I recently read an interview with Jack Hart, the managing editor of The Oregonian and author of “A Writer’s Coach: An Editor’s Guide to Words that Work.” He talked primarily about the writing process, but he also mentioned several qualities of good writing:
-It’s tight, with clean syntax.
-It’s colorful, with lively verbs and descriptive elements that put you in the scene.
-It’s rhythmic, with a pleasing cadence.
So what does this mean for nonprofit communicators who want to produce excellent writing for newsletters, websites and more? Let’s look at each of these four points, in order.
1) Be straightforward and keep it short.
Lots of nonprofit writing suffers from “warm-up disease.” Don’t start with paragraphs of background information, or even worse, long descriptions of the process that led up to your project or whatever it is you are writing about. Get right to the point and tell us what we need to know.
Lean toward shorter sentences and paragraphs than you may be used to writing. Many of us were taught to write by instructors who demanded a certain word count. Unfortunately, that teaches us to provide unnecessary background, to drag out our points, to add a whole lot of extra details, and to repeat ourselves — none of which helps create tight, clean writing.
2) Find the right balance of emotion and facts.
Good nonprofit writing takes advantage of the emotions that naturally come with many of the topics that the sector tackles, while incorporating factual information that supports the need for action or change. In other words, good nonprofit writing speaks to both the heart and the head. Grab my attention with a moving story, then convince me that I can do something about it with some great stats. That’s forceful writing.
3) Think of yourself as a story teller.
Lots of nonprofit writing is in black and white, and it needs to be in color. I’m not talking about the color of the ink on the page or the pixels on the screen. Remember in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy opens the door after the tornado drops her house? The movie is black and white until that point, and turns into glorious color as she opens the door. That’s the kind of transformation you should shoot for. An easy first step is to replace as many generic words in your writing as you can with specific ones.
4) Write conversationally, but with purpose.
I read out loud nearly everything I write for nonprofit clients, looking for a certain tone and balance in the way the words flow. It’s easier to achieve that cadence if you write more like you talk. But that doesn’t mean you can ramble on. Know where you are headed, what points you need to make, what reactions you want to provoke, and bring your reader along in a comfortable conversation.
Great writing takes hard work, even for the most experienced professionals. Not everything that comes out of your office needs to sparkle and shine. But for pieces that demand excellence, give yourself the time to work over your drafts with these points in mind.