsletter version looked today in my Outlook 2003 Inbox
The story started for me over a year ago when, right after upgrading my own laptop to a newer model, I started noticing how awkward my own newsletter formatting looked inside Outlook 2003.
Instead of the classical 65 characters per line which is the de facto standard for text-based email newsletters, and which I was scrupulously using in all my text-based newsletters, my text was running from margin to margin and with no respect to the major breaks I had inserted in it.
It was then the turn of Stephen Downes' OLDaily, a newsletter I loved to read. Nonetheless my proactive attempts at sharing with its author my insight on this annoying issue, the once-great OLDaily, after nine months still goes out daily with a format that I find an insult to readers of any kind.
But what really pushed my attention threshold above other more important items is that the highly respected Poynter Institute e-Media Tidbits text newsletter today came out sporting this new "unformat" itself.
And so it becomes evident that for all the ease and simplicity that newsletters should bring to both authors and readers, issues of formatting and readability may still tinge some of the most popular and respected publishers out there.
With the advent of the Outlook 2003 functionality that automatically removes line breaks from text-based emails, many a newsletter just looks like crap when opened.
And since most people will NOT bother with clicking on "Extra line breaks in this message were removed -> Restore line breaks" the consequence of all this is decreased credibility for the publisher, unsubscriptions, an more than anything else, fewer readers actually reading what you are sending out.
The problem, in fact, could be easily solved, but the answer doesn't seem to be easily available to everyone, even by searching the technical literature and the Microsoft Office online experts.
How e-Media Tidbits text-based newsletter looks once you click on "restore line breaks": messy but much more readable
The secret to resolve the Outlook 2003 "remove line breaks" formatting issue is rather simple, though it would be impossible to arrive at it unless you had run lots of tests just like I and my team did at the end of last year.
I have personally asked Microsoft Certified Professionals, trainers, wrote to support forums and asked anyone technically competent I knew only to find an endless list of "oh, I don't know... try this... " and not one person having a real clear answer to this newsletter formatting issue.
Even more surprising was that when I shared my own solution with Stephen Downes himself nine months ago, he discarded it with no official justification. The sad thing, as I wrote above, is that Stephen's newsletter still comes out daily in a format that (unless you click on "remove line breaks") really looks bad and unprofessional to the eye. (I myself don't enjoy reading it as much as I did before and I generally now limit myself to the post titles.)
How Stephen Downes text-based version of his OLDaily newsletter looks
So when this morning I saw the Poynter Institute flagship newsletter spread out like a kite on my screen I said to myself: "this is the time to share what I know."
Bear in mind, that I myself publish three text-based email newsletters every week, and that each one of them shows up in your inbox perfectly formatted and spaced, independently of what email client you use.
So if I can do it, why can't you do it too?
How my newsletter MasterMind Explorer looks inside Outlook 2003 - the classic 65-character line is fully respected
What you need to do to make your newsletter wrap around properly at 65 characters without having all of your line breaks removed by Microsoft Outlook is rather straightforward, though not so easy to implement unless someone points out a specific way to do it.
The secret is all in placing two empty characters at the beginning of each line of text.
By doing that, Microsoft Outlook 2003 does not remove anymore your line breaks and makes your newsletter look as good as it always should have.
How do I do that?
In truth, writing a newsletter while placing two extra blank spaces at the beginning of each line is not easy nor manageable, especially when you are editing content and trimming sentences here and there. Keeping those two extra blank characters in place may rapidly become a nightmare.
But, you, like me can use a professional text editor like UltraEdit, to first write the newsletter and then to apply to it a text format forcing the two extra blank spaces at the beginning of each line while wrapping the remaining text content at 65 characters as traditionally recommended.
UltraEdit allows all of this, and with a simple configuration of the Paragraph Formatting dialog box I can set up exactly the formatting setup I need.
And here are the precise settings I use:
With this simple trick, this newsletter formatting nightmare can be fully resolved while providing even more legibility to the end user.
As a matter of fact, the two extra blank spaces on the left margin, provide a cleaner and less cluttered layout, avoiding to have text starting just next to the vertical margin of the email client. Just like in more professional publications, content never starts on the margin, but there is always some "air" to allow for less visual clutter and easier scanning and navigation by the reader's eye.
It's not in fact an accident how I arrived at this formatting solution
in the face of no apparent logic. All my newsletters had been formatted for a long time with an extra white space on the left margin, to provide those very information design-related benefits I wrote above.
And so, from one blank space to two, while experimenting with a thousand different variables, made finding the solution easier and faster than those other newsletter authors out there, who could not conceivably even consider such a solution, given the little or no technical information available on the issue until then.
Hey, I am not an Outlook expert, nor a Microsoft Certified Professional, but if you subscribe to any of my newsletters you know that they look good.
If with my humble experience I can help Stephen and the great writers at the Poynter Institute get back their newsletters in a legible shape, well I would be more than happy.
And if I wrote something incorrect or plainly wrong, don't hesitate to correct me right here (click on Comments here below).
N.B.: I entertain no commercial relationship with UltraEdit and receive no commission for the sale of their product.
Right after the publication of this article Stephen Downes has corrected the formatting of its newsletter which now I receive in an impeccable 65 line character style, with my suggested two spaces at the beginning of each line. Well done Stephen!
Nothing yet instead on the Poynter Institute E-media Tidbits text-based email nesletter which remains for all I can see a mess (unless you proactively go and click the magic Outlook button).