Once upon a time, I was an English teacher. A guardian and promoter of our written language in its formal academic form.
Please accept my apology for the damage I did during those years.
I worked hard to teach my students specific rules about academic writing. At the time, it seemed like an uphill battle, even a hopeless cause. But some students were paying attention. Who knew?
Some of them are out in the world now, zealously enforcing the rules their college English teachers gave them.
A surprising number of those students who paid attention now work at nonprofit organizations. And they’re repeating the things I used to say.
The problem is most of those rules I taught don’t belong in
fundraising. They are about as relevant and useful outside of academia as knowing how to dance the quadrille would be on a battlefield.
These former students are telling me things like this:
- I shouldn’t use informal language.
- My sentence fragments are sloppy.
- My colloquial grammar an abomination.
- Less repetitive.
- More concise.
- Smoother transitions.
- Longer paragraphs, each starting with a topic sentence.
They believe my fundraising is defective if I start a sentence with a conjunction, split an infinitive, or use a cliché. Some of them even take their red pens to contractions. (Honest — I never told anyone to avoid contractions!)
Call it karma.
I’m just getting served up what I dished out.
The trouble is, fundraising writing owes little to the rules we learned in English class. It has a specific obligation to motivate donors to give. And that means a different set of rules.
I’m not suggesting we forget everything English teachers said. They taught us how to write with vigor and precision. They showed us how using language helps marshal our thoughts. And they made us believe in revising our work.
But if your job is fundraising, your goal isn’t to please a former instructor. It’s to get people to look past their self-interest, to tap into their inner angels and join you in changing the world. That’s a tall order. It’s much trickier than pulling down an A in English Lit. And it requires a different approach to writing.
Here at Moceanic, I now offer an online masterclass about the unique conventions of fundraising writing. I explore how it differs from other types of writing, and I’ll discuss the techniques that lead to success.
It’s a detailed, hands-on look at how to communicate with donors and others when you’re in a nonprofit and really want to recruit people to change the world with you.
Consider this a sort of atonement for me. If I can help you fight back the “proper” rules I used to promote, I’ll be one step closer to redemption.
And you’ll raise more money.
(This post is a revised version of a chapter in my book, How to Turn Your Words into Money.)