Breaking Through Writer's Block: A Template for Change
by Lisa MacDonald
There is a reason that online articles are filled with: "Six tips to...," "Five easy ways to..." and similar such titles. Workers, not just in the nonprofit sector, are constantly challenged to juggle priorities in their day. As a consequence, even learning has to be broken down into easily digestible chunks.
Fundraisers in particular are open to learning from the best practices of others. Consider the plethora of templates that are available for all those writing tasks you may have on your "to do" list: a thank you to a valued donor, a direct mail piece launching a new fundraising appeal or an updated case for support.
Yet, having the template (or the structure) for your writing is only the start. Currently there is much discussion around the need for fundraising communication to incorporate donor-centric storytelling at its heart.
As you know, being an effective story-teller is no easy matter and writer's block often stops the most eager communicator before they get started. Here are three things (yes a template for breaking through writers block!) that you can do to take the fear away from sitting down to the blank white page on your screen.
"If you're writing without thinking, you're definitely just typing."
I remember how, in my university years, I would often leave essay writing until the last minute. Procrastination? Yes, sort of. But the problem wasn't in doing the actual writing. The problem was feeling confident in the subject matter: knowing what I wanted to say, why I wanted to say it and how I wanted to structure my argument.
You can't write a compelling story if you haven't fully researched the details of the subject matter. You won't engage your reader on an emotional level unless you articulate to yourself (or others) the type of response you are trying to create.
Any writing that you do should begin with thinking or analysis. In fact, writing can be an aid to the act of thinking. The two acts are intertwined. Though not all thinking is done in writing, all good writing involves thinking.
Know thy audience
You will have a very difficult time putting words on paper if you don't know the audience you're writing for. In the writing pyramid, audience is always at the top.
Knowing your audience will help you to determine the style of your writing piece, beginning with tone and voice.
- Tone: the writer's attitude toward the topic conveyed through point of view, mood, attitude, dialect and level of formality.
- Voice: the "personality" of the writing.
It also helps to understand whether your audience is motivated to read what you are writing. While you can't take anything for granted, there are general assumptions that can be made about your audience based on the level of engagement that person has with the organization. For example,
- A prospect from attending one event - low motivation.
- One-time donation - 5/10 on the motivation scale. You need to find out what this donor cares about to really engage them.
- Annual donor - high motivation.
- Major donor - highest motivation to keep engaged in their relationship with your organization.
Find your process
As with so many skills, the more writing you do, the better you will get at it. Understanding your process will help you not only start, but also reach the finish line with your writing.
What do I mean by process? Let's go back to the dreaded blank screen.
Too often we begin editing ourselves before words collect on the page. Resist the temptation to edit as you go. Instead, set small goals. Finish one page before re-reading and editing. Is one page too much? Start with two paragraphs.
Usually somewhere around page two, I hit my stride and end up deleting the whole first page where I started—but that's my process.
Other things to consider when it comes to process:
- What is the best environment to get your creative thoughts flowing? In the morning when the house is quiet? At a bustling coffee shop surrounded by the energy of strangers? With the door to your office closed and the ringer turned off?
- Input vs. output. How many hours are you putting in and what is the end result? If too much time is being spent without producing some quality writing, perhaps you need to revisit the thinking phase of the process.
- When is "good enough" good enough? How will you know when you're done? Who are your editors? How many rounds of edits make sense?
So if you do all these things—think and plan your writing, identify your audience and work your process—will writer's block still happen? Likely yes. But in the words of Stephen King, "the scariest moment is right before you start. After that, things can only get better."
As the editorial director for Hilborn:ECS, Lisa MacDonald helps frontline fundraisers stay connected with current trends and best practices across the country. Hilborn publications include AFP eWire Canada, Hilborn Charity eNEWS and Gift Planning in Canada. As the in-house book editor for Hilborn's imprint Civil Sector Press, Lisa has edited many Canadian nonprofit sector titles. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or connect on Twitter, @lisalmacdonald.
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