Look at Your Copy From the Other End

You write fundraising copy for a client. It's pretty good if you do say so yourself and the client loves it.

Always delightful.

If you're lucky, you might have some say in the editing process once it leaves you. And if you're REALLY LUCKY, you might get to weigh in on the design.

If you were born under fair skies on the seventh day of the seventh month, you're on seed mail and you actually see how the package looks when it arrives in the mail.

I was lucky enough to receive some seed mail for a job I worked on recently. And it was a revelation. Seeing my copy from the other end, i.e., as a donor would see it and receive it, was eye opening. It certainly wasn't the first time it's happened. I don't know what was different about this particular instance.

But for some reason, the act of having the letter mailed to me, opening it, and encountering it with fresh eyes allowed me to ... encounter it with fresh eyes. (Hey, sometimes there's only one best way to say it)

Here's why I think it's so useful:

  • You get to see how it looks in a stack of mail. Did that first class stamp make it stand out? What about that handwritten address? Did the teaser do more harm than good? Did it make you want to open it? Be honest and evaluate if your direct mail wizardry worked.
  • You can ruthlessly appraise your writing. There's a sense of detachment when you open a package that's been mailed to you. Even if you wrote it, there's a remove once it's sailed through the good old USPS. Does it have the effect you intended? Do you find it as powerful as you did when you were at your computer looking at the screen now that it's in your hands? What would you do differently next time? What would you repeat?
  • You can evaluate the strength of the case for giving. And here's the biggie ... would your letter make you want to write a check? Or at least visit the website of the organization to learn more? Are your words as compelling as a recipient of the letter as they were to you as a writer?
It's a good exercise if you're tough on yourself and honest. 
What other things would you look for?

Checking It Twice...

I recently came across a link to the infamous (to me, anyway; I first read it many years ago!) David Ogilvy memo, "How to Write."

It's a classic ("Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well.") in which he offers 10 helpful "hints" to colleagues.

It was particularly gratifying to see #7 ("Never send a letter or a memo on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning—and then edit it.") and #8 ("If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it.")

We make it a practice at M&C to always have someone other than the original writer review a piece of copy before it goes out.

There are a couple of obvious reasons.
  • A fresh set of eyes is far more likely to catch a missing word, a typo, or other easily-overlooked error.
  • An outside perspective is also more likely to stumble on a lapse in logic, a confusing construction, or a misplaced modifier ... and if a fellow writer stumbles, I can almost guarantee you other readers will as well. As with typos, it's better to catch these before the client, and allow the client to maintain a more strategic focus.
 But over the past 25+ years, I've seen some other, even more significant benefits as well.
  1. Editing forces you to sharpen your own writing. It's a built-in self-improvement program; watching for "mistakes" in others' writing also helps you become a bit more critical of your own (critical in a positive way, not as self-deprecation).
  2. It's great cross-training for the team. Each client has a unique voice; familiarizing multiple people with that tone helps ensure we're more than one-person-deep on any account. If the primary writer is out – such as with my recent surgery – another writer can step in almost seamlessly. (That's a stronger benefit for service providers, obviously, but can also be applicable within an organization: for example, could your media relations person cover the blog for a short period, if needed? Or volunteer tweets?)
  3. Editing teaches humility. And not just in learning to graciously accept input. A good editor learns that there is more than one way to say something, and is able to let that happen. That involves learning to rise above your own pride/ego/vanity ... those very same self-imposed barriers to listening. And better listeners make better writers. Curb your ego, and I think you'll find it far easier to let a story tell itself.
If you're not currently having someone review your writing, I encourage you to try it. You may just find your own capabilities improving!