I love the effortless mastery of carpenters. The way they pound a nail with five swift blows—perfectly straight, exactly in place, no smashed fingers, no circular scars in the wood.
Carpenters don’t think it’s amazing. That’s just how it goes when you get a lot of practice and work around other carpenters.
Every profession has a body of knowledge and a set of skills that are passed along person to person. With respect to fundraising writing, I offer the following:
Your First Draft Is Bad
I don’t have to read your stuff. I already know. Your first draft is dreadful. So is mine. And every other writer’s. That’s the nature of first drafts. Knowing this, being comfortable with it, is one of the marks of a professional.
The professional doesn’t waste time and energy trying to save sentences and phrases that went into the first draft. He just goes to work obliterating the garbage and getting to the gem that’s hidden there.
Let yourself write a bad first draft. It’s going to be bad no matter what you do, so go for it. This will also free you from writer’s block, which is mostly fear of being bad. Once you know you’ll be back again to fix the mess, you can make progress and not get bogged down by fear or the delusion that you must get everything right the first time.
To keep moving, I used to type the word lobster whenever I hit a wall and couldn’t think of something good. That freed me to move on. It also forced me to come back later and deal with it. After all, I didn’t want to hand in copy with passages like this:
Would you please help lobster lobster lobster.
I’ve since discovered it’s just as effective, and quicker, to pound out random letters. Try it. It’ll make you a happier, less anxious writer. And get you more quickly beyond that terrible first draft.
Get Rid of the First Few Paragraphs
Even after you’ve whipped your copy into shape, there’s still part of your piece that’s not up to standard: the beginning.
I’ve reviewed thousands of direct mail fundraising letters, e-mails, and other projects. Almost every time—and I’m talking about the work of the skilled professional writers—the writing is improved by axing the beginning, anywhere from the first sentence to the first few paragraphs. This includes my own writing. It’s so consistently true I could cut the beginning without even reading it, and I’d usually improve the piece.
Cutting the first few paragraphs can be painful because most of us work harder on the beginning than on the rest of the piece. But here’s the weird thing. That hard work isn’t real writing. It’s warm-up.
Warm-up is important. Some part of your mind knows that, which is why you do it—just as an athlete does. But your warm-up is even less interesting than his. Don’t make your donors read your warm-up. It’s a waste of their time and more likely to confuse them than move them to action.
Have a Swipe File and Use It
Every fundraising writer should have a swipe file: a box full of direct mail fundraising and a huge in-box of saved e-mail. Without this, you’re half the fundraiser you could be.
You need to know what’s happening in the field. You also need material. Let me be clear: When I say use your swipe file, I mean steal from it. Any time you’re stuck, blocked, or just in need of a quick start, pick something interesting from the swipe file and start adapting it to your needs. Don’t worry about plagiarism; by the time you’re finished, there will be nothing left of the original.
You’ll also find a lot of cautionary material. Let’s face it. There’s a lot of bad, sloppy fundraising in our donors’ mailboxes. You might be surprised how inspiring bad fundraising can be. It has spurred me to some of my best work. Don’t do what this poor sap did, I think, and proceed with renewed energy and focus.
Believe in Magic, but Don’t Count on It
The best ideas you’ll come up with will appear out of thin air. You’ll be shaving, painting the kitchen, or stuck in traffic, and suddenly the solution to a problem you were struggling with will pop into your head.
Or you’ll bang out a huge project in a fraction of the time it should take—and it’s good. It’s as if you temporarily worked at double speed like a video on fast-forward.
These things happen. They feel like miracles. Perhaps they are. If you believe in the magic, you’ll experience it more often. But the magic isn’t on call. So you have to approach every project as if there will be no magic, because that’s how it usually is.
Imagine a music critic who hates music. A sports journalist bored by sports. A science writer who thinks science is bunk.
We pity such people. How can they live such empty, defeated lives? They suck the joy out of their fields. They infect others with their cynicism and sadness.
Fundraisers who aren’t donors are like that. They don’t get it. They can’t get it.
The very best advice I have for fundraising writers is this: donate.
When you’re a donor, you join the community. You’re not a carpetbagger coming from outside to exploit. You’re part of the action.
Donating will give you gut insight into the world of your donors. You’ll understand for yourself things like:
- Giving feels good. This is simple brain chemistry. It also hooks you to something deeper, something transcendent that enriches your life.
- Being asked rarely hurts. It’s an honor and a source of joy. It’s only annoying when it’s irrelevant and out of touch with your life. As a donor, you’ll be better able to see the difference between what’s good and what’s irrelevant.
- Giving makes your life better. It literally improves your mental health, your outlook, and your physical health. It improves self-esteem and makes you feel more in control in our chaotic world. Studies show that it even improves your financial situation.
What I’m saying here may seem strange, and not too credible if you aren’t a donor. But if you are, you get it. And that opens the doors to your greatest work.
The preceding is a guest post by Jeff Brooks. He is the author of How to Turn Your Words Into Money, from which this post is excerpted, and The Fundraiser’s Guide to Irresistible Communications. Jeff has served the nonprofit community for more than 20 years, working as a copywriter and creative director on behalf of some of the best nonprofits of North America and Europe. He is deeply grateful to be part of an industry that makes the world a better place.