Is Letter Writing Really About Good Grammar?
Grammar is the curse of direct-mail fundraising — and for several reasons.
First of all, those who sign fundraising letters often have the unfortunate conviction that the words they put on paper to describe their mission rank far above the words associated with selling a product.
So their letters tend to follow what they consider the basic rules of grammar, in order to give them a higher state of dignity than one they might write if they were selling women’s underwear.
In truth, there’s no such thing as grammar, unless you’re learning English for the first time and need to know that singular stuff needs to agree with other singular stuff in a sentence. That’s grammar.
Keep it conversational
The words you assemble to create a fundraising letter — or any kind of sales letter — are based on usage and, more precisely, verbal usage.
Let’s forget fundraising for a moment. If you read aloud the letters you receive that are selling products, you’ll quickly notice that they read like you talk. Why? Because when you test letters written in oral style versus letters written in grammatical style, the former wins handily.
But meanwhile, back at national headquarters, the president is grumbling about the latest fundraising letter submitted by his writer. “It just doesn’t sound like me,” he says. Well, what does he really sound like?
For starters, he’s an articulate speaker, a great one-on-one persona. But when you tape his speeches he sounds exactly like, well, a marketing letter.
And he has Ms. Jones by his side, his secretary for 20 years. Even before a letter gets to his desk, Ms. Jones, whose sole purpose in life is to protect her boss from those who desecrate the King’s English, has made a few changes.
She knows that a paragraph should not be indented. She knows that a letter must be short and to the point. She knows how to punctuate and how to marshal the power of colons and semi-colons, subordinate and insubordinate clauses, and perfect and pluperfect verbs. Duh.
Reminds me of a poem by Robert Browning titled “The Grammarian’s Funeral.” Browning describes how the corpse was carried to the burial ground: “ … with throttling hands of death at strife, ground he at grammar. Still, to the rattle, parts of speech were rife.”
For my part, I made “Ds” in English grammar while, at the same time, selling little adventure stories to magazines. My college advisor couldn’t figure it out.
Also, I had a learning disability and simply couldn’t pronounce big words or spell them, so I didn’t use them. That seemed like a workable solution.
Years later when I slid in the back door of direct-response marketing, I learned from a kind mentor that my goal in writing a letter should not be to impress the reader with my grammatical skills but to keep the reader involved in the copy long enough to make a positive decision. I believe it’s time for nonprofit executives to come down from the mountaintop, grammatically speaking.
Get warm and personal
My self-appointed crusade is to flit around the country, forcing nonprofit folks to communicate at a personal, rather than grammatical, level.
So here are 12 suggestions for charity presidents and their scribes to get them all communicating in a warm and personal style:
1. Write the way you talk. Use punctuation to help you breathe on paper.
2. Use the present tense. Your letter must be current, not past or future tense.
3. Use the second person. Don’t write, “Our donors will be proud to participate in this project.” Instead, write, “You will be proud to participate in this project.” The magic word is always “you.”
4. Use connectives and action words to hook sentences and paragraphs together. Always avoid a passive beginning of a paragraph. This includes, for example, “the” and “a.” Also, beware of beginning a paragraph with a prepositional phrase. Instead, use an action word or a strong connective word. An action word might be something like, “wait,” “discover,” “explore,” “stop,” “start” and so on. A connective word might simply be “and” or “so” or “but.”
5. Be very careful with periods. A period brings a thought to an end and that’s what you want to avoid, except when you want to merge into a new thought. Notice I used the word “merge.” You must always keep your letter
moving. Don’t let the reader stop. Remember, when someone is reading your letter, she rarely is 100 percent focused on what you have to say. Usually she’s scanning, and if she stops, then some distraction is going to capture her attention.
Maybe the television is on. Maybe her spouse is screaming about a bank overdraft. Maybe there’s a thunderstorm in the area. Maybe there’s another piece of mail that looks more interesting than the piece she’s looking at now. For goodness sake, don’t let the reader stop!
6. Use “I,” not “we.” Many years ago, a president told me that his organization is larger than just him and he can’t use the word “I” — he must use “we” to capture the breadth of its work. I told him that was a bunch of bull, and he fired me. True, the person signing the letter is the personification of the organization. But donors don’t respond to an organization, they respond to an individual.
7. Use contractions like you would in ordinary conversation. Don’t say, “Here is the reason I am writing you.” Say, “Here’s the reason I’m writing you.” Most writers I know will read their draft aloud to make sure it sounds conversational, which often includes adding many contractions to the copy.
8. Keep on dashing! It’s a good way to balance movement with gentle pauses — without adding a period — because you don’t want the reader to stop altogether, but you also don’t want to tire her out.
9. Believe in the mystic power of a quotation mark. Sure, quotation marks are supposed to be used for quoting someone who has said something. But that’s a rule. A quotation mark can be a tool, too. So, if you want to be “conversational,” then you can use a quotation mark.
10. Play around with parentheses. Why not add a little afterthought to an important thought? It’s a wink, a nudge. It’s under your breath. An aside. It’s a shrug of your shoulders. (Pssst … it’s a way to get even more personal.)
11. Use the question mark liberally. Ask a lot of questions. That gets the reader involved. It begins a dialogue. Why not?
12. And finally ... because I’ve used up my allotted space in this publication ... keep your copy moving forward by using the ellipsis. OK, I know. Grammatically, the three dots together indicate missing text in a phrase. That’s a grammar rule. But as a tool, those three dots can help you move from one paragraph to the other ... or just break up the copy.
Is all the above really grammar? Of course not. It’s marketing. And like it or not, that’s what fundraising is all about.
Jerry Huntsinger is a freelance copywriter and a senior creative consultant at Craver, Mathews, Smith & Co. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.