I’m lucky. When I was a total noob I had the chance to learn the finer points of writing outrage-provoking, heartstring-tugging, and click-here-to-give-ing copy from some of the best in the biz. But along the way I made a lot of mistakes and went through a lot of cringeworthy first drafts. Turning my wordy academic essays into pithy, emotional emails took years of practice and loads of tracked changes.

Save yourself some pain — learn from my top 5 rookie writer mistakes, and you’ll be writing like a boss in no time.

writing like a boss

1. Forgetting the basics. You shouldn’t even be allowed to get a login with an eCRM until you’ve promised to follow these simple rules of thumb:

  • Don’t make your subject line an afterthought. If it’s ho-hum, your email won’t get opened and the rest of what I’m about to tell you won’t matter (no pressure!). So don’t save it for the last second. Brainstorm a bunch. Run ’em by your co-workers. If you’ve got the time and a big enough file, do an A/B test to find a winner and roll it out to the rest of your list.
  • Don’t write a novel. Email must be easy to scan. Use short paragraphs – 1 to 3 sentences long, max. Use bullets. Use CTRL-B to make your best lines pop. And one of my favorite tips from my boss: “You can almost always cut that first paragraph you wrote when you were still figuring out what you were trying to say.”
  • Don’t bury the link to your action or donation page. This is an easy one, but it’s all too often forgotten. Put it early in the email, in the first few paragraphs, and in a callout box, and then again later on just for good measure.
  • Don’t ask for more than one thing at a time. If you get greedy, you’ll just divide your readers’ attention with emails that say “Sign this petition! Donate! Spread the word! Join us at our event!” Just ask for one thing. A few times.

Once you’ve got the basic structure down, take a look at your writing. Do these classic mistakes look familiar?

2. Omitting urgency. No matter how well you write, you only get a second to catch your readers’ attention. Don’t miss your chance — create a sense of urgency and lead with it. Could be breaking news, a vote scheduled in Congress, a deadline like the last day for public comments or the final day to secure a fundraising match, or even the end of the month — it works. If you don’t define the moment, your reader will probably dismiss your request and be less likely to open your next email.

3. Writing like a robot. Academics and technical writers need not apply. People act and give because it feels like the right thing to do on a gut level, not because they’re running a logical cost/benefit analysis. That’s why people are more likely to respond if their gift will help ease one specific child’s suffering vs. contributing to a program that reaches millions of children. They connect with a concrete, emotional story that has pathos and makes them feel. Then they act. Read more about how to tell stories effectively in our paper, “Storytelling and the Art of Email Writing.

Show — don’t tell — with vivid visual descriptions and unexpected, specific details that paint a picture for your readers. So instead of this:

Maria was one of six farm workers who died in California in 2009 of heat-related illness.

…write this:

Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez collapsed in a field after nine hours of picking grapes in the hot sun, deprived of water and shade. When she was admitted to the hospital, her body temperature was over 108°. Two days later, she died in her fiancé’s arms.

Yes, it’s longer, but it’s worlds better. Every word has to count, so skip the platitudes and generic cookie-cutter rhetoric. This is it. Now more than ever! Stand up! Your gift will make a difference! If I had a dollar for every time I saw these phrases, I bet I’d raise almost as much as they do. Which isn’t much.

4. Writing to yourself. It’s easy to get inside our own heads, but remember: Your readers aren’t you. So try to see things from their perspective and ask these questions: Will my readers understand this? Does this make sense if they aren’t knee-deep in policy every day or following every twist and turn of a years-long legislative saga? Will they care about it? Can my readers imagine themselves as a key player in the story I’m telling about this movement? What does getting involved say about who they want to be in the world?

If your hook sounds like this…

I am writing with some exciting news: The Narwhal Foundation has launched its 2013 Fund Drive with our most ambitious fundraising goal of the year!

…then rewrite it. Your audience probably doesn’t care about your latest campaign (and they almost certainly couldn’t care less about your 25th anniversary.) Cut out the middleman. Make your donors the hero of the story:

Give $X by DATE and you will give teens access to college education/provide nutritious meals to seniors/cancer screening/save our park from being turned into a combination nuclear waste dump/animal testing facility.

And don’t make one of my biggest mistakes: falling in love with your own words and getting excessively lyrical in appeals. Cut to the chase. Keep it conversational so it reads like you’d say it aloud. To your mom. As she’s rushing out the door and has 30 seconds to half-listen to what you’re saying.

And the last rookie mistake, but certainly not the least common…

5. Forgetting to make your case. You can’t just assume your readers get it — you have to present a theory of change that is simple, convincing, and compelling. Connect the dots for your readers: Outline the problem, why your work is the solution, and how their support is critical to success. Get specific if you can — $25 will pay for an exam at a free clinic. $50 will sponsor a high schooler on a summer internship. Your voice will help stop this terrible bill. Give a goal and make it feel significant but achievable.

Not sure whether you’re writing like a boss or like a rookie? Try these tricks on your next appeal:

  • Read it out loud. You’ll hear disconnected flow, rhythm, and sentences that don’t make sense.
  • Look at just the text you’ve bolded. Does it stand on its own?
  • Find 7 unnecessary words and remove them.
  • Compare the opening line/paragraph with the text in your call out box or the text you’ve drafted to share the campaign on Facebook. Is what’s in your call out box or social share copy better? If so, revise the intro!

Hopefully, you can save yourself some time and avoid these mistakes 2007 me would’ve made — 2014 you might just thank you.