Grammar Matters, Except When It Doesn’t
"This man decided not to Live but Know"
—Robert Browning, "A Grammarian's Funeral"
The goal of writing is to communicate. But the goal of fundraising copy is emotional communication. Emotion is the currency of our transactions with donors and prospects because the transactions we ask them to engage in are completely irrational. We ask them give us their money, and in return we give them nothing … nothing tangible, anyway.
What we offer in exchange for their gifts is an experience. An opportunity to feel good about themselves. And if we make them feel good enough, they'll want to keep having the experience again and again.
To sell emotion, you have to use emotion. That's where copywriting's uneasy relationship with grammar comes in.
Some writers think creating emotional copy means completely defenestrating the rules of usage. But it's not that simple. The only grammar rule that matters in fundraising copy is to make your message unambiguous and moving. However, there are some rules that always apply. For example:
Quotation marks are versatile tools. They can denote speech, conversation and certain types of titles.
They have the added advantage of drawing attention to themselves on a page. Since our readers are tend to be scanners, judiciously placed quotes can pull their eyes to the things you most want them to read.
But one thing quotations marks do not do is express emphasis. That's what underlines are for. And italics.
It's kind of shocking to see how often writers use quotes this way — especially considering how confusing and unproductive the practice is. See some hilariously egregious examples here.
Numbers stand out too. Numerals also catch the eye of readers who are just scanning the copy. The textbook rule is to write out one through nine and use numbers for 10 and above.
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.