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July 17, 2019

How can you be a better writer?

Dan Gunderman was Big Duck’s Creative Director and Senior Copywriter for over 12 years. Before moving to Scotland, he sat down with us for a conversation about writing for nonprofits. He shares two simple rules for nonprofit writing, key differences between writing and editing (and how to do both well), and simple tips busy people can put into action right away. 


Sarah Durham: This is the Smart Communications Podcast and I’m Sarah Durham. In 2006, I had the great good fortune to hire a copywriter named Dan Gunderman. Dan, from the start, was just an incredible asset to the communications work we were doing at Big Duck because he had worked both inside nonprofits and in the agency world, and he, unlike many people, really is deeply passionate and focused on every single word.

So Dan joined our team and over the years he not only very quickly became our senior copywriter, but he actually became our creative director and lead our creative team for many, many years.

At the time I’m recording this today, it is the spring of 2019 and Dan Gunderman is about to leave Big Duck to move to Scotland. So before he sails off, I wanted to get in a conversation with Dan about writing and pick his brain and share it with you a little bit so you can learn some of the things I’ve learned from him over the years. So welcome, Dan.

Dan Gunderman: Thank you very much. What a nice intro.

Sarah Durham: So Dan, writing is one of those things we’ve talked about. That everybody thinks they’re a writer and everybody thinks they’re a good writer. But what should the goal of writing really be? What does writing really all about?

Dan Gunderman: In the simplest sense, when you are writing on behalf of your organization, I think you really just want to make life as easy for your reader as possible, and there are a few things that you can do to make that true and to make that happen.

The first is just to make things as short as possible. Being concise is really key. The sad truth is that people don’t really read anymore. I think between social media and television and other kind of electronic media.

Sarah Durham: Podcasts.

Dan Gunderman: Podcasts, for example. I think that there’s just less patience for writing and for reading. Now, of course there are exceptions to that. You’re going to find that person who reads every word that you write, and so of course you also want to be accurate. But really, the goal I think is to make things pretty concise and short.

You also want to make things simple. And what I mean by that is really, as much as you can, avoiding industry jargon that especially your donors may not understand, keeping in mind that they are not as steeped in your world as you are. So remembering that you want to avoid words that they won’t understand or really getting too into the weeds.

One of the general rules that I often tell myself, and this is perhaps a bit glib, but just remember that people don’t care about your topic as much as you do. It’s really easy for us as writers to get lost in the content and to dive deep and go hard at the content and forget that people don’t care as much as we do. And so just remembering that you want to keep it as high level as you can while also telling them what you need to tell them.

Sarah Durham: One of the things I often think about when I’m blogging or trying to write, I try to picture a specific person I’m writing to as if you’re having a conversation. So that instead of focusing on me and what I want to say, I’m trying to focus on you and what I want to tell you, and I find that can be a useful device.

Dan Gunderman: Yeah, that’s a very good piece of advice. I think your starting point should always be your goals for the piece, and I think knowing who you’re writing for is certainly part of that. And then also knowing what you want that person to either believe, think, or do with the piece of writing that you’re doing and just keeping that in mind.

Sarah Durham: You’ve done a number of trainings for our clients and workshops on writing for the web and things like that for nonprofits. So what are some of the patterns or trends you’ve observed that nonprofit communicators struggle with when writing?

Dan Gunderman: Really keeping things short is one of the things that I think most of our clients have had the most trouble with. Knowing when to stop.

Sarah Durham: Enough is enough.

Dan Gunderman: Yeah. And knowing when that is and where you’re still achieving your goal for the piece, but also allowing your audience in. So keeping things concise. This is more true probably for writing for the web and say a press release than maybe other forms of writing. But also using the inverse pyramid, which is taught in journalism schools where you sort of make sure that you’re hitting the most important point first. Your first paragraph. If it’s the only thing that somebody reads, it should tell them enough and then fill in behind that with whatever background material there might be or supporting material.

And again, that’s especially true for press releases and writing for the web simply because people skim in those formats a lot more. You want to make sure that they’re getting your most important point first.

Exceptions to that—you know, if you’re writing a speech, it’s a little bit different just because there’s cadence to think about, there’s building to a fantastic conclusion or however you want the speech giver to end the speech. You’re sort of building to a climax and that works differently for speech writing than it does for writing for the web where, for example, you don’t want to end with your most important point. You want to lead with your most important point.

Sarah Durham: There’s a great Ted Talk by Nancy Duarte called something like The Secrets of Great Presentations and when you talk about speech writing, it reminds me of that. She actually maps in this Ted Talk, the “I Have a Dream” speech, but also the Steve Jobs iPhone announcement speech. She kind of maps the emotional highs and lows or the emotional cadence of both of those talks and shows how they actually structurally are the same, even though the content is extremely different. Really the emphasis in what she’s mapping is the emotional journey. How is drama set in the speech? How do we go from feeling concerned or worried to being elated and optimistic? And actually in both of those speeches, in many speeches, there is a kind of up down.

