The Final Serial Comma and 3 Other Necessities
Ever notice how, when you learn a new word, you suddenly begin to see it everywhere you turn?
I'm like that with grammar errors. I run across one someplace, and then it seems to pop up again and again.
Maybe it's because good fundraising copy needs to sound more like a conversation than a formal letter. Which, in turn, means that sometimes you have to break a few of the formal rules of writing to maintain that casual, conversational feel.
But to break the rules effectively, you first have to know them. So the tips below are shared, not because they are rules but because I've run across multiple examples of each recently. And because they'll help you communicate more simply and clearly.
Always, always, always, use the final serial comma
Writers, especially punctuation minimalists, often think that placing a comma before "and" in a list is optional. And sometimes you can make your meaning clear without it. But it's a bad habit to develop, because if you're not careful, you can end up with phrasing like this photo caption that was in an article about the singer Merle Haggard:
One space between sentences
The convention of double spacing between sentences is actually a mere blip in the history of typography. In the very early 1900s, after hundreds of years of inconsistency, typesetters in Europe formally adopted the practice of using a single space between sentences. America soon followed. But then, in the middle of the last century, when manual typewriters temporarily became ubiquitous, the double space became popular to make up for the machine's shortcomings. But now that computers do their own typesetting, it's time to relegate that practice to the same dustbin as those rusted Selectrics.
"Why does this even matter?" you ask. Because, as a fundraising copywriter, you know that where and how a letter breaks between pages can determine whether a reader will keep reading. Letting those extra spaces pile up can add an extra line to a paragraph. Or several extra lines to a page. And if you're lasering the first page so you can include a customized ask string, you could really have a problem. You know, "For want of a nail" and all that …
Use a dictionary
Can you believe a writer needs to be told this? The problem is that, with a gazillion media sources floating around cyberspace, there is an insatiable desire for "content." And sadly, this leads some writers to fall back on clichés, without necessarily thinking about the actual meanings of the words they use. That's how we end up with language like this:
Somebody could write a term paper about that sentence. I know you'd never write something like that. Nevertheless, it's still a good idea to make sure the pages of your dictionary stay smudged and dog-eared.
Mainly because no fundraising sentence should be long enough to need one. Your copy should be one short, declarative sentence that links seamlessly to another short, declarative sentence. This is how you keep readers reading. Besides, as Kurt Vonnegut said, "All they do is show you've been to college."
When you're building a powerful, emotional message, the last thing you want is for the reader to get distracted by trying to understand what you mean. So be brief, be cogent, be powerful, and know when to stop.
Willis believes in expressive writing, exceptional fundraising, and exuberant living.
Willis Turner is the senior copywriter at Huntsinger & Jeffer. He was an experienced writer and creative director in the traditional advertising world for more than 20 years before making the switch to fundraising nearly 15 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, as well as collateral materials and communications, that get attention, tell emotional stories, and persuade people to take action or make a donation.