Tales of a Copy Writer

Written by Frank Chamberlin, founding Director of writing consultancy, Action Words.

If it is not a word you see on Facebook, don’t use it

After 20 years writing for fundraisers, there are not 20, but maybe 100 tips for fundraising letters that I could run through. It is hard to choose the most critical. But certainly, one of the keys is “use everyday words.” During the workshops I run, I always say this to delegates: “If it is not a word you see on Facebook, don’t use it.

People do not read fundraising appeals (be they letters or emails) like they read novels. They don’t start at the beginning and keep going until they come to the end. Distressing as it may be, no matter how well you write, most of your donors today are not reading. Please believe me. Mostly, your readers are not reading. They are scanning.

What does this mean to us as fundraisers and writers? Writing for scanners means that at a minimum you need to:

  • Use easy words
  • Choose compelling headlines
  • Keep paragraphs short
  • Include bolding (sparingly)
  • Have plenty of white space
  • Make sure your sub heads engage

Telling a story that may surprise you

If I write, “outside the sun was shining brightly but, in my gloomy office, I just had to keep tapping on my keyboard,” you immediately have a picture. In your mind’s eye you can see a sunny day with me stuck in my office, typing. That’s a simple example of using words to paint a picture.

Compare that with, “the essence of the organisation’s strategy moving forward has to consider our development goals in the broadest possible context.” How did you find that? Was there anything to see? Would you call it persuasive copy?

So what’s the point? To raise money, you have to be persuasive. To be persuasive you have to paint pictures with your words. When people say fundraising copy should be emotional, that’s what they mean. It has to give readers a picture. A picture that prompts a reaction.

“He was a fit young dad of 33 when he stood in the graveyard and watched the coffin slowly being lowered. Could anything ever be as sad as losing a 5-year-old daughter? Tears flooded down his face. She would never be in his arms again.”

This is emotional and moving. Almost every word adds to the picture. It tells a story in pictures and that’s what we aim for in writing to raise funds.

The key is not the writing – but everything

For copywriters who specialise in fundraising, it is nice to think that the letter text is the most critical part of appeals. But that’s not true, of course.

Lots of details have to be right for an appeal to fulfil its promise. If it is an appeal going to donors, how those donors have been treated in the 12-months prior may well be the most fundamental detail. In addition, the appeal itself can have multiple elements. The reply device being one of the most crucial. But there is also the graphic design, the lift, the envelope, the lodgement timing, the reminders…

With so many elements, you might say, the writer can only do so much. But in many ways, the writer can make all the difference in the world. If your CEO thinks she can write, encourage her to compose some poetry to inspire your team. And then insist that the writing for fundraising be left to the professional. Fundraising copy is technical. It is not part of a CEO skill set.

Scanner’s corner: top tips

If you are in a hurry right now, here are nine brief tips for fundraising letters:

  1. Be sure you settle on the best possible headline – if the headline does not grab them, what will?
  2. Start with a short sentence and a short paragraph.
  3. Keep paragraphs to a maximum of four lines.
  4. Include subheads and bullets to get attention.
  5. Write a strong call to action, personally directed to the reader.
  6. Point out what the donor’s gift will achieve.
  7. Use plenty of white space. It makes reading easier.
  8. In letters, use a powerful ‘PS’ as it is often the first thing people read. In emails, don’t expect people to scroll. Forget the PS.
  9. Make sure your envelope teaser copy is believable.

Get in touch with Frank to learn more from a top fundraising writer with 20 years of experience.