Most of the time, most ideas worth writing about don’t show up fully formed at the precise moment we stare at a blank sheet of paper.
Indeed, if we expect all of our useful, original ideas to show up only after we settle into the chair, we are setting ourselves up for a lot of frustration.
The ideas come at other moments. Our job is to remain curious and attentive, so that we stop for long enough to notice our glimpses of passionate insight, of outraged exasperation or of simple, concise observation.
When these moments occur, we must hold on to them for long enough to write down the feelings we have, the core of the insight, and a few scratches about how the argument will flow.
Once that’s done, the writing boils down to the relatively simpler act of putting words around the thoughts so others can see them too.
One of the characteristics I don’t see people talk about as much when looking for successful, modern-day fundraisers are writing skills and digital proficiency.
It’s easy to think that the traditional job interview is a great way to find good fundraisers, and it is a good place to start. Fundraising meetings have a lot in common with job interviews: the potential funder is trying to figure out your story, your motivation for being there, and whether she connects enough with you and with what you’re saying to make a commitment to investing in a relationship with you and, over time, with your organization. A lot like hiring.
But it’s a mistake to stop there.
We know that today everyone lives on their devices. This means that a big part of the modern fundraiser’s job is to maintain and feed a web of relationships: a good fundraiser invests heavily in a core group of 20 relationships but is keeping a lower-touch pulse on as many as 100 relationships at various stages. This has gotten much easier thanks to technology – if you do it right.
The modern fundraiser’s secrets weapons are things like the ability to quickly craft a great email before or after a meeting; to sift through a lot of information online and find that one story that’s going to further the conversation you just had with a potential funder; to know when to call or to text or to write a handwritten note, and what tone and style to use in each medium. If you can do this all fast and without breaking a sweat you can feed the network and be present and top of mind in many people’s lives.
This means that great fundraisers do more than just create connection in the room. Great fundraisers are a sense-makers, companions on the philanthropists’ journey to understand context and where their own philanthropic efforts fit in and can make a difference.
I’ve had a lot of conversations in the past few months that start with people saying, “I really have been meaning to write or blog, but I just haven’t done it. Any advice on how to start and stick with it?”
Here are 12 things that I’ve learned since I started blogging in 2008:
- A structured time to write. Stephen King is famous for saying that step one in writing is to put your “butt in the chair.” Not glamorous, but true. 99% of my blog posts have been written on the train that I take home from work. And most of them come out very quickly – in 10-15 minutes. But I’ve discovered that when I don’t take the train, I don’t write blog posts. That’s when I write.
- Make a commitment. Commit to how much you’re going to publish / write / post. I’d suggest you aim high because you’ll probably do less than you intended (because that’s life). And “publish” because I think creating finished work (to your own standard) is important, because it lets you practice sharing complete thoughts that engage other people as readers.
- Set it up so someone is reading. I’ve been blogging for more than six years now and I’ve written nearly 1,000 posts. I absolutely, positively, would have given up after six months if I didn’t have readers. I’ve grown to feel that my readers and I have an unspoken contract: they commit to taking the time to read, think and (hopefully) act on the things I write that they find useful; I commit to keep on writing. And occasionally, they comment or reach out to say how a post has helped them or moved them or taught them something. That feels great. [If you’re writing for yourself or in a journal, this “someone” could be a colleague, a boss, a friend you respect, and you could commit to sharing 5 things you’ve written every month. My hunch is that if it’s just for you, you’re writing a personal journal, which is also important work but is something different.]
- Ignore your inner critic. We ALL think that everything we write isn’t good enough (not good enough for us, and definitely not good enough to have others read it). The irony is that the more you let yourself censor your own work, the less of your own work you’ll produce, and the less your work will improve.
- Remember that it’s much more important to write a lot than it is to write well. This is basically the same point as the prior point, written differently. When I was posting nearly every day, it helped me tremendously to know that if a post wasn’t good enough, I’d have another shot at it tomorrow. It’s helped me even more to go back to posts I’ve published and try to remember which ones I thought were the “good” and the “bad” ones.
