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How NOT to Get Results With a Fundraising Letter

(June 16, 2009) In his book, How to Write Successful Fundraising Letters, direct mail veteran Mal Warwick describes the common errors in writing fundraising letters and explains how to avoid them.

Chaotic Thinking

Effective writing begins (and ends) with clear, disciplined thought. As William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White put it so elegantly in The Elements of Style: “Design informs even the simplest structure, whether of brick and steel or of prose. You raise a pup tent from one sort of vision, a cathedral from another. This does not mean that you must sit with a blueprint always in front of you, merely that you had best anticipate what you are getting into.” So before you lay a finger on the keyboard or position your pen on paper, make up your mind what it is you want to communicate. Decide where you want to go and how you’ll get there. If necessary, outline the steps you’ll take along the way. If you don’t decide in advance what the point is, it’s unlikely you’ll get it across.

Hemming and Hawing

There may still be a place for slow and easy writing that meanders from point to point, but I think that approach went out of style with William Faulkner—and there is no room for such laziness when you’re writing to achieve results. Get to the point—the quicker the better! Unless you can devise a clearly superior lead sentence, I suggest you start a letter with the words, “I’m writing to you today because…” That approach won’t win a prize in a creative writing contest, but it does force you to communicate quickly and directly the result you’re hoping to achieve with your letter. Creativity doesn’t raise money, but directness does. If your writing doesn’t get to the point, your readers’ eyes and minds will wander off to more satisfying pursuits. Bluntness is usually a wiser and more productive course than subtlety.

Boring Leads

If you’re faced with the task of writing a six-page letter or a ten-page memo, you’d better be sure your opening paragraph—and especially the opening sentence—is intriguing enough to pique your readers’ interest. And that goes double for a letter intended to secure a gift or sell a product. Writing that engages the reader often begins with a question, a challenge, a human interest story, a bold assertion, a familiar phrase turned on its head—or straightforward, unalloyed directness. The special circumstances and conditions of your writing assignment (or simple inspiration) may suggest that one of these approaches is ideal. But it may be enough simply to sum up the points you’re going to make—if you state them dramatically enough and set the proper tone for the audience you’re addressing—for example:

I’m writing today to invite you to join me in launching a historic initiative with vast potential to improve the quality of life in our community.

For a general audience, that pompous lead might guarantee your letter will quickly make its way into the proverbial circular file. But for a highbrow group with a demonstrated commitment to your community and a connection to the person who signs the memo or the letter, the boldness of your claim may be captivating.

Run-On Sentences

Writing of any type suffers from overlong sentences; a letter to raise money or sell software can die a horrible death from this malady. If a sentence is longer than three typewritten lines, analyze it, looking for a way to break it down into two or three simpler and shorter sentences. Almost always, you’ll get your point across more effectively if you do so. Keep this in mind: a reader dedicated enough to tackle Proust or Joyce may be willing to concentrate hard enough to follow a tortured thought all the way to a long-overdue period. (Understandably, the period is sometimes known as a full stop.) But your readers aren’t likely to pay that much attention. Long sentences will test readers’ limited attention span, and you’ll come up the loser.

Failure to Use Visual Devices to Guide the Reader

A novelist who is highly skilled in moving the reader from one page to the next may be able to do so with the power of words alone. Most of us aren’t so lucky, and our readers, who often have far more meager incentives to read on for page after page, are typically far less tolerant. To write effectively for impact, you’ll probably need to make liberal use of subheads, bulleted or numbered series, boldfaced section headings, and other devices to break the monotony of gray, unbroken text. Only by providing your readers with clues that are visible at a glance can you make your writing actually look easy to read—and you’ll substantially reinforce that impression by using short sentences and short paragraphs. Signals such as these send an important message to the reader: that you’re writing for her benefit, not for your own.

Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Jossey-Bass, from How to Write Successful Fundraising Letters (w/CD), 2nd Edition by Mal Warwick. Copyright (c) 2008 by Jossey-Bass. All rights reserved.

Mal Warwick is the author of several books on fundraising. His latest book is titled Fundraising When Money is Tight. This and several other titles are available in the AFP Bookstore. Simply search by subject or author’s last name.

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