I’m a writer, not a whiteboard!

“I’ll know it when I see it.”

If you’re a professional writer and hear that, your blood runs cold.

Because it really means, “I don’t have time to think about it, and I have no respect for your time.”

Put on a blindfold and start throwing darts. We’ll eventually hit the middle of the dartboard!

Except you probably won’t hit the bullseye. Ever. You might never get close to the dartboard at all.

And it’s not just blindly throwing darts. Each “throw” — assuming it’s a serious attempt at effective, readable, persuasive writing — is a meaningful use of time, energy, and commitment.

Rejected, ignored, tossed out — because it’s not the thing someone will know once they see.

The writer becomes a whiteboard. Scribble something, erase, scribble something else. Except they aren’t just quick scribbles. Each one takes hours of time and a lot of energy.

After a few random attempts, the quality starts to drop. The energy fades. The writer goes into survival mode, like a bear in hibernation. Just “on” enough to type out words that more or less do the job.

But Mr. I’ll-Know-It-When-I-See-It (let’s call him Mr. IKIWISI — and yes, he’s usually a Mr.) keeps sending it back. “Take another stab at it,” he says, often using language that shows he thinks writing is a form of violence.

By the time Mr. IKIWISI finally sees “it,” it’s a weak shadow of what it should have been. Sometimes, that weak-shadow quality is exactly what Mr. IKIWISI was looking for. In any case, far too much time has been spent, and the product is usually ineffective.

Now it’s true that sometimes the struggle to put something in writing is actually the struggle to know what you wanted to say in the first place. You know: How do I know what I think until I see what I say?

That “figure it out” stage should happen on a document that’s not pretending to be the final public piece you want. There should be a document that puts in writing these things:

  • Whom we’re communicating with.
  • What we know about them and what they know about us.
  • What precisely we want this project to encourage them to do (even if that is just to get them to think about something).
  • The emotional coloring of the message.
  • The story we’re going to tell to make it vivid for them.
  • How the writing will reach them. (A letter sent by mail? A web page? A speech?)
  • Anything else necessary to know — limited number of words, unusual context, etc.

This document might be called the Brief. That’s what they call it in the advertising world. It’s where Mr. IKIWISI should get all choosy about the message. And once he (and anyone else who should have an opinion about it) agree …

Then it goes to the writer. (Who usually should be part of creating this document in the first place.)

Now the writer, even this well equipped, can still get it wrong. Even the best writers sometimes miss the mark. But at least they’re heading in the right direction. They’ll be able to fix it much more quickly than they could with random “stabs.”

Here’s why this matters: An hour spent up front creating solid, complete, and well thought-out brief will save 10 hours (or more) later on. That’s 10 frustrating, wheel-spinning, soul-crushing hours that usually end with a less-effective product.

So use your writer as a writer. And your whiteboard as a whiteboard.

(This post first appeared on May 8, 2018.)


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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About the blogger

Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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