Tutorial 29: slash your letter writing time in half.

I’m assuming that you are already familiar with the basic mechanical techniques for creating a fundraising letter.

Written by
Jerry Huntsinger
January 31, 2019

On the other hand, if you don’t know the first thing about writing a fundraising letter, read on anyway. I’ll show you how easy it is and how much fun you can have doing it.

And if you hate fundraising letters, so what? You hate going to the dentist too, don’t you?

1) Develop and maintain a morgue of dead letters.

Get yourself on the mailing list of a lot of organisations. And when the stuff comes to you pick out letters, envelopes, reply slips, or enclosures that you particularly like, or think might apply to your writing situation. Put them in your morgue. Be selective about what you save. Hang on to just the stuff you like.

2) Maintain an ‘ideas file’.

As an inspiration occurs to you, write down phrases, headlines, or ideas that you can later incorporate into your letter. When you get into the spirit of the thing, you‘ll often find that some letters that come to your home, which you put in the morgue, spark a secondary idea that you can use in one of your own letters. Jot that idea down. Don’t let it float away.

3) Now you’re ready to write your letter.

Instead of sitting there at your desk with a dumb blank stare – aren’t you the lucky one? You’ve got your morgue. You’ve got your ideas file.

Stop! This is where you are going to waste the most time. Amateurs sit down and try to write a letter. That’s a mistake.

4) Put your subconscious to work.

Review your morgue file. Review your ideas file. And then spend about five minutes of intense concentration on the background material for the letter you are about to write. No more than five minutes. But make it a quality five minutes.

And then write down a word, phrase, or a sentence that captures the entire appeal, or the headline, or an opening sentence.

Don’t write one of those idiotic, nonsensical, so-called ‘case statements’ unless, of course, you want to write a pompous, intellectualised letter. Whatever you write down, keep it in the vernacular of exactly what you would say personally to one of your donors.

What you are looking for is a way to avoid creative paralysis. If you don’t have that word or sentence, then you’ll sit there and your mind will be entirely blocked and absolutely nothing will happen.

Or, an even worse scenario, you’ll start writing and you’ll go off in the wrong direction. And deep in your heart, you’ll know that your letter truly sucks.

5) ‘What if I don’t get that perfect phrase or sentence, then what do I do?’

Let your mind ferment.

After your five minutes of intense concentration, go off and do something else, preferably something physical. Don’t relax, or sit and contemplate, or read a book.

Some writers get their best ideas from the subconscious when they do something that has a certain rhythm to it, like running or some other kind of exercise. Go down to the gym and pump iron.

You may have to even sleep on it. Don’t rush the process. You see, so far you’ve only spent five minutes. And that compares to your previous record of two or three hours of sheer procrastination.

6) Then suddenly that right word, phrase, or sentence will zing into your mind and you’re off and running.

See how simple it is?

7) Okay, I hear you. You’ve done all the above and you haven’t come upwith anything.

That microchip in your brain is not processing any data.

So here’s what you do: just sit down and start with these words, ‘I’m going to write a letter to (fill in the blanks) about our need for (fill in the blanks) and how we need (fill in the blanks), and how people like you can help. Here’s what’s going on at XYZ organisation right now (tell what’s going on).’

This is a neat little warm-up drill. Surprisingly, what often happens is that once your lazy brain gets focused on the project, it then moves right ahead and releases all the subconscious thought you’ve already programmed into it.

And if you take this route, don’t worry about how you are going to organise the letter. Just get some words down on paper. You can rearrange them later on.

After you’ve finished this little exercise, go back over what you’ve done and often you’ll see that spark of an idea, a mini-headline or a phrase that, with some editing, can be the theme of the letter.

Then take that theme and go back and either re-write or re-organise your material.

I’m assuming that you are using some case histories or stories, because if you’re not, then letter writing is going to be very difficult for you and you’ll end up writing one-page case statements.

8) What about the process itself?

This is mostly a matter of personal preference. Some people labour over their words and they fall in love with every sentence they put on paper.

