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How to write when you have nothing to say

publication date: May 12, 2015
author/source: Susan Fish
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Susan FishErnest Hemingway famously said, “There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”

Sometimes, writing comes easily but for many people, Hemingway’s description of the writing process is pretty accurate.

It’s fine to procrastinate if you’re contemplating writing a novel in your spare time, but it’s another thing altogether when you have to get an appeal out before Friday—and you have nothing to say. Here are a variety of tips to help you write when you’re stuck:

Once upon a time… Never lose sight of the fact that, just as a picture tells a thousand words, so everyone leans forward to listen when you tell them a story. Wherever possible, your writing should be populated by great images and compelling stories.

Get talking with program people. You have a mutually beneficial relationship with the people responsible for program: you help programs get funded, and in exchange, they can give you stories that illustrate the points you want to make to your donors.

Think like a donor. Spend a few minutes imagining you know nothing about how your organization operates but you’re really interested in the cause. What questions would such a person ask before they made a donation? If you find this tough, contact a donor and ask them about their process of becoming a donor. What made them give? Why did they give to your organization? What do people want to know? What would make their friends give? Consider—with their permission—sending out such an interview to potential donors. It gives you third party credibility in the most legitimate of ways.

Keep your eyes open for stories at all times. Better yet, keep a file on your computer, phone or in a notebook for great story ideas and quotes. This file is a great place to turn when you’re stuck for ideas and facing a deadline.

Make up an editorial schedule. This is a lot like planning a menu for your meals—something that sounds tedious but in the end actually saves you time and effort. If you know when you will be sending out communications to various donors, plan themes or information that will be included, then collect it along the way.

Eat a frog. Mark Twain once said, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” If writing is truly your equivalent of eating a live frog, do it first thing in the morning so you actually check it off your list rather than saying “oops, I’ll have to leave it until tomorrow again” over and over again.

Crummy first drafts. Writer Anne Lamott suggests anyone who is writing needs to simply churn out words, even if it’s a crummy first draft. (She actually uses a different adjective!) The words you use are vital when writing to donors and potential partners, but those words can be massaged and finessed into shape more easily when they are on the page than they can when they’re stuck in your brain.

Know your audience.  This is important for all sorts of development reasons but it also helps you write. Pull up a picture—in your mind or on your computer—of the particular donor you want to receive the message you are writing and write as if writing to that person in particular.

Think outside the box. Fundraising guru Penelope Burk tells of a woman who supported multiple charities. After opening a stack of fundraising appeals, the woman concluded in despair that there must be only one person out there writing all the different letters, because they were all variations on a theme. When an organization writes something original, it cuts through the noise of all the other appeals, and offers the donor something fresh.

Give your donor something (I’m not talking swag here) I used to work in a role where I had to fundraise my entire salary. Early on, I realized that I had something to offer to my donors: a front-line perspective on the work they were keen on. My fundraising letters were short on graphic appeal but long on insight and insider information that allowed the donors to share in the experience with me.

Recycle and repurpose. A little secret every fundraiser should know is that you don’t need a brand new story for every single piece of writing. Stories can be repurposed for multiple audiences—a long version in a newsletter, a short version in a tweet (or a series of tweets), a compelling paragraph in an appeal letter. Don’t forget, too, the value of following up on a story in a thank you letter. Donors want to know what happens next.

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell (, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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