I’ve been writing fundraising copy since 2010. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned in 11 years of writing and millions of dollars I’ve raised, it’s that writing for fundraising is its own genre. And writing fundraising emails is its own wonky subgenre. But as I tell my students and clients regularly, writing to raise money is a learnable skill that you can master. Practice, patience and time are your friends if you want to improve your writing.
In today’s article I wanted to share a bit about my writing process when I work on fundraising emails for clients in the hopes that it helps you master your process and write great copy.
Writing for Fundraising is a Process
One of my professional mantras is that everything is a process (including storytelling). Understanding that I’m not merely trying to achieve an outcome like a fundraising email, but instead I’m completing milestones on the way to an outcome significantly changed my relationship to writing. It’s the difference between seeing cook Thanksgiving dinner for 20 people on your to do list and seeing create guest list, send invitations, collect rsvps and food allergy info, create a menu, etc.
Being process oriented in writing allows you to see the baby steps you need to take to get to a writing outcome. For me, that feels far less daunting and helps me find momentum in writing projects. Here is what my typical writing process looks like:
- Understand the goal and calls to action for the campaign
- Brainstorm hooks and key messaging (Here’s an in-depth guide on creating messages for fundraising campaigns)
- Develop a project brief (more on the magic of project briefs here)
- Get client approval for the project brief
- Source stories
- Write first drafts
- Edit first drafts
- Let clients review first drafts for messaging
- Revise drafts
- Edit second drafts
- Let clients review second drafts
- Final revisions if needed
Having a clear process can be helpful to you (the writer) and it will be immeasurably valuable to you if you need to bring other people along in the process.
The Magic of Good Fundraising Writing Happens in the Edits
I tell people all the time that if they saw the first drafts of fundraising copy that I write, they might find it unbelievable that the final product raised north of $30,000 (or in the case of an email I wrote earlier this year $75,000). I never write good first drafts and I accept that as part of my process. In fact, when I stopped trying to hit it out of the park on the first try, I was able to write faster and ultimately better. That’s because I stopped trying to edit as I wrote.
All of these means that I produce my best writing work when I give myself ample time to edit. I share this because once a upon a time I believed I produced my best work under stress and on tight deadlines. False. I do not and neither will you.
If you’re writing fundraising emails, you will likely want to start writing about 4 weeks before your send date to give yourself ample editing time. For direct mail, you might want to start more like 8 weeks before the mail date because of additional production time.
When I edit, here are some questions I ask myself:
- Is there a clear message and distinct point of view?
- Do the story and narrative help donors see how they can be on the “good” side?
- Did I get the point quickly? Where can I be more concise and punchier?
As I get more into the weeds of editing, I also start to look at verbs in key sentences to consider different word choices that may pack a bigger punch. I use an online thesaurus called Word Hippo to come up with alternatives and try out different versions of the copy.
Finally, Understand Yourself and Your Own Process
The final thoughts I’ll leave you with on writing is that there’s a lot of value in understanding yourself and your own process. Remember that nice bullet point list I shared above of my writing process? Well, really the first bullet point of that process should read fret about my skills as a writer and whether or not I can pull this off, worry I can’t top what I’ve done before, worry that what I write will tank, etc.
That’s right. I spend some time worrying and catastrophizing about my writing skills before I start writing. Vanessa circa 2012 would let this phase turn into full on procrastination. Vanessa of today knows that this is merely what my brain wants to do and if I don’t feed into, it will pass, and I can get to work. My ability to know that this part of my process will pass certainly has come with time and experience.
I wanted to share this so that you, too, know that I have my moments of doubt and worry about writing. It’s hard. And when you’re emotionally invested in a cause you care about, the stakes can feel high. Be compassionate with yourself. It’s the best gift you can give yourself when you write.
More Resources for Fundraising Writing
If you want to dive deeper into the word of fundraising writing, I teach a 10-lesson course called The Writer’s Workshop. This class will teach you the nuts and bolts of copywriting that raises money.
Additionally, inside The Storytelling Non-Profit Master Class, we spend a lot of time focused on improving your writing skills. Through our Monthly Office Hours calls and virtual co-working, we make lots of space for you to work on writing and get feedback.
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