If you are going to make me read something twice, it had damned well better be worth it!
If you want to write something worth reading, listen to Gordon.
Gordon was one of my absolute favorite professors in college. He taught Shakespeare and modern drama, and Irish drama. I lapped it all up.
(He also interrupted that Shakespeare course one day to admire my shoes. “Mary! Lavender shoes!” he said, with approval. But that’s another story.)
Gordon’s advice has stayed with me all these years. Because he’s absolutely right.
That doesn’t mean following his advice is always easy. It can be hard to both write something and stand entirely outside it to be sure someone else will understand it. But if you are writing to your donors, that’s exactly what you need to do.
Just write it
My advice? Write it without worry to begin with.
Say what you’d say to someone if you were having a face to face conversation. Though it might seem that editing as you go would save time, it really won’t. Get it on the page. No checking yourself. No worrying about it. Remind yourself there will be plenty of time to fix anything later.
The difference between a college paper and your donor communications is emotion. You are not making rational, orderly arguments with citations. You need to speak from the heart.
And while our emotions – our hearts – can be so complex, the words that reach them are usually simple. Direct. Easy to understand.
When you have spilled your guts all over the page, then you can begin the really hard work.
Putting it together so it works
Editing is where it really happens. When you wrote, you were collecting the ingredients and pulling them within reach. Now, you need to put them together in a way that speaks to your donors’ hearts.
That means if you were clinging to rational arguments to avoid the emotional ones, you might need to start again.
(Don’t worry. We all do that. It feels safer that way. Writing something very emotional means you have to commit your own feelings to its creation. That can be hard!)
Find the main story. (And you do want a story. Remember rational arguments are for college papers, not donor communications.) Identify its essence. Build back up from there.
- Why are you telling this particular story?
- What do you want someone to take away from it?
- What action do you want someone to take?
- What do you want your reader to feel?
Use the handy tools at your fingertips
Word can give you a quick grade-level analysis. Use it. It’s not fool-proof. But if you want to be easily understood, then try to stay between 4th and 6th grade.
This isn’t because your donors are not intelligent. It’s because they do not have to read anything you send them. So if you want to be read, you need to make it easy. And satisfying.
Try Hemingwayapp.com for a better look at it when you have an edited draft. It will point out sentences that are complex. Think of Gordon and get rid of those stinkers if you can.
Stories, stories, stories
Stories can be told simply and still be very satisfying. And stories are what our brains hunger for. It’s the best way to keep someone’s attention. Narrative is part of who we are.
I’ll be perfectly honest. There are some terrific fundraising books on the chair behind me. I have not yet read them. I also have biographies my husband bought me because I thought I would read them.
I haven’t read them either. I want fiction. Stories.
And honestly, I write better when I’m also reading. I don’t know that it’s about technique. I think it’s just letting my brain have what it wants means it works better.
Pay attention as you read. Notice how your favorite authors are keeping you involved, making you care.
Ask someone who knows nothing
Once you have a draft you’re happy with, show it to someone who knows nothing. Nothing about your mission. Nothing about fundraising. Someone with new eyes.
Ask them what’s confusing. Or what information seems to be missing. Ask them what they feel when they read it.
If you’re lucky enough to still have a mom or grandma around, they could be perfect for this. Because they might be closer to who your donors are.
Put it away
As you toil over this work, you are 100% invested. That intense involvement can skew your view. After you have someone else look at it, make notes and then put it away. That could be overnight. But you need a little distance to see it with fresh eyes.
Simple is not the same as easy
Of course, this isn’t easy. Pouring your heart onto the page takes energy. And some vulnerability. Feeling what you want someone else to feel costs you a little, too. But it’s also very satisfying.
That’s what you’re probably asking of the people you write to, isn’t it?
Take care of yourself. Give yourself time away from the feeling work. (Good time to take a break and work on that spreadsheet…)
Keep writing. But make sure someone like Gordon won’t have to work too hard.