- Remove the “am I saying something new?” filter. Because no, you’re not saying something completely new and that’s OK. The point is that it’s YOU saying it, and we care about what you think and how you make us feel when we interact with your idea and your emotions.
- Ignore the outer critic. Yes, sometime between here and there people you care a lot about will tell you to stop or to do things differently. Listen to them, contemplate what they say, but don’t commit to doing what they tell you to do. Any creative, self-expressive process is inherently delicate, a flame that’s easy to snuff out. Protect it.
- Keep it short. I’m highly partial to 200-500 word blog posts. Every time I write something longer than that it’s because I couldn’t make it shorter. Yes you might have a more technical or expository topic than I do, but by and large if you want people to interact with your ideas you need to present them as simply as possible, with as clear language as possible, in as few words as possible. Use this work to practice not hiding behind elaborate, obtuse language.
- Have a strong purpose, loosely held. Especially if you’re trying shift from being someone who doesn’t write to someone who does, I think it’s helpful to have a specific intention plus the freedom to write about what you want to write about. When I started this blog I thought it would just be about fundraising, but I didn’t have enough posts in me on that narrow topic, and the whole construct felt constraining. What I’ve found since then is that through the process of writing this blog I’ve figured out what this blog is about, and I think my readers get it too.
- Discomfort should happen. The reason you’re doing this is to grow. Growth comes through doing things you haven’t done before, aren’t comfortable doing, and aren’t good at today. If it feels hard, risky, or awkward, you’re doing the right things.
- Do it because it matters. There should be some deeper purpose, which isn’t the same as an external objective (as in, “this is how I’ll land a book deal” or “this will help me when I’m looking for my next job.”) I started blogging because I wanted to understand the job I was doing – fundraising – and what it meant, and could mean, to me and to the nonprofit sector. Over time that focus deepened into wanting to understand, in a much deeper way, people who give to charity, which led to an exploration of generosity, which in turn opened up a lot of avenues of further exploration. Ultimately, this blog has become a vehicle for understanding my own purpose and for sharing things that I’m learning or being challenged by along the way.
- Someday you won’t be able to live without it. My blogging continues to evolve, and its purpose and continues to shift. It changes as I do. But it is now part of who I am and what I do, and I hope never to lose that.
For all of you out there reading, thank you. I wouldn’t be here without you.
For all of you out there thinking about writing, I hope this helps.
[title apologies: Hakuri Murakami]
I’m intrigued by the disconnect between the prestige and legitimacy afforded by being a “published author” and all the friction inherent in trying to spread your ideas by writing a book.
Think about the dropoff from:
The number of people who hear about a book → The number that buy the book → The number that read the book they’ve bought → The number that spread the word about that book
If you aren’t a known name or you don’t have an existing tribe whose permission you’ve earned (often over a number of years), simply getting the word out about your book is a herculean task. And so, most books sell only a few thousand copies.
Nevertheless, being a “published author” still carries a real caché. Especially if you write nonfiction, “published author” is a chalice of purported legitimacy and expertise (e.g. it’s a lot easier for a journalist or a TV producer to justify interviewing a published author). What that means in reality is that the book gives you permission to talk about the ideas in the book, not the other way around. It’s a pretty roundabout, lumpy way to spread an idea.
Which gets me thinking:
- 25 years from now, will the notion of being a “published author” be anachronistic, and, if that happens, what will replace it?
- Or, will the notion live on, because as a society we will always need a way to separate out “legitimate” idea merchants from the chaff.
If anything, it seems like we are going to see a proliferation of pathways to legitimacy, which gives people who want to spread ideas (but who don’t have access to the gatekeepers) more options. That seems like a good thing, as the volume of ideas that will spread will likely go up.
The open question is whether, overall, more of the best ideas will get out. My bet is: Yes.
What do you think?