18 Feb Take the Time to Write Well
By David Allen, Development for Conservation
Aldo Leopold, the famed author of A Sand County Almanac, is revered today almost as much for the quality of his writing as for its content. He was an early riser and often wrote in his journal in the wee hours just before sunrise. Once a week, Leopold brought loose-leaf essays to a secretary for typing. The next day, he would red-pencil edit the typed copy and throw it in a drawer. And there they would sit, sometimes for years, before he would take them out again and start working on them.
It seems, at least for Leopold, that the secret to good writing was in the steeping.
In today’s Information-Age-rush-to-produce, we often sacrifice quality of writing for quantity and speed. I find it ironic that in doing so, communication actually suffers and we enjoy it less. Email is a burden. Reports are skimmed, if they’re read at all. And everything we produce is high-stress, last minute, eleventh-hour, right before the deadline. (I am pointing the finger at myself here, too. I often write this blog late Monday afternoon or evening, and sometimes early Tuesday morning.)
This year, I invite you to join me in writing differently. Let’s commit ourselves to anticipating more. Getting ahead of the curve. Let our writing steep more. Let’s be more effective communicators.
February is a good month to start thinking about writing for the year. If we anticipate the needs early in the year, we can devote ourselves to gathering the stories we will need later.
How do you gather the stories you tell in your writing? Do you interview new board members? Landowners? Volunteers? Donors? Do you ask about their motivations? Particular interests? The difference they want to make in the world? Do you have a way to capture their stories in their own words? Like a tape recorder or video camera? Do you invite them to write something? Are you thinking about gathering good stories all the time, even without a specific use in mind? Where do you store your material – maybe in a drawer full of red-lined typed pages?
Once the stories are gathered and recorded, you can adapt the writing to many different communications needs. Think about it: You can already list nearly all the written materials you will need for the entire year – at least for fundraising. The renewal letter sequence. The Spring Appeal and Fall Appeal. Various Thank You letters. Case materials and fact sheets for specific campaigns, proposals, update reports. Invitations to special events. Even newsletter articles.
Get started writing now, in February. There’s no need to wait, and if you can get ahead now, it’s more likely that the writing will be consistent both in tone and in message. Consider your audience. Have something to say. Use outlines. Draft and red-line your copy. And maybe even throw it in a drawer for steeping.
Here are several additional thoughts and ideas:
- Always, always, always let someone else read your stuff before it goes out. They will catch things you miss by virtue of having seen it too many times. It can also help if you give them something specific to look for – like clarity of message, or tone, or passive voice, and so on.
- Regularly scan for the we/us/our sensitivity. When articles or letters refer to “we” and “our,” those pronouns should explicitly include the reader (or donor). If you are asking donors to help “us” protect more land, consider rewriting the sentence.
- Avoid writing letters based on last year’s letters as much as possible. Write fresh, from scratch – at least for the first draft.
- Consider a communications theme for the year. Bring in a story and tell it from various angles in different articles at different times of the year. Refer back to previous articles. Drip feed information.
- And avoid writing just to get it done. Think about the needs of a specific audience in the broad sense, but write with a specific person in mind. A specific $1,000 member, for example (I’m referring to a real person, here), instead of the group, “$1,000 members.” You might explain things a bit more simply for someone not necessarily familiar with land trust work. (Keep in mind that between a third and half of your members will be in their first few years of membership.)
Can you add to this list? What do you do to practice good writing?
Cheers, and have a great week!
PS: Most of this blog was originally published in February of 2015.
Photo by Mylene2401 from Pixabay