How hard do you work to make your fundraising copy “flow”? In my experience, too hard. Flow is considered a hallmark of good writing in many quarters. It’s that sense of smooth progression from one topic to the next, with easy, almost unnoticeable transitions.
As the Happy Donors blog notes, it’s not really what you want in fundraising copy: The #1 Secret to Writing Fundraising Letters that Maximize Results. Flow is usually exactly what you don’t want in fundraising. Here’s why:
Readers will pick up the four page letter, look at their name in the salutation, flip over to the P.S., then shuffle the letter around in their hands, maybe start reading here, maybe start reading someplace else, jump around a bit, and then, after this ragged scanning, MAYBE start reading at the beginning.
If that’s true (and it is), flowing copy is a pretty bad idea. It won’t communicate as clearly as choppy, jumpy, repetitive copy.
Write your fundraising copy so readers can start anywhere and quickly get the point and an ask. Don’t have paragraphs that make no sense without the paragraphs before them — you can’t be sure your reader will see them in the order you put them.
Don’t waste your time on flow. It’ll make your copy less effective.
This is the only image on the front of an envelope (shown about twice actual size). It partly overlaps the window. The organization’s name and address are on the flap.
A lot of people looking at this will say it’s the most stupid thing they’ve ever seen. Why bother labeling something that’s not a government document a NON-GOVERNMENT DOCUMENT? Isn’t that sort of like calling your cat a NON-CANINE PET?
The illogic of it is why most organizations would never put this mark or anything like it in the mail. Someone on the committee would very articulately expound on the pointlessness of it.
But let me tell you: It is utterly brilliant.
Not only is it 100% true, it’s designed to incite curiosity, which increases the chances it’ll be opened. That is exactly what direct mail envelopes are supposed to do. It’s their entire job. Not to be beautiful, clever, brand-compliant, cutting-edge, wise, funny, or anything else — unless one of those qualities causes the recipient to open it. And those qualities seldom accomplish that.
Some of the best-performing direct mail I’ve done has had teasers like this. Things that no doubt made people say “What the heck?” Things like:
- DO NOT BEND
- MESSAGE ENCLOSED
- MESSAGE ENCLOSED
I know what the committee thinks of those. They don’t make sense!
Making sense isn’t their purpose. Getting opened is.
Give it a try. You’ll be happy with the results.
I edit a lot of fundraising copy. And I work with veteran professional writers who know their stuff, so I’m not having to help them hammer out the basics.
Most of edits I make to others’ copy (and my own) are in these categories:
- Removing the first one to three paragraphs. You’d be amazed. This works almost every time. Almost every writer (including me) spends the opening paragraph or so “warming up” before getting down to the real work.
- Removing the word “that.” Not every time it appears, but most of the time. Sentences like I hope that you will give usually go better with out that that.
- Removing adverbs. Almost all of them. Adverbs seldom make verbs any stronger.
- Removing adjectives. A good adjective can earn its keep. Most of them don’t.
- Removing complicated background material. Some details are good; they add specificity and authenticity. Too many make the copy hard to understand, and remove the focus from the important stuff.
See the pattern?
You can almost always make copy better by removing stuff. Even good, strong copy written by professional writers.
I bring it up because most of the time, the editing process adds stuff to the copy.
That’s because it’s done by committees. Each member of the committee wants certain things clarified or emphasized. So they add a word here, a phrase there, adjectives, adverbs, fluff, and lots of complicated background material.
Clear, muscular copy turns into fog.
If you want to make some copy better, make it shorter. If you want to make it worse, give it to a committee.
(If you struggle with committees, you might enjoy this: Death by Committee.)
If you write fundraising copy, you’re probably used to people who review what you’ve written hating it. Goes with the territory.
But when they give their reasons for hating the copy, a funny thing often happens: They are absolutely right in their assessment of its qualities — but completely wrong that those qualities are a bad thing.
Here are some common complaints, along with some reasons those complaints name a good quality for fundraising copy:
- It’s simplistic. Yes! Simplifying complex ideas is a sign of a professional at work. If your copy is complex, it’s not very good.
- It’s repetitive. Yes! You can’t count on people starting on the beginning and reading every word on through to the end. You have to structure your copy so that a skimmer or someone who starts and ends somewhere in the middle gets the message.
- It’s emotional. Yes! If it isn’t emotional, it won’t work. An entirely rational argument for giving will never carry the day.
- It’s dramatic. Yes! To break through the clutter and noise of people’s lives, you need drama.
- It makes me uncomfortable. Yes! Good fundraising causes discomfort, imbalance. It needs to make donors uncomfortable, so they’ll act to make things right.