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How to overcome the “I’m not a good writer” syndrome

Vice President (FORMER)

“I’m not much of a writer.”

How often have you heard this from colleagues throughout your professional life? If you’re like me, the answer is many times over. Perhaps you have even said it about yourself.

As fundraising professionals, we all know the value of the written word. Concise and compelling writing communicates vision, it helps build relationships, and it engages prospects. Whether you’re writing a case for support or inviting a prospect to a cultivation meeting, what you say and how you say it plays a crucial role in your success. It represents tremendous opportunity. Unfortunately – and perhaps not surprisingly – it is among the most anxiety-producing exercises our clients face. So frightened are most people of the writing process that we consultants, as their trusted partners, are often tasked with taking on the project instead.

But the fact is that writing need not be that difficult. We all know the basic steps: identify the central theme or question, proffer an answer or solution, and present arguments that logically lead to our conclusion. But how do we ensure that we create something that readers actually enjoy rather than simply tolerate?

The good news: there are eight simple tips and tricks that can help even the most tentative writer embrace the process:

1. Record ideas even if they’re only phrases. You don’t have to get the prose right the first time. It’s always better to get the ideas down “on paper” so you start with something rather than nothing.

2. It’s okay to take inspiration from someone else’s work. Not every idea has to be 100% original. Always give credit where credit is due, but also feel free to elaborate in a meaningful way on existing bodies of work and schools of thought.

3. Don’t assume your reader thinks like you or understands your logic. Be explicit in guiding your reader to your conclusion. Connect the dots for them. Going from A to D without acknowledging B and C leaves the reader to his or her own assumptions regarding the route taken. In writing, the journey is just as important as the destination, so lead your reader with intent.

4. Having said that, don’t say more when less will do. While you do not want to sacrifice logic for brevity, you also don’t want to say in a page what could have been said in a paragraph.

5. Cadence and rhythm matter. When you read what you’ve written, what do you hear? Would two syllables sound better than three? Is a little alliteration in order? Pay attention to the musicality of the written word.

6. The occasional grace note makes all the difference, but only occasional. Too much embellishment will quickly feel pretentious. For instance, take tip five above. Creating a sentence referencing alliteration that is, itself, alliterative would be seen as creative – if I’m lucky, anyway! – only one time. Doing something like that a second time would elicit eye rolls from editors everywhere.

7. Redundancy is generally to be avoided unless employed for emphasis or in service to rhythm.

And, finally, once you arrive to the end:

8. Edit, re-order, make changes, re-read, ask peers to review, then do it over and over again until it feels right. Yes, pay attention to how it feels. Trust yourself to know. If you listen to your instincts carefully, you will.