Editing: Be Sure it's About Value, not Vanity
If you're part of a fundraising team, you probably won't escape it. Whether it's your name on the letter or not, at some point you'll be asked to review a fundraising letter, e-appeal, newsletter or other donor communication.
Yeah, I know — what a power trip! Adding your imprimatur to something that will be read by hundreds, thousands, even millions! Fifteen seconds of fame, here I come!!
But before you start thinking how to work this into your LinkedIn profile or a Facebook update, take a minute and ask yourself, "What can I contribute that will add value?"
This isn't the whining of a writer who had one too many edits tossed my way just before writing this column. Rather, it's a result of having people ask me how they can make a positive contribution to copy without destroying its fundraising capabilities.
And, as I often am editing other people's writing, it's a message I have to remind myself of every single time, because the truth is, I'm not immune to the ego trip of editing copy written by people I look up to and consider really, really, really good.
Whether it was written by a professional writer, your board chair or a staff member, your job as editor is to edit. And good editors are important to the process. So, here's my five-step plan for editing for value, not vanity.
- "Am I making it better, or just different?" With each major edit you make (not just adding or removing a comma), ask yourself if the suggested change makes the copy read better, communicate better, paint a picture more clearly - or if it is just a matter of preference. There's a good chance your writer struggled over which word to use, and settled on "skinny" instead of "pencil-thin" for a reason. What seems like a simple word change can actually cause a domino effect if your change causes a word echo, makes the copy sound singsong or inadvertently does something else to weaken the overall flow.
- Avoid vague direction. "You know, I'm just not feeling it" is not a helpful comment to send back to a writer unless he or she is an accomplished mind-reader. Try to explain your concern, but this doesn't mean you have to rewrite the copy. (I admit, sometimes the easiest way to explain an idea is to rewrite, but always note that it is just a suggestion, not mandatory - unless it is.) If something doesn't make sense or the copy doesn't flow well, note that specifically in your edits. Don't force your writer to rewrite copy while trying to guess what you were implying by your comments.
- Speak with a single voice. One of the worst nightmares for a writer is having to "polish up" copy edited by a committee. Everyone wants to add something to the process, and soon it becomes the written version of a camel: a horse put together by committee. Make sure you know the purpose of the copy and what tone it is meant to convey. Is it an urgent mailing? A grateful e-blast? An informative tax document? Your edits need to reflect this single purpose.
- Focus on your donor, not on your organization. When editing, it's tempting to toss in a lot of really cool information about your organization. "Hey, I bet they don't know this, and I sure think it's awesome!" There is a time and a place for educating your donors about the nuances of your strategy, history and structure. Fundraising is not that time. Think of a donor you've met or (lacking that) a person you know who fits your donor profile; then ask yourself, "Will she care about this? Will it make him more likely to give?" If not, leave it out.
- Avoid the "royal we." Donors feel part of your organization, and they strive to connect with the "face" that they perceive as the organization. It's important that they hear (most of the time) from that single person, not from the organization in general. As a letter signer, that can be hard to accept. After all, you aren't doing it all by yourself, and in fact, what you're doing may not be the truly exciting stuff. I am not suggesting you steal credit for everyone else's work. But do talk about what others are doing from your viewpoint. For example, "My colleague, John Doe, was telling me the other day about an exciting breakthrough. Like me, I suspect it will excite you to know that in just the last three months ... ." Become a real person to your donors, one who gets excited, feels sick when confronted by injustice, pledges to use gifts carefully to accomplish the most good, etc. Your donors will have more confidence in the organization when they have confidence in the letter signer.
William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker from 1952 until 1987, said, "The work of a good editor, like the work of a good teacher, does not reveal itself directly; it is reflected in the accomplishments of others." That's a man who understood the importance of value, not vanity!
Pamela Barden is an independent fundraising consultant focused on direct response. You can read more of her fundraising columns here.