Reading about Writing

Books - 2

These are some references to accompany the July 27, 2016, workshop on writing which Preeti Gill and I developed for APRA’s Prospect Development 2016. This is by no means an exhaustive list, just some safe places to think about writing. Whether your work is primarily in prospect research, or in another area of fundraising, clear communications and effective writing can go a long way. These texts have your back.

Amis, Kingsley. The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. Print.

In this book, Amis often gives not only the reason for a rule, but also its history and social context. It is organized alphabetically, with paragraphs and sometimes pages about commonly misused or misunderstood words, phrases, and concepts. The blurb on this book jacket describes Kingsley Amis as “one of the most important figures in postwar British fiction.” I will admit, however, that I have many more books on my shelves by Amis’ son Martin than I do of his.

Cameron, Julia. The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1998. Print.

Julia Cameron is a novelist, playwright, poet, and writing teacher. The Right to Write follows a simple model over 42 chapters. First, Cameron issues an “invitation” by discussing a common barrier to writing. She follows that with an “initiation” which consists of concrete writing exercises and tools to give the writer practice in overcoming specific obstacles. While her examples may seem very specific, she always returns to her broader purpose of getting people to integrate writing into their daily lives.

Fowler, H.W. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Rev. Sir Ernest Gowers. 2nd ed. 1965. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985. Print.

I inherited this book from my parents; the original edition was published in 1926. Like the Amis book, for which it served as a model, it is organized dictionary-style. However, there are more pages and the print is tinier, the content is more extensive and exhaustive, the entries often briefer, and the emphasis is much more on the usage of individual words. Fowler, a translator, writer, and former teacher, was a proponent of proper English, and his rules and explanations reveal that bias. Sir Ernest Gowers, a civil servant, hated the jargon he encountered in government. As part of his advocacy for clear language, Gowers undertook the first major revision of Fowler’s book, updating it for the 1960s.

Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Doubleday, 1994. Print.

Of all the resources on this list, this may be the most fun to read. Anne Lamott is a novelist and columnist. You may already know that she got the title for this book from some advice her father gave her brother as he was working on a last minute paper about birds. Her brother was facing down the writers’ block which procrastination often brings, and their father told him, “bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” This is what Lamott does here with the writing process, giving us as a result both a memoir and honest advice for aspiring writers. Sometimes it is brutally honest advice, ranging from committing to producing “shitty first drafts” to coping with the 27 bad reviews she received for one of her novels.

Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language.” 1946. Resources for Graduate Students. University of Texas-Dallas, Sept. 2000. Web. June 30, 2016. <>

I only just discovered this essay on Twitter in the last few weeks. Written just after World War II, this often tongue-in-cheek examination of political writing resonates just as much today. The lessons here could benefit any persuasive writer, politician or not.

Strunk, William Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style. 1959. 50th anniversary ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2009. Print.

Without question, a classic. This brief but comprehensive guide to English language grammar, usage, and style is organized by topic. To help you find what you are looking for, it offers a detailed table of contents, and includes both a glossary and index. I especially appreciate their advocacy for the serial, or Oxford, comma, which comes on page two of my edition.

Swift, Jonathan. “On Poetry: A Rhapsody.” 1733. The Literature Network. 2000-2016.  Web. June 30, 2016. <>

Jonathan Swift was one of the English language’s greatest satirists, and this very long poem skewers pretensions about both poetry and political writing. It was written several years after the more well-known essay “A Modest Proposal” and Gulliver’s Travels.

Ueland, Brenda. If You Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence and Spirit. 1938. 2nd ed. Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 1987. Print.

For many years, Brenda Ueland taught a writing class at the Minneapolis YMCA. She was the daughter of a lawyer and a suffragette, and worked as a writer and editor. Much of the book consists of stories about famous artists, the aspiring writers from her classes, and her own experiences, and it is a pleasure to read. She compares the writing process to stringing beads on a necklace, and eschews writing for money or fame. Family friend, Carl Sandberg, called this book “the best book ever written about how to write.”

Zinsser, William. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. 1976. 30th anniversary ed. New York, HarperCollins, 2006. Print.

William Zinsser advocates for simple, clear, and honest prose. He offers advice for removing clutter from writing through reducing adjectives and adverbs, and using (not utilizing) the simplest word choices. He abhors clichés, jargon, and corporate speech. If you need to write a long piece of technical writing, this book will be your ally. Zinsser has written 17 books and countless newspaper and magazine articles, and has taught at Yale, Columbia School of Journalism, and the New School.


Spelling Counts

In the fundraising niche where I do most of my work, donor-centricity requires effective database management and attention to detail: data entry standards, quality control measures, and thoughtful, respectful documentation of donor information. But speaking as a former English teacher, in every area of effective database management, spelling really does count.

Penelope Burk and Cygnus Applied Research created the concept of “donor-centered fundraising” based their 1997 survey which showed:

87% of Cygnus’ study respondents said they would give again the next time they were asked, 64% would make a larger gift, and 74% would continue to give indefinitely, if they received the following every time they made a gift:

  1. prompt, meaningful acknowledgment of their gifts
  2. reassurance that their gifts will be directed as donors intend
  3. meaningful results on their gifts at work, before they are asked for another contribution


To ensure that the three guarantees of ongoing giving identified in the Cygnus study, proper stewardship often begins before the first gift is even made. Proper stewardship begins with good spelling.

The donor’s name must always be spelled correctly – and that means as they have chosen to spell it. Don’t assume. And if you did initially enter it incorrectly, change it when you receive the first correspondence or the first gift. (And yes, I’ve seen a $1M proposal sent out with names misspelled. I just wish my red pen and I had seen it before it was sent.)

