Writing Good. Writing Good? Writing. Good.

What is “good” writing?

John’s recent blog, What is “good” design? got my wheels turning about what is good writing. So I’m sharing the 6 things that circle (and circle and circle) through my head each and every time I write, and edit, fundraising copy.

“All fundraising copy should sound like someone talking.” – George Smith 

Rule number one. Sometimes your grammar isn’t perfect. It ain’t always pretty, but it works. It’s real. It’s genuine.

“Does it pass the ‘you’ test?” – Tom Ahern  

Straight from Tom’s game-changing 9-step communications self-audit:

Get out a red pen. Then get out an important donor communication such as an appeal letter or newsletter; or print out your website’s home page. Apply red pen to paper. Each time the word you appears – in any of its forms (yours, you’ll) – circle it. Good donor communications will look like they have the measles. You is the most powerful (and warmest) word in advertising. (If you’re turning your nose up, please note: technically speaking, fundraising communications are just advertising by another name.) Frequent repetition of the word you keeps readers involved. While infrequent use leaves readers cold.”

The Agents also circle the word I – in any of its forms as it relates to charities (ABC Charity, we, our organization) and review those sentences, phrases and sections more closely. You won’t get rid of them all, but you’ll rethink how lots of them look and, more importantly, feel.

“The lumps in my throat tell me you got it right.” – David Love, the Godfather of Good

Done right, words are emotive and active. They express feelings. And they make your reader want to do something, change something, fix something…

“A writer who enjoys listening, watching and learning but is often found talking.” – Ken Burnett

This is actually Ken’s Twitter bio – 79 brilliant characters (80 including the punctuation). And it matters for one simple reason. Fundraising is not broadcasting. Leave your megaphones for your blog (ahem!). You should be writing with the deliberate intention to start, continue or inspire a conversation. Fundraising is about relationships (who said that again?) and dialogue.

“Our members feel this organization is THEIRS. – Kimberley MacKenzie

I’m paraphrasing our amazing and occasionally-exasperated-with-us client Kimberley, but she constantly reminded me of this when we started working together years ago. I’m proud to say that she doesn’t need to tell me anymore, and simply delighted that her insistence is now our standard. When your donors read your appeal or newsletters, do your donors feel included and as if it echoes their values and beliefs? You’re writing to them, for them and to honour them, aren’t you?

Did a human write this, or a f*cking robot? – John Lepp (waving arms)

Again, I’m paraphrasing. John’s language is far more foul. But he loses his grip with jargon, organization-speak and all other forms of institutional twaddle. Would you say this in a letter to your mom and dad? Do humans ever sound like this? If you have buzzwords, acronyms or razzle-dazzle strategic-visioning language in there, stop and talk like a person.

And here’s a bonus tip. The first time you write it, it should be raw and emotional but disconnected. The hardest part should be working in the ask, offer and promise. You need time and space to reflect, reconsider and adapt. Always put it down for as long as you can before looking at it again or sharing with anyone else.

So, who else wants to stand on the shoulders of these giants and share your thoughts, rants or tips on “good” fundraising writing?

12 Responses to “Writing Good. Writing Good? Writing. Good.”

  1. Martha May 2, 2013 4:04 pm #

    Writing? Good!

  2. Margaux Smith January 31, 2013 10:56 pm #

    Did anyone else read the Seth Godin interview on Copyblogger yesterday? My favourite bit was when he was asked, ‘Do you ever get writer’s block?’ and his response was, ‘Well, I write like I talk and I never get talker’s block…’

    • Jen Love February 1, 2013 10:59 am #

      Thanks Margaux! What a perfect answer to a really old question. I must confess that sometimes I get “conversation starter block” when it comes to the lead in a DM letter or subject line/lead line in an email or web project. But once the conversation starts naturally, when it’s right, it flows!

  3. Gwen Chapman January 31, 2013 4:13 pm #

    Great post, Jen!

    Makes me think back to when I first started writing at an agency specializing in non profits … my boss told me: if the Board Chair likes the fundraising letter, you’ve got it wrong!

    Totally agree with all your points. As you know I’ve had the privilege of editing the Jerry Huntsinger Tutorials for SOFII – and I reckon Jerry Huntsinger would love your post too.

    • Jen Love January 31, 2013 10:10 pm #

      Agent Gwen! AMAZING! If the Board Chair likes it, you’ve got it wrong. Absolute truth. A charity I worked for had a woman on staff who was our “water works” test — if we showed her letters and she didn’t reach for her tissues, we went back to it again…!

  4. Christina Attard January 30, 2013 10:57 pm #

    All of you, including you, Pamela Grow!, have taught me a lot about writing in the past two years and it’s working!

    A lot of my letters have the “you” measels. I get complaints from managment that the letters are too emotional, sound too much like their from “me” and not from the “organization” and contain too many contractions, broken sentences and sentences that start with “Because” or “But.” It hurts my formal, grammar-junkie brain, but I think you/we are all on the right track here.

    My newest line in relation to donor communications is: “Do it oldskool if that’s what you need to do, but do it right.” Forget about innovation and social media. Direct mail isn’t that sexy, but it’s a smart place to start and it’s hard to get right.

    Thanks to each of you for pushing, molding, forming and making me re-think the whole darn thing. Seriously. I’m a big-institution kinda girl with a lot of Latin, I like complex but you have helped make me write more like a human-being.

    C @GPtekkie

    • Christina Attard January 30, 2013 10:59 pm #

      “Did a human write this, or a f*cking robot? – John Lepp (waving arms)”

      John, if the letter says “exterminate, exterminate…” then yes. If it says, “donate because you get tax money back at a marginal rate of…” then the answer is also, yes.

    • Jen Love January 31, 2013 10:08 pm #

      thank you so much, Agent Christina! We’re learning from each other! #thebest

  5. Pamela Grow January 30, 2013 6:42 pm #

    Love this, Jen!

    One of my favorite tips comes via Indra Sinha and SOFII: ‘Don’t start by writing. Start by feeling.
    Feel, and feel passionately, and the emotion you feel will come through the spaces in between the words.’

    Like David says, that lump in the throat lets you know you have it right. When I pass my copy over to a friend, colleague, or my daughter and they tear up, I know I’m in the right place. Yes, even for foundation grant proposals.

    • Jen Love January 31, 2013 10:08 pm #

      Thank you, Pam! Start by feeling. Goosebumps are another key indicator. So appreciate the additional insights, my friend!

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