'I am a lousy copywriter, but I am a good editor' David Ogilvy

On Bluefrog Creative by Aline Reed, 25 April 2013

So you’ve managed to put together the first draft of the appeal letter, e-mail or any other piece of fundraising copy you’ve been working on.
You might think that the pain is over. But no, it’s just beginning. Because as David Ogilvy suggests, the difference between a bad letter and a good one might be in the editing.

To be clear, by ‘edit’ I don’t mean simply making copy shorter. I’m talking about the edits a writer makes him or herself before letting their words go off into the outside world (that’s when client amends begin and that’s a can of worms that I won’t be opening today).

Ogilvy described it this way:

“So I go to work editing my own draft. After four or five editings, it looks good enough to show to the client.”*

But what does a writer do to edit their copy? Here are a few ideas.

First, put the pen down and try to read your words from beginning to end. Then go through again to mark up the amends you want to make.

Get rid of all the words you don’t need

That seems easy enough, doesn’t it? In reality, it’s probably harder to choose between words you need and words you don’t. So here’s a few ways to decide:

Read the copy aloud

  • If you’re out of breath, your sentences are too long. Split them up and add some punctuation.
  • If you trip up over any words and phrases, try simplifying sentences. Take George Smith’s advice and choose shorter words over longer equivalents. Think about how you’d say it – then write that down.
  • If you find the persuasive case for support you’re sharing leaps around or is hard to follow, you may need to (again) simplify or restructure.
  • If you’re nodding off, your donors will be too. This means a more radical rethink. A suggestion would be to find the most interesting thing you have to say and put it at the beginning of the copy, rather than burying it away further down.

Avoid repetition

This seems like straightforward advice, but again, it comes with a health warning. A DM appeal, an email or a website will repeat key messages because we know people don’t read every word in the order written.

The trick is to repeat the sentiment while finding different words to do so, thereby avoiding being boring.

Repetition is also used for emphasis or to create rhythms – this is as important in the written word as it is in the spoken (‘Education, education, education’ anyone?)

What we’re really talking about is removing repetition that isn’t there on purpose.

Is more better?

When making an important point, there’s a temptation to give it a lot of words – adjectives especially. But piling up the words can sometimes hinder rather than help convey genuine emotion.

Rather than describing something as ‘extremely tragic and incredibly sad’, it might be worth stripping away the extra clutter of words. Another tip would be to show, rather than tell the donor that an event is happy/sad. That might mean actually describing a situation – taking the donor there so they can feel the emotion themselves.

Think about how it looks

When you’re editing, don’t think about what you’ve written, but about what someone will read. These words are going somewhere, so first you need to check that they fit the space.

Don’t be tempted to reduce the point size and cram the words in. On the contrary, make sure the copy is laid out so someone will engage with it. That means:

• Paragraphs and sentences that vary in length

• A suitable point size for your audience

• Using bolding, underlining, highlighting and/or annotations to draw attention to key messages

Check and check again

At the same time, you might want to double check spellings (people and place names always need checking again) and grammar. But remember you’re (usually) aiming for something that sounds like one person talking to another – not a formal lecture.

Have another look

If you’ve completed your edit and feel happy with the outcome, try putting the draft away and looking at it again with fresh eyes. The next day – or ideally the day after – print it out, read it aloud and go through the process all over again.

For more help…

I’ve mentioned this in a post before, but tools like this one are useful too


* The letter that these words are taken from contain some more advice. To read
David Ogilvy’s letter in full, click here.


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