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.

#APRAPD2015 and My Daily Affirmations

Loading Dock - New Orleans Marriott - July 25, 2015

Loading Dock – New Orleans Marriott – July 25, 2015

Another APRA conference has come and gone, and for the first time I am starting to realize what I possibly gain the most from these conferences, and it’s not what you might think.

Most of us attend – or wish we could attend – conferences like APRA for what we broadly label “professional development.” But what do we mean by that term? Certainly, we are referring to the new approaches, philosophies, and skills we are introduced to by the leading innovators in prospect development. In addition, as Helen Brown recently wrote, we might also be looking for a little “gravity assist” to our careers, networks, and personal relationships which conferences give us the chance to nurture face-to-face.

This is not a post about how to use the energy the conference provides to put new ideas to work; that’s been done, and better than I might have. I want to talk about something else entirely. Something that I didn’t know how much I valued until after the conference concluded.

This year, I thought I was being pretty darn witty during the conference when people asked me how things were going, and I described many of the sessions I attended as “affirming.” Yes, that was a snarky reference to Al Franken’s Stuart Smalley and his daily affirmations. But does it mean I have become one of the mean girls?

And yet. On my return home, I started thinking about what I learned. You know what? That’s when I realized that some of the most important lessons I learned actually came from those “affirming” sessions: that the tools I use, the methods I follow, and the ethics I adhere to, are the right ones.

I started in prospect research as a solo practitioner; in fact, when I started, research was just one of the hats I wore. I devoted a small percentage of my working day to it and I had no dedicated budget. Fifteen years ago I went to my first APRA conference, and began my first prospect research assignment upon my return from Anaheim. In the years to follow, APRA conferences, at the state and international level, would continue to provide most of my training. I also gained a network of mentors to turn to, but they weren’t in my office. Much of what I did, I did alone. Many of the challenges I faced, I faced alone. And many of the techniques I learned, I refined on my own.

Most of us experience imposter syndrome to a varying degree, at one point or another in our careers. Five years ago, Judith Beck, Ph.D., president of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy, described imposter syndrome in the Huffington Post:

There’s not really a recognized condition called “the imposter syndrome.” But it’s a handy label to describe the self-doubt that many people, particularly high achievers, experience. It’s that sense that you don’t fully know what you’re doing and that you have fooled other people into believing that you’re more competent and talented than you really are.

It doesn’t matter if you work alone or in a large shop; self-doubt can always sneak in: that worry that someone is going to find out that you are just faking it. There’s nothing quite like hearing someone with impressive credentials describing to a rapt audience a practice which you also do, to help shrink that feeling.

So yes, indeed. It truly is affirming to find that in this career – which I’ve mostly been making up as I go along – I am actually doing things pretty much the right way. This affirmation is probably just as important to me, working solo once again, as any of the new skills and knowledge I learned.

Don’t get me wrong – I value highly the new things I learn at APRA, and I plan to use some of them to my clients’ benefit very soon. Like Helen Brown, and many others on social media, I treasure the gravity assist conference attendance gives me. The opportunity to have a real conversation, about work and life, and to build relationships that extend beyond 140 characters, cannot be compared.

After 15 years in prospect research, and after my sixth APRA conference, discoveries continue. A professional development conference big enough to have two new anthems celebrating prospect research – thank you, Dave Robertson, for Prospect Gold and Research and Philanthropy – is also big enough for us to celebrate affirmation. And the lesson from those small virtual pats on the back, from those sessions that if I trust myself enough, I might perhaps deliver someday? Maybe simply that I am good enough and smart enough.


3 Ways Being a Mentor Can Help You*

A simple internet search on the word “mentor” will find the above image, from Homer’s Odyssey. When Odysseus did not return home after the Trojan War, his son, Telemachus, searched for him, accompanied by the goddess Athena disguised as his childhood teacher and guardian, Mentor (you can read more here). The same internet search will also find a ton of how-to articles and websites. But here is what mentoring means to me, and why I think you should give it a try:

Paying it forward: yes, absolutely, mentoring is a feel-good. You are paying it forward by freely sharing your expertise and your time. When I was president of APRA Wisconsin, I wrote a whole column in our newsletter about the philanthropy inherent in sharing and teaching. I still feel strongly that a passion for working in the philanthropic sector must include service. (I feel just as strongly that it doesn’t mean working for poverty wages, but that’s a soap-box I won’t climb onto here.)

Seeing through new eyes: when I taught high school in the last millennium, discussing literature (yes – that included the Odyssey) through ever-changing points of view was one of my greatest joys. Something similar happens in a great mentoring relationship, one which crosses skill sets and generations. The give and take of the best mentoring relationships should give you the opportunity to re-examine how you’ve always done things. A new generation brings new ideas, and together, with your different skills, points of view, and assumptions, you may just come up with a new and better way of doing something. The problems they need solving may be ones you haven’t thought about for years, or they may be ones you never would have foreseen. You may just head down a path neither of you could have found on your own.

Polishing your skills: there is nothing like teaching someone else to help you sharpen your own skills. Obviously, you will want to be at the top of your game for the sake of your “mentee” (and, oh, how I hate that word – but I don’t like protégé either), and for the sake of your own personal pride. However, as you and your mentee work through the challenges they’ve identified, you are likely to learn new skills and relearn dormant ones. You are also likely to need to say “I don’t know” more than once, and then head back to your office to figure things out before you meet again. But beyond the honing of specific technical skills, mentoring also gives you the opportunity to work on your “soft” skills in a friendly room: leadership, presenting, training, project management, as well as eye-contact, modulating your voice, and learning which clichés fall flat.

So when you think about mentoring, give yourself permission to be a little selfish in your approach to service. Because you will get back so much more than you give.

*I’ve heard (most recently from Josh Birkholz at the APRA Illinois data analytics conference at Loyola on Oct. 3rd), that one of the ways to attract readers to your content is to lead with a number. I thought I’d give it a shot.