EPISODE 8: Writing skills
How to find and write words that will make your organisation shine
As a fundraiser, a lot of people assume that I spend my time shaking a bucket to ask for money. They couldn’t be more wrong. Do you know what I spend most of my time doing? Writing. It doesn’t matter if it’s a direct mail appeal, grant application, report, newsletter article or blog, when it comes down to it, for me, fundraising is writing. And the words you choose matter.
Get them right and you can use them to educate, inform, persuade and inspire. Get them wrong, and you could miss important opportunities, and even put donor relationships at risk. I’m serious. That’s why we’ve dedicated this episode to the art of writing. Read on. You’ll be glad you did.
Before you start...
Before you put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) you need to understand your audience, style and purpose. Why? Because the words you use for social media will be very different to the words on a direct mail appeal, and your direct mail appeal will be very different to your next grant application, bid or tender.
If you do not know who you are talking to and through which channel, you will find it very difficult to tailor your message. And if you don’t have a consistent ‘house style’, you risk diluting your brand and sending mixed messages. Last but not least, if you do not know why you are writing this specific piece at this specific time, your work will lack the focus, clarity and purpose it needs to make an impact - and isn’t that what it’s all about?
Getting into the flow…
When you’re clear on the above, it’s time to start writing. But let’s be honest. There is nothing more daunting than a blank piece of paper. Before we dive into the technicalities of writing, you need to unlock your inner writer. Here are a few tips I’ve developed to help channel mine.
First, give yourself the space to write: I don’t know about you, but I am lousy at writing under pressure. I can’t get the words out! To write effectively, I need a cup of tea and a solid chunk of disruption-free time (preferably in the morning). If you’re busy, mute your emails, WhatsApp and messenger for a few hours. Give your head the space it needs to get creative. Because that’s what writing is. Even the most gruelling grant application is a creative process. Let it flow!
Get the words out: They don’t have to be perfect, but they do need to be written down. You can go back and edit later. For now, you need to get all your ideas down so you can see them and start moving them around. A bit like when you’re tidying the house and things get messy before they get better.
Start in the middle: Seriously. Pick the bit you feel most comfortable writing and start there. You’ll feel better once you’ve got some words on the page, and you can shape the argument up as you go. Struggling for facts and data? I know that feeling! If I don’t have the information I need, I use ‘XXXXXX’ and keep going. I can fill in the gaps closer to the deadline, but this way I know what I have, and what I’m looking for - and I’m not letting programmatic data hold-up the writing process. Just make sure you highlight each gap! Then you won’t accidentally send an incomplete piece to your donor.
Let it rest: You’ll love something one day and will see everything you need to change the next. If time allows, give yourself a few days away from your piece before you start editing it up into a second, third or - let’s face it - millionth version.
Do something else: It might not feel like the most productive move, but trust me, even when you’re doing something else, your brain will be working on your words. Sometimes I can be stuck for hours writing and rewriting the same paragraph. A walk to the shops, a cup of tea or cuddle with the cat, and I’ve found the words I need!
Pay attention to technicalities
As an English graduate and professional writer, I spend a lot of time crafting words and reading other people’s. As I’m sure Molly will testify, when it comes to feedback, I’m nothing if not ‘thorough’. But it isn’t always about perfection (yes, I’m itching when I say that). When it comes down to it, your written work - in whatever shape or form it takes - needs to be authentic (check out Episode 7). This is not an excuse for careless mistakes or plain bad writing. There is power in every word you use, so take the time to get the right.
Looking for a few tips? Here are some lessons I’ve learned along the way:
Drop the jargon: I can’t stress this point enough. So many organisations think that using big words and high-level language makes them sound clever, like the experts they purport to be. Yes, there is a time and place to play buzzword-bingo, but even then, beware! Good writing is readable writing, so say it simply and say it well.
"If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."
- Albert Einstein
Watch your sentence length: If you can’t get it out in one breath, it’s too long. Generally, I try and cap my sentences at 35 words, 40 at a push. But you know what? Short sentences are great too. Mix them up. Use each sentence to bring rhythm and flow to your work and take your reader on a journey.
“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals—sounds that say listen to this, it is important. So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader’s ear. Don’t just write words. Write music.”
- Gary Provost
Be active, not passive: Generally speaking active phrases, (when the subject performs the action of the verb) are shorter and more impactful than passive ones. ‘Your gift could change a life’ definitely sounds better than ‘a life could be changed by your gift’!
Be prepared to chop and change it: Your first draft is just that, a draft. Chances are the final piece will look very, very, different. That’s okay. It doesn’t mean you got it wrong or wasted your time. Writing is a process. Sometimes you have to know what doesn’t work to find what does, and a good writer will always be prepared to edit their work.
“Good writing is essentially rewriting.”
- Roald Dahl
Get to the point: It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a social media post or grant application. Don’t circle around the point. Make it. When you’ve got a good first draft look back at your project brief or application question and ask yourself if your words are doing the work they need to do?
Think about your meaning: Semantics matter, so take some time to consider yours. Are they beneficiaries or service users? Are you leading or facilitating? Training or capacity building? Doing or partnering? The devil is in the detail, and you need to make sure that your words are empowering and respectful.
Double-check your structure: When you write, you take your reader on a journey. Don’t assume they have GPS. Make sure you structure your information logically, and that it flows from one point to the next (you could even sign-post to the important bits, just like we’ve done below).
Format it: Okay, so it’s not technically writing but you do need to think about your presentation. It doesn’t always need a designer, but it does need to be well formatted. If your text is too small, your paragraphs too long, or your font hard to read - people won’t. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. A good piece of writing is like a good meal. If it looks good, people will want to read it.
Proof it, proof it, proof it
No matter how good your proofing skills, I promise you there will be a mistake. Our eyes are trained to skim the sentences we read, so if you’ve written it, chances are you won’t see it. There are some online tools to help with this (Molly and I are both big fans of Grammarly), I also use the ‘read aloud’ function on Word so I can listen out for any obvious mistakes. But honestly? Nothing will replace asking a colleague, or several colleagues, to give it a good proof. That includes numbers, infographics, budgets and charts too!
And finally, ENJOY it
Maybe I should have made this point first, but do you know why I became a copywriter? I love writing. I love using words to shape an argument, share a message or tell a story. The hours just disappear! I think it’s amazing, what you can do with words - and what words can do for you. Even if it’s your 50th social media post that month, or the world’s longest and most repetitive grant application. Enjoy the process, relish the words, and be proud of the change your words will help achieve. Remember your ‘why’ and let it shine. Because if you feel it when you’re writing it, I guarantee your donors will too.