My life partner is Tom Ahern, one of the top experts in donor-centered communications. He’s a journalist, a writer of brilliant case statements and marvelous newsletters, a teacher of this writing stuff, and my writing mentor. I’ve always loved this little thing he wrote years ago:
Here’s the story of the Three Little Pigs, as told in the inverted pyramid style: A wooden home in Fayetteville was reduced to matchsticks last night when a long-standing feud between a wolf and a family of bachelor pigs erupted into violence. Experts say feuds of this kind are a “predictable occurrence between natural enemies” and that the pigs should have built the house out of bricks.
The inverted pyramid always works the same way. First, there’s the outcome (“home reduced to matchsticks”), then there are the reasons behind the outcome (“a long-standing feud”), and finally there’s the background behind the reasons (“natural enemies”). It’s called an inverted pyramid because it makes its most important point first, and then supplies the basis for that point.
Which is exactly the opposite of how most people learn to write. In school, we’re taught to build our case from the ground up. Don’t do it! You’ll lose the reader. Put the key points first. Put the background in the background.
I remind myself that my master’s degree in 20th century French and American literature, and the A’s I received on my papers, just don’t work for what I’m writing today. And actually, that previous sentence is a bit convoluted and complex. How would you rewrite it? And that reminds me of another gem from Tom: write at the eighth grade reading level to guarantee understanding.
Eighth grade-level writing is not writing down; it’s writing simple. Use short sentences and short paragraphs. Use clear, jargon-free language. Newspapers write at the eighth grade level. You can write about anything—including atomic physics—at the eighth grade level. Check the grade level in your word processing program. Eighth grade-level writing is transparent to most people. They understand the author’s meaning immediately, at a glance. Check out the grade levels of your favorite authors, too. You might find that today’s most popular novelists write at the fourth and fifth grade levels.
Fundraisers are storytellers, too. Learn from the best-selling storytellers in the culture and write for quick and easy comprehension. FYI: You’ve just read several paragraphs written at the seventh grade level.