6 deadly sins of nonprofit writing

Cause communications can help an organization get highly sought resources, but only when pros avoid falling prey to these common offenses. 

This story was originally published on PR Daily in November 2014.

Veteran nonprofit writers know that charities win credibility with strong writing and lose credibility with poor writing.

“Great content builds authority,” writes Caryn Stein, Director of Content Strategy for the Network for Good. “Great content reinforces trust.”

And with credibility, authority, and trust come grants, donations, influence, visibility, members, and volunteers — all the makings of a successful nonprofit organization.

For those who practice the art of writing for nonprofits, I offer up these six deadly writing sins, which I know about only because I have, on occasion, committed every last one of them:

1. Enormous sentences.

I have believed that it was so important that I make my vital, pressing, urgent point in the very first sentence of my direct appeal letter that I simply explained myself into a tape recorder and produced a transcript; then, I added punctuation; but I made sure that I got everything into that first sentence, because not only are long sentences: 1) smarter, 2) balanced, and 3) better, according to Mrs. Landers-Strunk-White, my 4th grade teacher, but, second, what was I saying?

Don’t be infatuated by your own words. Short, simple sentences can get the point across just as well as long ones, and sometimes even more powerfully.

2. Compulsive clichés.

[My organization] and America faced an unprecedented crisis in [my issue], especially the children, and if we didn’t utilize effective governance to get all hands on deck, then our organization and all of our stakeholders wouldn’t survive this perfect storm of donor fatigue, and grapefruits the size of — wait for it — hail.

If you’re at a loss for words, don’t fall prey to clichés. Instead, take a break from writing and come back to it once you can have a fresh perspective.

3.Relying on yourself as your own proofreader.

I am a skilled communications specialist with more than two decades of writing experience. I don’t need any editorial help as I am fully capable of poofreading my own writing.

Note the mistake; it was intentional. Even the best writers and communicators can benefit from another’s eyes when it comes to proofreading. Don’t convince yourself that you can do it alone, because you’ll often miss something and then look silly.

4. Over-capitalization.

We Welcome the Governor, the Mayor, the City Councilor, the President of The Board, the Assistant Manager of Food Services, the Supplier of Office Supplies, the Incoming Chairman and the Outgoing Chairman of The Local Chamber of Commerce, the Friendly Policeman, the Family Doctor, our Dear Friends and our Loyal Supporters to Our Annual Fundraising Event.

Is there that big of an importance to everything you do and everyone you meet? Not only is excessive capitalization incorrect according to the AP Stylebook, it’s also unnecessary.

You won’t offend or demean anyone by placing his or her titles in lowercase.

5. Excessive acronyms.

When I was with the WWWWFFFFFF I spent so much time in my own special, wonderful world of women, wildlife, wrestling, wainscoting, flora, fauna, federations, ferengui, foundations and fun that my CSIA (Constant Stream of Incomprehensible Acronyms) AOEC (Alienated Our Entire Constituency). TTYL!

Jargon weakens articles, but so does the overuse of acronyms. Using them excessively can confuse your audience, and may make them not want to read your writing anymore.

Though some acronyms are a necessary component to nonprofit writing, replace some with either the full organization or event name, or find a way to simplify the reference.

6. Over-listing.

Connected text is hard; it requires prepositions, punctuation, special care, orderly thought. Lists are so much easier: countless enumerations of goals, objectives, strategies, programs, important points, less important points, priorities, publications, obstacles, achievements.

Lists are a great way to organize thoughts and help the reader understand what to expect. It’s also a popular style that caters to the fact that many readers now skim articles. However, that doesn’t mean you should list everything to death. Be purposeful in your bullet points.

Mark Twain once advised: “To get the right word in the right place is a rare achievement.”

Whether writing for a grant application, newsletter, fundraising appeal letter, Facebook post, or annual report, find the words, in the right place, at the right time.

That is the daily challenge faced by those who write not for profit, but for a cause.

Robert Slate is the content marketing director at Influential Designs, a marketing firm specializing in both nonprofit and for-profit communications. A version of this post originally appeared on Medium.


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