Grammar? We don't need no stinking grammar!



Here’s a direct mail pro-tip: once you’ve finished writing the Greatest Fundraising Letter Ever, read it aloud to yourself.

Does it sound choppy?  Are your sentences short?  Are you starting sentences with conjunctions, repeating yourself, breaking sentences between pages, and leaving all those annoying commas out of the mix?


I hate to break it to you, but if that’s the case, you might want to toss that first draft in the circular file and start again.

Because good direct mail writing is bad.

...Really bad, even (sorry, Mrs. McCormick -- my 6th grade English teacher just can't catch a break!).

But if there’s one thing I want you to take away from everything I’ve said, it’s that a good fundraising letter isn’t about you or how good of a writer you are.  In fact, it’s not even about how good your cause or your organization is.

A successful fundraising letter is always, always, always about your donor and how great he is.  A great fundraising letter is “donor-centric.”

And while you might take that to mean you should focus the content of your writing on complimenting the donor or thanking the donor for her support, it also means you should tailor your writing style to best suit how we know a donor reads.

No matter how beautifully written, how informative, and how technically PERFECT your letter is -- and no matter how deeply invested in your cause your donor is -- what we know is donors skim.

Oh, come on, you know how you read the paper in the morning.  You’re only looking at headlines and bold text and captions -- maybe absorbing a few of the shorter phrases as you pull your eyes down the page.  I mean, when you say you “read an article this morning,” would you say you really read and absorbed every single word?  Probably not.

It’s okay.  Everyone does it.  It’s just part of the way humans process written information quickly to get the gist before diving in and reading thoroughly.

Good fundraising letters look poorly written when read closely, but it’s because they’re written to be skimmed at high speeds.  By repeating asks and important phrases often, your donor has a higher likelihood of absorbing that information.  Keeping lines and sentences short increases the likelihood that your donor will read an entire sentence or thought.  Breaking sentences and paragraphs in abrupt ways shortens paragraphs and coaxes your donor to continue on to the next paragraph. 

And leaving out commas?  I know it seems horrific, but a comma is a pause.  And pausing is the last thing your donors are going to do while skimming a letter.  If you find yourself lamenting the loss of your commas, your sentences are probably too long to begin with.

So, no offense to Mrs. McCormick -- I swear I was listening in English -- but in the realm of direct mail, there’s just no room for sticklers.

Remember as you write that your letters aren’t going to Mrs. McCormick (or, in the highly likely chance your teacher wasn’t named Mrs. McCormick, insert name of preferred English instructor here).  They’re going to your donors.  And they’ll probably forgive you a few missing commas if it means they can understand you better.

...Unless Mrs. McCormick IS one of your donors.  Then you might be a little bit of trouble.