Recently, I've been listening to some interviews with well-known authors. And it struck me that the advice they shared applied very nicely to the writing we do as fundraisers.
So here's the useful stuff from the first three.
1. What makes a good writer by Armistead Maupin*
Do you have the habits of a good writer? Here's how Armistead Maupin describes them:
"I am always gathering. In my last novel, I let my character say, 'I'm rather like a magpie. I save the shiny bits and discard the rest and I've done that all my life'."
TAKEAWAY TIP: 'Shiny bits' can be found anywhere - in a book, a newspaper, a film, a blog and direct from the mouth of a real life person. Spend your time gathering interesting facts or thoughts, then your mind will be well-stocked with things that can be transformed into ideas.
*Armistead Maupin is the author of Tales of the City
2. Getting started with Andrea Levy*
Andrea Levy talks very interestingly about how she got started as a writer. She was thinking about doing an evening class and decided to have a go at writing beforehand. So this is what she did next...
"I read [what I'd written] aloud to my husband and I was so scared."
TAKEAWAY TIP: One of the best ways to see if your copy 'works' is to read it aloud – to yourself, if there's no one else around. If you find yourself gasping for breath, your sentences are too long. If you trip up on certain sentences or paragraphs, rewrite them to make them easier to read. If you find that you're bored, it's time for a serious rethink.
I may be making an assumption too far, but I included the end – where Andrea said she was scared – because I thought that was also a useful steer. If you really engage in what you're writing, it is a bit scary. Don't let what you write make you feel too comfortable.
Andrea goes on to point out that there are many ways to learn the craft of writing.
"[at an evening class]...I learned such a lot about writing, not in a teacher/blackboard sort of way, but by listening to other people's writing and listening to what the teacher said about it."
TAKEAWAY TIP: Practice your own writing, but also read good examples of other people's. I'm guessing there is also plenty of charity mail you get through your door. There's also SOFII and Osocio a click away. Keep hold of the best stuff to inspire you.
Andrea goes on to talk about how she learned a vital skill – telling a story.
"I learned about story-telling...and I realised I could just not worry about the grammar and actually go for the feeling, for the story and how you gain someone's interest."
TAKEAWAY TIP: It's incredible useful to have a firm grasp of grammar, good spelling and a decent vocabulary, but the best writers break the rules. Using 'But' or 'And' isn't the cardinal sin many would have you believe. Neither is a sentence that is just one word long. Or without a verb.
Don't write. Communicate.
And there's more good advice in what Andrea says above. In good fundraising copy, we need to find what 'really appeals' to a donor. Know your audience and pick out what will interest them. Go for 'the feeling'.
*Andrea Levy, winner of the Orange Prize 2004 for Small Island
3. From first draft to final with Ian McEwan*
So you write and re-write something and what happens next?
"I get the stage when I won't look at it again. You need the surprise. You need the distance of time to look back and see it through another set of eyes."
TAKEAWAY TIP I think this is very good advice indeed. Spend too much time with a piece of copy and, eventually, you can't see the wood for trees. Put that work to one side – and bingo! A day or two later it's fresh again and you can spot the language repetitions, clunky transitions and other problem areas.
So on to the sign-off process - perhaps the trickiest part of all. These authors don't have a committee of stakeholders reviewing their novels. That's probably why they're so good! My experience, unfortunately, is the more people involved in a sign-off process, the more bland and unresponsive the copy becomes. So how can we change that? Reduce the number of people involved ideally, but also make sure they're the right people. Here's what Ian McEwan does...
"I have a coterie of friends in Oxford and I give them the finished draft...They are permitted to be as brutal as they like...I think you do need sceptical friends to give you the benefit of a truthful opinion.
"A friend of mine said, 'I think this novel is absolutely awful. I think you should put it in a drawer and forget about it.' I didn't speak to him for 18 months. I hadn't learnt the rules of the game...You've got to allow them to say that. Now I could take it."
TAKEAWAY TIP: A 'sceptical friend' – I like that idea, particularly because I'd be expecting them to ask me questions about what I've written, not having a go at doing it themselves. I also like this quote because a fundraising copywriter (in an agency, a charity or freelance role) also needs to be able to 'take it'.