3 Prewriting Steps You Probably Skip (but Shouldn't)
Fundraising copywriting is a craft. And like other craftspersons, we copywriters begin our training by learning some fundamental prewriting techniques designed to help us organize our thoughts so we can transcribe what's in our heads onto our documents.
But, also like other craftspersons, as time goes by and we become more proficient and confident, we tend to skip those basic practices and jump straight into the job. Most of the time it works out fine. Every so often though, we end up like the electrician who doesn't shut off the power to fix the chandelier but just flips off the closest light switch: grinning sheepishly as we pick ourselves up off the floor.
So no matter how skillful we become, it's a good idea to dust off those prewriting skills once in a while because sooner or later they'll come in handy. Here are three examples:
Contrary to popular hyperbole, you can't really find everything on the Internet. Especially when you're compiling information about an organization's specific programs or researching the human stories that will bring tears to a donor's eyes.
Sometimes you have to talk to people face to face, do phone interviews or even (gasp!) look things up in a book. When these things happen, the skilled note-taker has a big advantage. This doesn't mean you have to stick to the academic format you hated in school. And it certainly doesn't mean you have be hidebound by Word's annoying auto-bullets.
But whether you carry a handsome Moleskine or can tap 60 words per minute into your smartphone, or just keep a wad of cocktail napkins in your pocket, make sure you always have the tools to capture an idea or quote. Assuming you'll be able to Google it later or, worse, remember it in context is nothing but a shortcut to the graveyard of good ideas.
People who say, "I don't do outlines," are often the same people who say, "I can't write unless I'm inspired." Sketching out your ideas on paper before you start writing has at least three benefits:
- First, you'll have more good ideas. As your brain tries to organize the mush of information it's holding, it will unleash a lot of thoughts you didn't know were in there.
- Second, you'll save time in the long run. Like most investments, a little pain on the front end will pay dividends later on. Starting with an organized writing plan will make revising a lot simpler and faster.
- And third, you'll know your stuff. If you've ever been caught off guard by someone deep into the approval process coming back to question the source of some obscure fact, you know how comforting it can be to have the answer right in your notes. If you haven't yet, you will.
Writing = rewriting. The earlier you start a project, the more time you'll have to polish it to the shine it deserves. And, unlike these guys, you'll save yourself from looking back on sentences you can't believe you wrote, like, "Shooters must follow all the rules for firing weapons outdoors, like staying far away from homes and highways, and not shooting over night." (That's as opposed to under night, I suppose?). Or purple prose like, "But there was always the smoldering ember of mental illness in his mind."
Writers often complain that this era of bottomless demand for instant content has lowered the overall quality of most prose. If that's true, I have a prediction: Like the four-minute mile and landing on the moon, somebody's going come along soon and raise the bar on acceptable writing quality in the digital age. How you say something (or at least whether what is said is intelligible) will again matter as much as what you say.
So you and I would do well to get out in front of this inevitability. If we take time to do better prewriting now, it might save us later from getting left behind in the redundant dust of repeating the same wrong mistakes over and over.
Willis Turner believes great writing has the power to change minds, save lives, and make people want to dance and sing. Willis is the creative director at Huntsinger & Jeffer. He worked as a lead writer and creative director in the traditional advertising world for more than 15 years before making the switch to fundraising 20 years ago. In his work with nonprofit organizations and associations, he has written thousands of appeals, renewals and acquisition communications for every medium. He creates direct-response campaigns, and collateral communications materials that get attention, tell powerful stories and persuade people to take action or make a donation.