3 Common Misconceptions About Good Writing for Nonprofits

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.


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