In all my years of writing copy for non-profits, one of the biggest challenges I still face is distilling the essential information into a great story or compelling fundraising copy. Sometimes there is just a ton of information to work with and it can be easy to start thinking that all of it needs to be jam-packed into your appeal. But does it? Today let’s talk about what to do when there’s too much to communicate in a piece of non-profit content.
Nearly every time I sit down to write a client’s fundraising emails or work on a story for them for their website, one of the things I come up against is just feeling like there’s lots of great information about their cause, about the individual story, and all of these things that I want to share with their audience.
However, trying to shoehorn all of that information into one email, one story, or one piece of content often leads to being less focused and ultimately less compelling. My task as a writer is to find the focus from the very beginning of the project and keep the focus throughout. Here’s how I do that.
Start with Your Brief
I’ve sung the praises and the importance of project briefs many times before. I really do believe that having a project or creative brief for whatever you’re working on, brings a tremendous amount of focus to the thing that you’re working on.
When developing a project brief, you start at the top line by identifying your messaging and your call to action. Next you identify the story that you’re going to talk about and any of the context for it. Any additional details about your project like channels, deadlines, segments, and so on can also go into your brief.
If you’re not familiar with a project brief (or want to see how I use them), check out this video tutorial for more in-depth information.
Narrow the Information You’re Working With
Once I have a brief put together, I typically will start going to source information to work with. I am somebody who works better when I have more information so I gather lots of contextual information, my interview notes, project summaries, reports, and so on.
Reflection Question: What set you up for writing success? What kind of information do you need to be able to write?
Once I’ve sourced all the information that I want to consider, I like to read through everything. I’ll make my own notes in a separate Google document about key pieces of information that are really sticking out to me, things that I think might make a compelling messaging angle, anything like that I want to pull this out and pull this through into the appeal, or into the story. With my story interview notes, I do my best to go through and characterize the most important information. The process of characterizing parts of a story helps me distill information in a very helpful way.
After identifying all of the key information that I want to work with as I start writing, I got back to the brief. I use the brief as a filter and ask
- Given what I want to communicate, is the information I’ve identified going to help me?
- What information is less relevant that I can eliminate?
- What information am I still missing?
Going through this process helps me feel less overwhelmed by all the information once I start writing. But as we all know sometimes even the best processes fail us.
A Writing Lesson Re-Learned
Recently, I was working on an email series for one of my clients. Their projects are quite robust, and there was a lot of contextual information. I just kept reading through things and frankly, sitting in my computer felt like I was spinning my wheels a bit.
In fact, I caught myself thinking, “there’s so much information to include in these emails!” I could have easily written thousand word emails for the client. Of course, they didn’t need to be that long. I stopped myself mid-writing because I saw what I was doing.
I saw that I wasn’t staying on task as I like to when I’m getting into the drafting phase of writing and so I paused and I read through my brief again. I read through what it was that we wanted to communicate. I read through the story interview notes again. I was way too in the weeds of the information and needed to pull back. I asked myself, “how can you characterize and summarize this?”
And that exercise for me is often very helpful. Sometimes, I’ll find huge paragraphs of information in my contextual information that all want to include or all think that’s like good contacts for helping people understand a problem in the urgency, but it’s just too much. There’s a lot of detail there and I know that that’s not necessary.
So here’s my advice to you if you’re in a similar situation. If you’ve not yet created a brief and narrowed your contextual information, start by doing those things first.
If you’ve created your brief and narrowed your contextual information, now is the time to practice a bit of a pause in your writing. When you’re really in your head overthinking your writing, you need to find ways of slowing your mind down. Take a step back from your screen and pause for a few minutes.
When you come back from your pause, before sitting down at your screen, ask yourself, “What is it I’m trying to say here?” I usually talk this out with myself. Sometimes I even record this to capture it without typing.
I try really hard not to write and edit simultaneously. It’s a futile activity. But with this particular client project, I noticed I was writing and editing myself at the same time and that is where I need to pull in this practice.
Your Writing Skills Will Always Be a Work In Progress
My relationship to writing is that it’s always practice and always a work in progress. I’m always working on letting go of perfectionism because it holds me back from actually doing the work.
I write a lot every week for my clients and every piece of copy I write is another opportunity to practice. And the next time I would have yet another piece of practice under my belt and the next time after that, I’m going to have one more practice under my belt, and so on.
There are times where writing does feel significantly easier than it did years ago over a decade ago when I started. And then there’s also times when projects feel hard and I wonder if I’m any good at all. But that’s how writing often works. We ebb and flow in our confidence.
Orienting myself to a mindset of practice and openness to writing is what has helped me grow as a writer and in my nonprofit career. That, and a lot of hours editing.
Want to work on your writing with me? I teach two classes that mentor non-profit professionals on various aspects of writing. Learn more about The Writer’s Workshop and The Storytelling Non-Profit Master Class.