Let’s Start a Nonprofit Plain Writing Movement

Did you know there’s a Center for Plain Language?  Its mission is to help government and businesses write clearly. There’s even a Plain Writing Act, which “requires that federal agencies use clear government communication that the public can understand and use.”

The Center’s tagline says it all – Make it clear.

I wish we had a Plain Writing Act for nonprofit organizations because there’s a lot of confusing and cumbersome writing out there.  Even though we don’t have an official act, we should make it a priority to write more clearly.

I encourage you to take a few minutes to read the Center’s Plain Language Checklist or better yet, print it out and post it somewhere you’ll see it.

Here are a few highlights and some tips to help you communicate better.

Can your readers understand what you write the first time they read it?

This is critical because unlike a tax document or legal form, there probably won’t be a second time.  If your appeal letter or newsletter is filled with vague language and jargon, it’s likely to go right into the recycling bin.

If you’re not sure your reader will understand something, give an explanation. For example, instead of using the term food insecurity, explain how some families have to choose between buying groceries and paying the heating bill.

This is why stories are so important.  Instead of going into mind-numbing detail about the latest advancements in cancer or Parkinson’s research, tell a personal story about how you made a difference for someone.

Are meeting your readers’ needs?

Do you know your audience, and are you communicating with the right audience?  Here you must be donor-centered or volunteer-centered, if that’s your audience. Sometimes you need to send different messages to different audiences.

Besides content, you also want to use your reader’s preferred method of communication, which might be print, email, social media, or a combination of those.

Is your message clear?

What is your intention?  Do you want someone to donate, volunteer, or attend an event?  Stick to one call to action. Don’t muddle your message by asking someone to do all three.

Is your writing personal and conversational?

Write as if you’re having a conversation with a friend.  Marketing guru Seth Godin sums it up nicely in this post The simple way to get better at business writing Don’t do business writing.

Nix the passive voice. It weakens your writing, and do you use it when you talk?  I hope not.

Is your message well written?

Have you checked for grammatical and spelling errors?  Even more important, make sure you’re not rambling on and including too much information – no 10-page newsletters or annual reports. Less is always more.

Does it look easy to read?

You may have written the most amazing letter, but if it’s a cluttered mess of long paragraphs, no margins, and 9-point type, most people won’t bother reading it.

Always think of your reader.  Use short paragraphs, lots of white space, and at least a 12-point type.

Your donors and other supporters are busy and don’t have a lot of time to read your messages. Make yours stand out with plain language and clear writing.

Check out the Center for Plain Language’s website for more information.

Image via http://themediaonline.co.za/

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