Dan Gunderman: Right. I wouldn’t call myself a speech writing expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I do wonder if speech writing is a little bit more like making a mixtape. This is showing my age a little bit, but I know when I was in high school and college you would take your favorite songs and put them all on mixtapes for people that you were either courting or-

Sarah Durham: Courting.

Dan Gunderman: Yeah, courting. I grew up in the 1930s. Or even just friends, you know. There are kind of rules to making a mixtape where you start strong and then you go up a notch and then you take it down a notch. And I feel like speeches follow that pattern a little bit more.

Sarah Durham: Yeah, I think that’s true. When I’m writing up a blog or something that’s more long form or maybe in a more formal speech, I often find it’s a really helpful device to begin with an example or a story. Telling the story, for instance, of somebody who’s benefited from one of your programs or sharing something that feels personal that’s happened to you. Invites the reader in, and they all of a sudden experience. They’re looking at the world through your eyes, and they become your ally as opposed to … You know, I notice in my own writing I will get a little bit soapbox-y or bombastic about what I think you should do or you should think about and starting there is really off-putting.

Dan Gunderman: Yeah. Yeah. I think people don’t really care what you think. They just want to learn something.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. Another thing that I think is under discussed, that I want us to unpack a little bit in this conversation, is the difference between writing and editing. Because many people in communications teams do less writing. They might be working with freelancers or their colleagues who are doing the writing and a lot more editing. What do you see as the difference between writing and editing first of all?

Dan Gunderman: First of all, I would say that for me at least the biggest difference is thinking about writing as the originator of the content. So it’s the person actually creating the words and then editing is just making sure that it all comes together and works.

I know that when I’m doing my own writing and editing, whether it’s my own personal projects or even things that I do here at Big Duck, I have two different processes where when I’m writing and creating, I’m really just throwing things down on the page and I’m trying to be as free and as playful, frankly, as I possibly can be. And then I have a different writing session that I kind of re-approach the material and take a look at what I’ve done and the mess I’ve created and try to make some sense out of it.

And that’s two different parts of the brain. I think the writing part of the brain is very exploratory and maybe artistic and free and playful and the editing part of the brain is very logical and critical and you’re kind of trying to make some sense out of this creative mess you’ve created.

Sarah Durham: I have a good friend who writes romance novels and she writes four or five books a year.

Dan Gunderman: Awesome.

Sarah Durham: She publishes under the name Daisy Prescott. And one of the things she tells me about her writing process, that I thought was really interesting, was she experiences it as exactly what you described. Two sides of the brain. One that is creative and generative and one that is more critical and analytical. She makes a conscious decision when she’s working on a book, and I think this applies to any long form project or deep project you’re doing as a writer. She makes a decision if today is going to be a writing day or an editing day.

She tries not to toggle back between those two sides of the brain. And she’s found that really leaving that space and using that space very deliberately to either write or edit has made her much more efficient and effective at both.

Dan Gunderman: Yeah.

Sarah Durham: Have you found that?

Dan Gunderman: That’s been my experience too. Working at Big Duck, it’s been actually really fortunate in some ways because the account management team has really been great about working around my productive times. And so my writing times tend to be in the morning. That’s when I’m feeling the most free and feeling the most creative and that’s when I do most of the writing. I can do more editing in the afternoons, so I tend to revisit things in the afternoons.

Sarah Durham: And there is also a nice piece of phrasing for this I read recently in a book called “The Art of Writing Slowly” by Louise DeSalvo. She talks about when you’re writing, you’re creating pages, but as you edit you’re creating something else. You’re creating a book or … Editing is much more structural.

So let’s talk a little bit more about editing because I think it is often the case that in a communications function, in a nonprofit, you’re editing something else that somebody else wrote and it ain’t just about proofreading, right?

Dan Gunderman: Right.

Sarah Durham: What does an editor, a good editor, really do?

Dan Gunderman: A great editor will take a look at what you’ve created and make sense out of it. Especially for longer form pieces. If you’re writing, say a case statement for a capital campaign or maybe an ebook or something that you’re creating that’s a lot of content. An editor will be able to read the whole thing and then put it together in the order in which it makes the most sense and tells the best story.

Sometimes your initial instinct as the writer is correct, and you’ll have that down pretty well. Most of the time you won’t. And a great editor can take what you’ve written and really highlight your intention and bring about what it is that you really are trying to say in the clearest way possible. So in some ways it’s like a good organizer is a great editor.

