3 Common Misconceptions About Good Writing for Nonprofits

December 7, 2014

Lots of people think they know how to write well—the problem is that most of them are, shall we say, a bit misguided. The truth is, many of these people actually could be good writers if only they would forget the lessons they learned from their high school English teachers.

Here are three common writing misconceptions:

1. You shouldn’t start a sentence with and.

It is perfectly acceptable to start a sentence with conjunctions such as and, or, but, or so. In fact, starting a sentence this way can help your writing sound more conversational—always a good thing.

Warning: if you start a sentence with and, don’t be surprised if someone tries to correct you. Legions of people will swear on the life of their ninth grade English teacher that doing so is grammatically incorrect.

It’s not.

Don’t believe me? Here’s an example from a recent New York Times article.


But nowadays we simply won’t invest, even when the need is obvious and the timing couldn’t be better. And don’t tell me that the problem is …”

So don’t let anyone try to tell you it’s incorrect. Because if the New York Times’ editors approved it, trust me, it’s okay for you to do it too.


2. You should always use active, not passive voice.

You were probably taught at one point to use active voice whenever possible, because it makes your writing stronger. It’s generally true that writing in the active voice makes for a stronger sentence and improves clarity in your writing.

But there are some situations in which you should use passive voice.

One example when you might use it is if you were trying to avoid blame, as in the infamous example:

Mistakes were made.

Hopefully, you will never have to write this for your nonprofit, but if your goal is to avoid identifying who is making said mistakes, you might find yourself using passive voice.

But that’s not the only time you might use passive voice. It can also be used when you are trying to emphasize the object of a sentence instead of the actor, or if the actor is unknown or unimportant. For example:

The ALS ice bucket challenge caught the Internet by storm earlier this year. This social media phenomenon was considered one of the most successful social media fundraisers of 2014. 

The sentence above could have been rewritten as: Many people considered the ALS ice bucket challenge one of the most successful…

But the sentence is stronger by starting with “This social media phenomenon” because it is referring to a subject that was mentioned in the last sentence, rather than starting with a new subject: Many people.

There is actually a rule for this (one you should follow) and it’s called the known-new contract, also known as the given-new principle: Each new sentence starts off by referencing something that has already been stated as opposed to starting off with a brand new idea.

Following this rule will improve clarity in your writing. I won’t bore you with the details, but if you want to learn more, here’s a good explanation.

3. You should always write in full sentences.

When it comes to writing copy for ads, emails, or direct mail, you can be even looser with the rules. You don’t even have to write in full sentences. Consider the following copy for an Allstate ad in Money magazine:

Because the same person you count on to protect everything in the here and now also has some pretty good ideas about the future.

Like setting a reasonable retirement goal. Helping to make your money work harder. And showing you all the ways life insurance can help provide for your family.

Technically, none of these are grammatically correct sentences. If you were writing an essay, you would combine the whole thing (plus the sentence that came before it) into one sentence with punctuation added. But since this is an ad, the rules go out the window.

That’s because long sentences are difficult to read. And if your ad (or email or letter or brochure, etc.) is difficult to read, your audience will turn the page, click away, or throw your message in the garbage.

If you look through magazines, email, direct mail, and even the books, you will see lots of examples of this, and it’s perfectly okay.


So the next time someone tries to school you on the rules of good writing, tell them you’ve got a thing or two to teach them instead.


Three Questions You Should Always Ask to Avoid a Communications Fail

November 29, 2014

What I’m about to tell you may seem obvious. As you read on, you may think, Of course we do this. We always do this. Everybody knows that. What is this, Communication for Dummies?

Okay, before you start to chuckle and guffaw and get all overconfident…you wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve seen this mistake play out in the workplace.

There are three questions you should always ask before you write a single sentence for any type of communication initiative. If you don’t, your message will fail–every time.

1. What is the goal here?

This basic question is overlooked so often. Without a goal–no matter how talented a writer you are–you cannot effectively write anything.

If you understand the goal, you can create a strategy. The goal could be to increase donations, to increase the number of clients served, to spread awareness about your cause or services, and so on.

Creating an informational sheet of the services you offer? Not a goal.

2. Who is your audience?

You cannot effectively write a message without understanding who your audience is. Every message needs to be tailored to your target audience.

If they are donors, how old are they and what are their interests? What do they care about? How are they influenced? Once you understand them, you can write a message specifically for them.

This question ties in with the next question.

3. What’s in it for them?

Once you understand your audience’s wants and needs, you need to define what benefit you are offering them with your message. Every single communication must be written with this in mind.

Your nonprofit may want to tout its brand new one-of-a-kind program, but unless you find a way to turn that into a benefit for your target audience, they will not care.

Let that sink in for a moment. You may care, your boss probably cares, and your boss’ boss cares a whole lot. But your target audience won’t care–not unless you tell them why they should.

Whether your goal is to spread awareness about the work you do to prevent homelessness, treat patients, find homes for pets, or save the planet, you need to explain how your cause benefits the target audience of your message.

