Writing and Publishing a Newsletter (In Plain Text) with Buttondown

Towards the end of 2018, I decided to take another crack at sending a weekly email letter. So, I signed up for an account with the service I’d used in the past — it was easy to use and was decent fit for my needs.

In the few weeks before sending out the first letter, I managed to get a couple of dozen or so subscribers onboard. The letter was (and still is) free, so why not? On the day I had planned to send out the first letter, something strange happened. The service wouldn’t do the deed. I couldn’t get a clear answer from support about why that was happening. In a fit of pique, I flipped that service the bird, deleted my account, and desperately searched for an alternative.

In my desperation, I turned to Mailchimp. I did say I was desperate … After mailing the first few letters using Mailchimp, I didn’t have a good feeling about it. Mailchimp was just too heavy for my needs, and I had questions about privacy and tracking. Yes, I do care about my readers.

Once again, I went on the hunt. That time, I stumbled upon Buttondown. It’s the (plain text) engine that powers my letter, and I couldn’t be happier with it.

Let’s take a look at how to get started writing and publishing a newsletter with Buttondown.

Why Buttondown?

And not, say, Mailchimp or TinyLetter? One reason is that, as you’ll see in a moment, Buttondown is simple. Beyond its simplicity, Buttondown is built around plain text. I bet you were surprised to read that …

As I’ll mention several times throughout this article, you format your newsletters with Markdown. You can also use HTML if that’s your thing.

As you’ll see in a moment or three, Buttondown’s editor is barebones. You don’t need to deal with a balky WYSIWYG editor or an equally balky code editor. Yeah, I’m looking at you, Mailchimp. It’s just you, your words, and your ideas. Isn’t that what writing should be about?

Getting Started

Head on over to the Buttondown website and sign up. It’s free of charge, although after you sign up 1,000 subscribers you need to start paying a small monthly fee.

Before you start writing, you should do a little setup. To begin, click the icon in the top-right corner of the window and select Account. On the Account page, add your name and address (which are require by law for newsletters, it seems).

Adding information to the account page in Buttondown

You can also choose to not use analytics and set your notification preferences. Once you’re done, click Update settings.

Next, click the icon in the top right again and select Newsletter. That takes you to the Settings page, where you add information about your newsletter, including:

You can also import subscribers from other email services — like TinyLetter, Mailchimp, Substack, Drip, and Typeform — and import editions of your newsletter you might have in TinyLetter or Mailchimp.

Staying on the Settings page, click the Design button at the top of the page. On the Design page, you can set up a canned introductory copy and a finale message that appears at the top and bottom of each edition of your newsletter. You can write a short welcome message that’s sent when someone subscribes.

Buttondown's design page

You can, obviously, format all of that using Markdown, or HTML if that’s what you prefer.

Something you might notice is that out of the box, Buttondown’s newsletters are rather plain. They’re readable, but utilitarian. On the Design page, you can change that. Add a bit of CSS (short for Cascading Style Sheets) to give your newsletters a bit more flair. Don’t know anything about CSS? Well, I’ve got you covered with the stylesheet that I use. Feel free to mess with it.

Once you’re done, click Update settings and then click the Back button.

Now you’re ready to start writing.

Writing Your First Letter

Click the Write link at the top of a page. You’re taken to Buttondown’s editor.

Getting ready to write a letter in Buttondown

Start by giving your letter a subject line, like you would with an email. Then, start typing in the editor. Again, you can format your letter using Markdown or you can use HTML. Plain text with no markup is OK, too.

Writing a letter in Buttondown

If you don’t know Markdown, you really should buy my book. OK, that was a cheap plug … Seriously, though, you can click the Show toolbar? option to display a bunch of buttons that give you quick access to some basic Markdown formatting, as well as giving you something of a semi-WYSIWYG view of what you’re writing.

The toolbar in Buttondown's editor

Remember to save your work by clicking the Save icon at the bottom of the editor page. Better yet, click the Autosave? option to, you guessed it, automatically save your work every few seconds.

To be honest, I rarely do much work in Buttondown’s editor. Not because it’s bad, but because I’m more comfortable working in a text editor on my computer or on my phone. When I have a draft of a letter nearly complete, I copy and paste it into Buttondown. If necessary, I do some final tweaking before sending the letter.

Now What?

You’ve got some subscribers. You’ve written your letter. Now what? You can send it. Or you can send yourself a preview by clicking the Send to yourself button.

I recommend the latter. Why? Just to make sure that everything looks the way you want it to, and to spot any problems with formatting. Once you’re happy, click the Send button.

Final Thoughts

As I mentioned several paragraphs ago, Buttondown’s simplicity is what attracted me to the service. I can quickly write, format, and send an edition of my letter. There’s little overhead, and the result doesn’t look too bad either.

That said, I can see the folks who expect everything (including a fridge and kitchen sink) from an email newsletter service to pooh-pooh Buttondown as lacking key features. For them, it probably is. But for anyone who prefers to work in plain text and would never touch those missing features, Buttondown is a solid option for spreading your thoughts and words via an email newsletter.