Every now and again a client tells me that the last writer they hired got it all wrong. I can’t help feeling sorry for the writer. We’re a tribe, even if we’re mostly invisible to each other, and I can imagine another writer’s pain all too easily.
I’m sure there are freelance writers out there who do get it wrong. And I’m pretty sure I’ve sometimes been that writer. That’s why the first thing that goes through my mind when a new client asks me to write something is: What if you hate my work?
Close on the heels of that come a few more worries:
What if I draft a key proposal and the funder rejects it? Will you think it was my fault?
What if I’m too stupid to understand your charity’s work/accounts/fundraising plan?
What if I miss the deadline?
What if you have a brilliant in-house writer and you’ve asked for help only because you’re short-staffed? And what if your in-house writer has a strong style? Should I try to copy it? Or write in my own voice?
When Bad Things Happen to Good Writers
All these things have happened to me. Well, almost all. I’ve never yet missed a deadline, and no client has told me they hate a draft. People have however disagreed strongly about whether or not my approach was the best.
Sometimes, the person who retained me loves what I do, but the CEO or a Trustee doesn’t. One Trustee once told me — blushing, and apologizing for the dreadful thing he was about to say — that my multi-million pound case for support was “frankly too sexy”. It was anything but. It described technical solutions to a technical problem. He’d been disturbed, I think, by the short sentences, active verbs, and straightforward appeal for engagement. Whatever…
I’ve also spent days on proposals that were turned down. Only now, after thirty years in the industry, do I dare to believe it wasn’t my fault. The last time it happened, the well known American philanthropist had simply changed priorities. That first rejection should never, of course, be taken to mean the door’s locked for ever.
I’ve learned that it’s best to write in my own voice, the one that’s fuelled by coffee and music. I also know that getting it right may mean spending a lot of time reading around a subject, or digging into a charity’s history and plans. I used not to bill for this “prep” time. Today I do, and so should every professional writer. Just saying.
How To Help The Writer Get It Right
If you’ve gone to the trouble of finding and hiring a freelance writer, there are some things you can do to help them*. Here are the five best practices that I’ve learned from my wonderful clients.
- Tell the truth
As a lawyer once said to me (don’t ask), “Please. No surprises.”
Your CEO is going to leave right before you launch a campaign. Your key funder is about to withdraw support. There’s a serious misunderstanding amongst senior staff or Trustees. The project director’s been fired.
These kinds of things crop up all the time. You may think they’re irrelevant for the writer. After all, we’re not going to mention them. But we do need to know. If there’s the tiniest bit of smoke somewhere, we smell fire. And when we smell fire, we don’t write so well.
An astute reader can sniff that smoke too.
Trust us with the truth. We’ll make you look good. That’s our job. And if there’s something you need to sort out before you send a proposal or campaign materials, we’ll tell you that too. That’s also our job.
- Think twice before you hit “send.”
Inevitably you will send your writer, in email attachments, old proposals, mailings, financial statements, links to your strategic plan on your website, and so forth. I think of this as desk dumping. It’s fine, but ask yourself each time: would you print out and read this many pages? Because if we’re going to understand you, we will probably have to do just that.
At the very least, include a succinct guide to the documents. Let us know who wrote them, why, and how they relate to your needs now. If there’s something that already works, tell us.
Better yet, start off by meeting your writer in person. Together we can zip through all the background documents. The writer can ask questions on the spot and will quickly see what’s already working and what isn’t. It’s a much more efficient introduction to the background material.
- Allow time, for drafting and for drafts.
I like at least a month’s lead time for an ambitious proposal, and much longer for a full-blown case for support. I have to get to know your charity back to front, talk to people, and experiment with creative approaches. You will want to run drafts by colleagues or Trustees and let me know what needs changing. It usually takes three drafts to get a proposal right. As for a big case for campaign support – it can go through some 20 versions over a whole year. That’s not getting it wrong 19 times. That’s getting it right.
- Talking of talking… don’t lock us up.
You writers, a client once said. You always want to talk to people.
We do! It’s lonely staring at a computer all day!
But it’s not just our sad need for human contact that you’re paying for. We need to ask questions and hear plain English answers. We listen for stories and insights, and for the words that the people who love your charity like the best. We want to know what your top donors and Trustees really think.
Introduce us nicely, so people will want to talk to us. Do it right away, when you first hire us. My starter list for interviews might include: the CEO, CFO, project directors, campaign chair and/or a Trustee, and three or four beneficiaries (I don’t like that word but you know who I mean – the real people whose lives you make better).
- Write to us.
We too want to help disabled children and teenagers with cancer. We want people to have clean drinking water and decent medical care. We want a cleaner planet. Your stories, your work, you: it all matters to us.
So please, send your lonely writer a note some day. If we helped you raise money, let us know. Let us know too if we made a difference to you or your colleagues – if you enjoy writing more yourself, or if we inspired you in any other way.
And a million thanks to the people who do just that for me. You make my day!
* Why help us at all, you may wonder? Because it makes for a better relationship, better writing, and more money raised. Simple.