Beyond that, they might make some word suggestions and phrasing. They’ll point out things that aren’t clear. If you don’t know what the original intent is because the writing isn’t clear, you need to go back to the writer and say, “I don’t know how to revise this because it doesn’t make any sense.” That’s just something that a good editor will also look out for and even if they don’t rewrite it, there’ll be able to take a look and say, “This isn’t clear, make it clear.”

Sarah Durham: I edit Big Duck’s blog and I don’t claim to be a great editor. But I do think that it is useful to not be the writer. Because if I’m editing a piece, for instance you wrote, I’m bringing this kind of objective, trying to cast myself in the role of the audience and think about how would this sound to me. And again, if it doesn’t make sense to me as the editor, it won’t make sense to the reader.

But I also find that oftentimes the writer, because they’ve been so immersed in a topic, they’ve lost a little bit of perspective. And that one of the things that an editor can bring pretty easily, without a lot of training, is an observing eye. The ability to look at a piece that has been written by somebody else from a slightly higher altitude and to say, “You know, you’re spending an awful lot of time in this point. Maybe it’s overkill or maybe you need to zoom back out and put some context around this part.”

I’ve said to you before, I find often in my own writing and other people’s writings, the sequence is sometimes wrong. Sometimes a paragraph that’s been written at the end actually should go at the beginning or they’re just kind of moving things around architecturally, that can make a big difference.

Dan Gunderman: Yeah. There was one other thing that you said in there that was kind of hidden in what you just said about making something sound right, and I think actually reading things aloud for yourself is a great way to both write and edit. I think if you are able to say the words that you’re writing, it’s going to sound really good on the page and it’s going to read really well. I know that when I’m doing editing, I especially do that when I’m less familiar with the cadence of the person writing than I am perhaps my own cadence. I will read their work aloud and I know that if I trip over it as I’m reading aloud, there’s probably something wrong in the phrasing.

Sarah Durham: So that’s a good tip. If you’re editing something your executive director has written, like a speech or maybe your direct mail shop has written an email that’s going out, shut your office door, read it aloud, and where you trip up on it, maybe that’s the place that needs a little bit of help.

Dan Gunderman: Yeah, that’s right.

Sarah Durham: So I think it’s also important to note that proofreading and editing are not necessarily the same thing. In fact, somebody recently said to me something like, “Sometimes the best proofreaders actually read sentences backwards, so they’re totally not focused on the content. They’re really just looking for misspelled words or double spaces or things like that.” Do you think it’s possible for somebody to be a good editor and a good proofreader?

Dan Gunderman: I do. I do think that it’s slightly different skills. We have a couple of proofreaders that we work with here, and I would say that both of them are also good editors, which is a bonus. It’s not usually what we’re hiring them for though. At that point we are really looking for them to make sure there are no mistakes and that’s really what a proofreader is meant to do.

But what I like about the proofreaders that we do use is that both have very strong opinions about grammar and will call out things that maybe are not grammatically correct. I like knowing what those things are. Sometimes it’s been a conscious choice on my part to ignore grammar for the sake of clarity. I think sometimes if you hear those people who speak with perfect grammar, they sound ridiculous because it just sounds really stilted and weird.

And I will sometimes forego grammar for the sake of clarity. Which is something I would recommend, frankly, for most communicators. Although, you’ll also find that some people really don’t like seeing grammar rules being broken, and they might call you out for that. So just be aware that if you are making some conscious decisions, you might get one cranky grammarian to give you a hard time.

Sarah Durham: Be unhappy with that, yeah.

Dan Gunderman: Yeah. But I like knowing because there are still mistakes that I’ll make grammatically. I’m a good but not a great grammarian. And I do find it useful to hear from editors or proofreaders or whoever. If I’ve made a mistake, and I still have time to correct it, great. But sometimes I am very conscious about making a mistake on purpose.

Sarah Durham: You know, if you’re a busy nonprofit communicator, one of the challenges you have is too much to do, not enough time. There are probably degrees of attention you should pay to different things you are either writing or editing. So for instance, you probably don’t need to write, edit, and proofread a tweet, or have multiple people editing or proofreading a relatively short and informal piece that you’re producing.

But as you get into something that’s going to have high visibility or a long shelf life. If for instance, you’re a scientific organization publishing a scientific white paper, or a significant thought piece in your industry, that’s probably where you want to get into editing and proofreading, right? Do you have any guidelines for how an organization can begin to set up the workflows or to think about which pieces deserve extra attention? Or is it kind of a straightforward as shelf life?