It’s so easy to fall back on the assumption that people will automatically care enough to take action. Unfortunately, they won’t.

Think I’m wrong? There are millions of people starving in third world countries right now, and few people are doing anything about it. Only when a catastrophe brings poverty front and center (think Haiti and Katrina) do people start to care. And when people care, they take action.

It’s not so much that people are selfish. People are just busy. They are wrapped up in their own lives, and there are a million different things clamoring for their attention every day. Unless they are directly affected or touched, they won’t pay attention.

Give them a reason to stop their daily routine. Tell them what’s in it for them, or their children, or their children’s children. Explain to them why they should care, and only then, will they take action.


Five Common Web Writing Mistakes

January 19, 2012

magnifying glassWhen was the last time you read an entire web page? Probably never.

That’s because we read websites differently than we read print. When we use the web, we are scanning for specific information. We are looking for an answer to a question, and anything that isn’t relevant is in the way.

When we read on the web, instead of reading the text from beginning to end, our eyes quickly scan the page for keywords, headlines, or links that will give us the information we need, and we ignore everything else. If we can’t quickly find what we’re looking for, we go somewhere else.

That’s why writing for the web is so different than writing for a print publication. Here are five problems to avoid when writing web content.

1. Too much text.

Nobody takes the time to read through long paragraphs of text online. Paragraphs and sentences should be short and to the point, and information should be organized into discrete chunks, using headlines or links. Get rid of as many words as you can until the message is clear, simple, and to the point.

2. Use of unfamiliar terms.

Jargon confuses the reader. Terms that may be clear to employees may not be clear to the average user. The titles of links should be clear and easy to understand.

3. No way to quickly start key activities.

Forms and key activities should be easy to find and accessible from the home page.

4. Lack of organization. 

The path to find answers to your questions should be intuitive and logical. Users shouldn’t have to think about which link to click.

5. Busy home page.

The home page should include a title, a tagline, and a brief paragraph explaining your site if necessary. The home page should be a launching pad to help users quickly find the page they need. If you provide a link to everything directly from the home page, it becomes too cluttered and frustrates users.

The bottom line: don’t assume anyone is going to actually read your website. Instead make sure users can quickly scan it to find key information.

Ignore the negativity and start freelance writing

December 20, 2011

Have you noticed a sense of negativity toward new freelance writers from established writers and editors? I’ve seen it again and again. On blogs and networking sites, some writers are downright prickly, not to mention discouraging.

Here’s an example from a freelance writing discussion board. A new writer introduced himself as a newbie writer and asked the group for advice on how to start a freelancing career. The response from writers in the group? Don’t.

no entryYou will find lots of people who will tell you not to bother pursuing writing as a career if you’re just starting out – they will cite competition from out-of-work journalists, the poor economy, the dying field of journalism, content mills that pay pennies for an article. But the truth is, now is the perfect time to pursue writing – the Internet provides boundless opportunities for writers.

Think of all the people in the world who have access to the Internet. There are billions of web pages, and billions more are added every day. Think of all the companies who have a web presence, and all the small businesses that don’t have a web presence but need one. All of these companies need high quality content to continually engage readers and drive traffic back to their sites.

If you want to get paid for writing, opportunities are out there. You just need to go out and get them. I’ll be writing more on this site about concrete steps for landing work, but I suspect many of you may already know how. There is no secret for finding work, despite what some writing sites claim. The only trick is to just start trying, and to keep trying. And most importantly, don’t give up.

If you love to write and you want to make a living with your writing, you owe it to yourself to try. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.

Freelance writing – how to handle rejection

December 20, 2011

Freelance writing rejectionIf you want to be a writer, you have to be able to handle rejection. I am thin-skinned by nature, so I struggle with this one. Writing is so personal that it’s hard not to feel insulted when your writing is rejected. Putting your work out there to be judged by others is a risk, and one that’s bound to result in a slap in the face at least some of the time.

When you are applying for a writing job, or submitting an article, or a story, or a blog post, it’s helpful to keep in mind that for every published article you read, there are usually dozens more the author tried to get published, but failed.

Consider this:

Stephen King’s Carrie was rejected some 30 times before it was published, and he almost threw away the manuscript because he was convinced it was no good. Actually, he did throw it away, but his wife fished it out of the wastebasket because she knew it had potential.

Kathryn Stockett’s wildly successful page-turner The Help was rejected 60 times before it was published. But she kept sending it out because she believed the book was good, despite all evidence to the contrary.

What were these editors thinking? I can think of no other explanation other than the editors either never bothered to read the manuscripts, or they made up their minds without giving it a fair shake. Some people will make assumptions about your work before they even read it. And you can’t control what kind of person is in charge of publishing or rejecting your manuscript.

Keep in mind that in order to be successful in writing, you must go through rejection. The more you try, even if you are rejected, the closer you are to reaching success.

The important point is not to let others change your belief in your ability. Because the most powerful determiner of your own success is belief in yourself.

Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right. – Henry Ford

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