Effective philanthropy depends on the exchange of ideas and information across all sorts of internal and external boundaries. It also frequently depends on the ability to communicate, in powerful ways, about the crucial work donors, grantees, and social entrepreneurs do. To advance many of our shared missions, we need clear, concise, persuasive writing, and plenty of effective storytelling. Yet far too often we’re boring, sappy, or uninspiring—which is why we should all take some advice from Elmore Leonard.
When the popular novelist passed away earlier this week, I came across his list of 10 writing rules and was struck by how many of them apply far beyond fiction. For example:
- Avoid prologues
- Keep your exclamation points under control
- Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip
Most importantly: if it sounds like writing, rewrite it. Or, as Leonard says at another point, don’t “perpetrate hooptedoodle.”
Leonard understood the power of well-chosen words on a page to speak directly to us—to move us, inspire us, and help us imagine new worlds, whether fictional or aspirational. He also understood that trying to use words to impress people, rather than to connect and communicate with them, isn’t likely to get you far. Better to be direct. Better to leave out the part that readers prefer to skip.
In knowledge-driven organizations—and within a knowledge-driven economy—the effective use of words saves time, trouble, and money at every turn. That’s why, at Arabella, we hire editors and invest in a writing training program for staff, because each clear email, every well-written report, and any successful exchange of ideas makes our organization more likely to succeed. The same is true within, between, and among organizations across the social sector. Donors need to communicate more clearly with grantees, inform stakeholders about their strategies for impact, teach the public about the important issues they care about, and more. In all of these efforts, good writing galvanizes us, even as bad writing bogs us down.
So we should all take a page from Elmore Leonard’s book: speak directly, get on with the action, try to keep the act of writing itself out of the way. And one more critical thing: Listen. When asked about the signature sound of his dialogue, Leonard responded with a question: “When people ask me about my dialogue, I say ‘Well, don’t you hear people talking?’ That’s all I do.”
Listen closely, write clearly, and tell a compelling story. It’s easier said than done, but the results will deserve a few exclamation points—even if you wisely refrain from using them.
As founder and managing director of Arabella Advisors, Eric Kessler has built a social venture firm dedicated to making philanthropy more effective. His client work at Arabella includes philanthropy strategy, evaluation, foundation management, and project execution. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_kessler.