Dan Gunderman: It could be as straightforward as shelf life. I mean, I do think that for more important pieces, especially if they’re kind of extra. I know that so many of our clients and probably most nonprofit professionals are already stretched so thin. So if you’re doing an extra project, like if suddenly you have a campaign that you’re running, or you’re doing something that takes more than what your day to day work is and you’re trying to do your day to day work on top of that, then it’s definitely useful to, frankly, hire a freelancer. And there are a lot of great resources out there for finding freelancers. Just a Google search will result in some. But the best way to find a freelancer is to ask people you know, who they’ve used. If you’ve got the resources, bring in somebody from the outside who can help you not just to make your life easier but also because they might bring some expertise to the table.

Most of our clients are communications professionals, not writers, and there is a difference. So bringing in a freelancer can just help with some of that, is the first thing. Now, what projects you do that for is going to vary from organization to organization. I do agree with you that anything that’s high stakes or otherwise is going to be out there a lot longer or is more important, it’s going to have higher visibility or things like that.

Even a really prominent speech that maybe the executive director or president of the organization is giving might deserve a little bit more massaging on the writing side. Certainly a capital campaign case statement, I would recommend you get professionals to do that work and maybe you are that professional. But making sure that there is a certain level of skill coming to the writing who can tell the story properly.

Sarah Durham: ‘Cause it gives you real credibility if all the i’s are dotted, t’s are crossed, nothing’s misspelled, grammar is correct, then your readers can’t poke holes in it.

Dan Gunderman: Yeah.

Sarah Durham: On that level. So last thing I want to ask you about are style guidelines because you and many other writers I’ve talked to are passionate about following a particular style. Chicago manual of style, New York Times style. What are those and what should somebody who’s not a trained writer know about them?

Dan Gunderman: Yeah, style guides are super important. And we actually, generally speaking, use the AP Stylebook at Big Duck and I chose that one frankly because it’s the easiest to use. I find Chicago utterly confounding. I can never find what I need in there. I do know that fiction publishers use Chicago. There it’s a little bit more rigorous. There are just a lot more guidelines in Chicago. Chicago also tends to be ahead of the curve.

I think it was before I worked at Big Duck, maybe 13, 14 years ago that Chicago made the change that said that using “they” to refer to a singular antecedent was correct and that has everything to do with gender and gender norms today and saying that the teacher writes on the board, “They scribble poorly.” That became correct in Chicago first. Whereas AP, up until even just a few years ago, was still saying you have to say, “He or she.” Which just isn’t gender inclusive. So Chicago tends to be up ahead of the curve and AP tends to follow.

Sarah Durham: Let’s talk a little bit more about what are in these books.

Dan Gunderman: Yeah.

Sarah Durham: You sit with these books on your desk and you pick them up and look up things in them. What are you looking up? Why do I need one of these on my desk?

Dan Gunderman: I use it to decide whether a word might need a hyphen or if it’s one word.

Sarah Durham: Like website.

Dan Gunderman: Like website. For years it was two words, capital W. Now it’s usually one word, all lowercase. Nonprofit is sometimes hyphenated and sometimes not. We use it usually as one word with no hyphen. Most of those things you can find in a style guide and you can decide whether or not you agree with them. But a style guide can help you make those decisions. There’s also punctuation. We ignore the AP style book rules on serial commas because we believe in the serial comma here at Big Duck. But AP does not.

So that’s one place where I wholeheartedly disagree with the AP Stylebook. Really it’s a lot of word choices. Style books do keep up on language trends and can help you keep up with that. That’s one of the things I really admire, frankly, about Chicago. Even though I find it confounding. I feel like they are usually way ahead of everybody else in terms of what’s acceptable language to use for what topics.

Sarah Durham: And if you’re trying to get your team aligned, let’s say you work at a larger organization and you’ve got people across multiple departments who are writing and producing content on behalf of the organization and putting things up on the website, etc.

Having a standard as an organization—we subscribe to the AP style guide—gives you something that all those different writers can point to and hopefully be a bit more consistent in the practices of their writing.

Dan Gunderman: That’s right. And we’ve also had a handful of clients who have created their own supplemental guides. We’ve noticed this is especially significant in the social justice space. For example, when there are certain terms or phrases that are in and out of style and these organizations keep up on that and keep track of that. We had an interesting conversation with one of our clients about whether or not to capitalize the word black when it refers to black people.

Dan Gunderman: It’s actually a political choice to capitalize black, and that was a change they were making and that was in their personal style guide for the organization. I don’t know what the rules are in AP in Chicago on that right now, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they don’t agree. I know when I was going through college, black and white were lower case. That’s less true now.

Sarah Durham: Okay. So any parting tips on writing, editing, or proofreading for the nonprofit communicator?

Dan Gunderman: Keep it short.

Sarah Durham: Keep it short. Okay. Dan Gunderman. Thank you very much.

Dan Gunderman: Thank you.