They stare at the screen. They stare at their handwriting. They are pleased with themselves when a certain phrase has a twist of irony to it, or if there is just a subtle innuendo in the headline.

Good writers never indulge in this kind of nonsense. Most of the strong writers I’ve met through the years tell me that they write really fast and then they edit really slowly. If you write slowly and become enamoured with each word, then editing is a difficult and impossible process.

Find a technique that is fast. This is not poetry we are creating. This is not philosophy. Letters are not sermons. Letters are simply talking to donors. Don’t work at it so hard. Let the words flow. Try talking into a recorder and then print it out for editing. Just do it. Then go on to something else.

9) Do not try to make corrections as you create the first draft.

Let the words surge through your mind. Don’t be neat and tidy.

10) ‘Writer’s block’ is a form of a trance. Wake up! Get up!

Another idiosyncrasy of mine: I never sit down and get comfortable before I write. Usually, I’m pacing around. If I sit down in an easy chair and put my feet up, all my blood flows out of my brain into the lower parts of my body. I become a vegetable and I sit there and daydream and go to sleep.

11) Set up your page margins exactly as you want them on the finished product.

Here’s a hint that will save you a tremendous amount of time: you may not know how long your material will run yet. But unless you are like Mozart and can create a string quartet that will never need editing, you’re going to have to shorten, lengthen, or adjust your copy.

This is easy and quick to do if your first draft has margins exactly the right length.

12) Roughly edit the first draft.

Don’t try to finish the letter right now. Just make a rough edit. At this stage, all you want is for the material to be arranged in proper sequence. Don’t worry about any fine tuning. Your pages will probably be a mess of corrections with arrows pointing where misplaced paragraphs should go.

Worry not. Final editing will come later.

13) Fine tune your letter.

Okay, now your letter is approximately the length you want it to be. Your margins are exactly the way you want them to be. Now it’s time to fine tune your letter.

Don’t rush this final editing process. Go through the letter and make some changes. Put it aside. Let it cool off and then go through it again.

14) Beware of repetitive words.

This is the mark of an amateur. For example, when talking about your summer camp programme, you may say,

Our blind children need a positive camping experience.

Then, perhaps in the next paragraph you might say,

Even older children can benefit from a positive camping experience.

A professional writer breaks this connection and the next time you use the word ‘camping’, another word must be used as the qualifier.

15) Stifle your vocabulary.

Don’t mentally search for that perfect word. Look for a word that’s meaningful to the reader. And that most likely will be a simple word.

Probably it’s a word that’s in common usage. Sure, my stuff is predictable. But it raises money.

Your extensive vocabulary can be a tremendous handicap if you don’t keep it under control during the editing process.

16) And now, the final step – a time saver that may be the most difficult thing you’ve ever done in your life. Are you ready for this?

Read your letter out loud to someone you trust; someone who won’t laugh at you. Someone who doesn’t have a slight disdain for fundraising letters (does such a person exist?)

You can’t find anyone who meets these criteria? Okay, then either close your door or go somewhere private and read the letter aloud to yourself.

Does it read easily? Do the words flow right off the paper? Are some of your phrases awkward? Then rearrange them until they are smooth. I guarantee you that this is the fastest way to edit. You’ll catch repetitive words. You’ll discover inadequate transitions.

© SOFII Foundation 2010-2014.

About the author: Jerry Huntsinger

Jerry Huntsinger

Jerry Huntsinger is revered in direct marketing circles as the dean of direct mail. 

Some years back Jerry gifted his archive of direct mail tutorials to SOFII and we’ve been serialising them ever since. All 50-plus are gems. Together, they add up to a complete ‘how-to’ guide to everything you need to know about direct mail fundraising.

These tutorials are edited and presented by Gwen Chapman.

Gwen_Chapman.jpg#asset:8990:urlGwen Chapman is a passionate advocate for donor-centric fundraising. She is a senior consultant with international experience in the non-profit sector in Canada, the United States, the UK and South Africa. She explains the importance to these tutorials here.

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