Proper spelling goes beyond proper names. The post office may not deliver mail which carries an incorrectly spelled or formatted address; messages will not be received by misspelled email addresses or mistyped phone numbers. Misspellings in prospect research deliverables or contact reports may simply embarrass the writer among their colleagues, or worse, convey and perpetuate incorrect information. Query and reporting syntax will nearly always require the correct spelling; the hardest searches to effectively run are the ones where the search criteria or the source data contain typos. It is essential to develop data entry standards, quality control processes, exception reports, and data update schedules, but it is just as critical to correct individual errors whenever and wherever you spot them – that’s true donor-centricity.

More broadly speaking, isn’t “spelling” just another word for meticulous data entry and strong data integrity? In fundraising, names and contact information are where precise data entry begins, but gift entry and acknowledgement are where scrupulous data entry practices must flourish. As a colleague of mine said recently, “gift processing should really be called gift stewardship.” Individual gifts must be accurately entered; attributed to the correct donor; allocated to the proper funds, campaigns, appeals, proposals, events, memorials, tributes, and matching gifts; receipted for the correct legal amount; and thoughtfully, meaningfully, and promptly acknowledged with the donor’s preferred salutation and address correctly spelled. Tracking fundraising results absolutely depends on accurate gift entry, and confidently communicating success and sustainability to donors and stakeholders is another aspect of stewardship.

Finally, “spelling counts” not simply because it is required by your finance team or the IRS, or by your own pride and responsibility, but because it matters to donors: it is a measure of care and respect.


It Depends…..

Fundraising and databases aren’t always easy friends. Databases, after all, are binary – every data point is essentially a combination of yesses and nos, trues and falses. Fundraising, other hand, exists in gradients and increments, in the kind-of/sort-of world of relationships, affinities, and transformations.

Ask a database vendor the right way to do things, and their response is more than likely to be “it depends.” That’s not because they don’t know the database inside and out, but because the best fundraising databases, right out of the box, will only ever approximate your organization’s business practices. How you have overlaid the database software on your fundraising culture is likely to be very specific to your organization. The best vendors know that what is good enough for you may in fact work only for you, and what works best for someone else will never fly in your office.

That does not mean that there aren’t any database “best practices.” Just that these “best practices” won’t be data entry rules or query prescriptives that a vendor simply hands over to their customers. The most basic thing to keep in mind is to keep your data consistent: coded, simple, retrievable and reportable, and to follow common sense.

Consistent data is more easily queried, makes data entry quicker, and keeps the post office happy. Consistent data follows a set of rules, like the rules for addresses, which can mitigate the need to make ad hoc decisions leading to sloppy data.

Coded: Codes and table-driven data entry drives data consistency while eliminating error and saving time. At the very least, your database should have a set of fund codes (and, yes, how you build those codes will depend on you!), constituency codes, codes for any “type,” “status,” and “category” fields you have elected to use, rating codes and many more. A general database “best practice” is to limit who can create and edit those codes, and to be sure the codes themselves follow a set of rules in how they are structured.

Simple: Keeping those codes simple will have a great many pleasant ramifications for you. Think about the state codes used by the post office: why type “Wisc” when “WI” will do the trick and is enough to distinguish Wisconsin from Wyoming, West Virginia and Washington? Simple coding structures will have a small impact on the size of your database, but more importantly they will make reporting, querying and data analysis much easier.

Reportable and Retrievable: Perhaps most important, consistent data is more easily reported on and retrieved. A general “best practice” rule to help you develop consistent data entry procedures is to always think first of how you want to get the data back out. What reports will you want from the data you are entering, and how will you want the data on those reports to be selected, sorted and formatted? Will you be creating mailing lists or other data segmentations based on data elements your constituents have in common? Will you want to do data analysis and data mining – will your data allow the use of wildcards, can calculations be performed on it and/or scores derived from it? Will you be pulling database fields into mail merge documents, how will you want those fields to look, and will you be applying conditional formatting in your mail merge? For any of these data retrieval needs, how do you need to have data located in different areas (tabs, code tables) of the database to interact?

Common Sense: But it is also important to use common sense when developing consistent coding and data entry rules. For example, if executive bios are always entered in a Note field with a description or type (pulled from a code table) of “Exec Bio,” they can be easily included in a database report or profile based on that common, consistent data element, and the report can be designed to locate the bio in the same place for every constituent. If you have also developed database rules governing the data entry of those executive bios, a pile of profile reports will be easier to read – the data will always have the same basic types of information in the same place. On the other hand, you may not be capturing executive bios all that often, and they may never be reviewed in a large group. In that case, you may not want to spend the time and energy to develop a standard format to capture the data, and the time and energy to enforce data entry which subscribes to those rules. In that case, the database rule you may wish to develop is to copy the bio from the source, to include proper attribution and the date captured, and to spend a minute or two editing it for clarity. Enforcing data consistency must always be tempered by common sense and informed by your fundraising culture.

Finally, a key component of consistent data entry is to decide which fields and tabs in your database are used to capture which data elements. The more complex your database is “out of the box,” the more difficult that decision making process can be. Plotting out how you foresee retrieving the data is the most important first step. One more fundraising database “best practice” which can help guide those decisions is to distinguish between the data elements which describe your prospect and the data elements which describe the prospect’s relationship to your organization, and to use those distinctions to design where each data point should go. My next post will explore these differences and how they can help you develop database rules and procedures for your organization, and where else you may want to turn when you need help and your vendor says, “it depends.”