Don’t Fear the Blank Page

Ann C. Fitzgerald, President

New fundraisers often find themselves surprised at how often they must employ writing skills on the job. To cultivate and solicit donors, we need to write proposals, letters, emails and other communication pieces.

For many of us, there is nothing quite so frightening as the blank page. When it comes time to write, we find it difficult to find the right words, put them in the right order or convey the right message.

But it need not be that way. And although different projects will require differences in tone – a fundraising postcard shouldn’t sound exactly like a proposal – a few simple rules will help you write clearly and purposefully in any format.

  • First – keep it simple. Use short, simple sentences with short, simple words. “Use,” for instance, is almost always better than “utilize.” “Improve” is better than “optimize.” And so on.
  • Also, don’t ask sentences to do too much. Each sentence should carry one message, and one only. If you find yourself putting two commas in a sentence, you’re probably asking it to do too much.
  • Use simple sentence structures — subject, then active verb. “We plan to …” beats “It is our intention to …” Use the most efficient construction even if it means sometimes you will repeat the beginning of sentences. Research shows readers retain more of information presented in list form when the sentence structures match.
  • Keep your verbs together. “We also will conduct …” is correct. “We will also conduct …” is not.
  • Keep clauses together. This is the old rule about not splitting infinitives. “We will clean up the house …” is correct. “We will clean the house up …” is not.
  • “Over” and “under” are physical places – you drive over the hill or under the ramp. You need to raise “more than” $50,000 with “less than” $2,000 in expenses.
  • When you use the word “only” be careful to place it in the proper location, which usually is near a number. Correct: “We need only $40,000 more to endow the chair.” Incorrect: “We only need $40,000 more to endow the chair.”
  • Remember the rule of first-mentions. The first time you mention your organization, use its full name: “The John K. Jones Foundation for the Benefit of Mankind…” On subsequent mentions, you can write “The Jones Foundation.” Similarly, the first mention of leaders should include their first and last names and title: “Michael Smith, president and CEO of the John K. Jones Foundation …”
  • Note: The title is lower-case if presented after the name. If you say “Jones Foundation President Michael Smith,” where the title comes before the name, it should be capitalized. But it is best not to stack modifiers before names in this way.
  • Some old rules have been thrown overboard. It is OK to begin a sentence with a conjunction. “And” or “But” are perfectly fine ways to convey a thought. Don’t fear the contraction. A preposition is not always a bad word to end a sentence on.
  • Avoid weak words, such as “very” or “really.” Don’t say the new project is “very impressive.” Say what’s impressive about it – “more than 200 new students will receive scholarships” or “we will provide training for 50 legislators”. What is compelling to you will be compelling to the reader.
  • Limit use of the word “that.” If you write a sentence with “that” in it, reread the sentence without it. Usually, it works just as well and sounds tighter and more professional.
  • Avoid clichés.
  • To keep sentences tight and lively, steer clear of words that end in “ing.” “I am sending you a document” is not as vibrant as “I will send you a document.” This rule also saves words.
  • Even in formal documents, write as if you are explaining something to a close friend. Avoid legalistic or complex sentence structures. Read the sentence aloud to yourself and see if it sounds like something you would say to someone. If not, revise it.
  • To keep sentences tight and lively, steer clear of words that end in “ing.” “I am sending you a document” is not as vibrant as “I will send you a document.” This rule also saves words.
  • Even in formal documents, write as if you are explaining something to a close friend. Avoid legalistic or complex sentence structures. Read the sentence aloud to yourself and see if it sounds like something you would say to someone. If not, revise it.

How To Begin

As stated above, many times the hardest part is getting started. Crafting a compelling first sentence can be daunting. But you need not start with the first sentence.

Begin by cutting and pasting the assignment onto the top of the page. That way, you are guided from the start by the project description. And when you finish, you can check back to make sure you hit all the marks.

Then, make an outline. It need not be formal. It can be no more than a list of points you have to make. Then, assemble the supporting information on each point.

If you’re still not ready to write that first sentence, work on the body. If you are writing about five ways to become more involved in your organization, start on the five items and make those sentences as tight and lively as possible. Many times, this process will dictate the lead.

If not, consider starting with a story. A short tale that gets right to the point can be an effective device to draw in readers to what could be a routine or mundane piece. And you can refer back to the story for an effective, memorable ending.

Remember the five Ws of journalism – who, what, when, where and how. Make sure you address all five. The first is “who.” If nothing else comes to mind, and you are writing a piece you can begin with a story, then start with the name of the person in your story.

Final Steps

Finally, you have completed the piece. You’ve made all the salient points. You’ve erased the assignment from the top of the page. You’re near your word limit – perhaps even a little beyond. What’s left? Proofread. Don’t look for mistakes on your first pass. Look for ways to prune unnecessary words, to say things more directly, more simply. Then, go back and look for mistakes, particularly in areas you edited during the first proofread.

For most people, this is the fun part. It’s the part that makes good pieces better. Best of all, the page no longer is blank.

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