A dozen or so years ago I worked as the communications director for a small nonprofit. One day, fairly new on the job, I was reviewing a piece of writing with the development director. When I made a remark about a punctuation error, she scoffed and said, “Oh, you’re one of those people who care about the black squiggly marks.”
I didn’t know how to respond. Was it a compliment or an insult? It felt like a jab. But was she insulting me — or punctuation itself?
She moved out of state soon afterwards and I have wondered if she ever came to realize how much those squggly marks actually do matter. For example …
A panda walks into a café, orders a sandwich, and eats it. Then, on his way out the door, he pulls out a gun and fires a shot into the air. The waiter chases him outside.
“Why’d you do that?”
The panda hands the waiter a copy of a wildlife manual.
“I’m a panda,” he says. “Look it up.”
The waiter flips to the entry for panda and reads the incorrectly punctuated description.
Panda: Large black and white mammal. Native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.
If you’re smiling, you might appreciate the book Eats, Shoots & Leaves, by Lynne Truss (title inspired by the joke). The book is entirely about punctuation, and it surprised everyone—including the author and the publisher—by becoming a runaway bestseller, first in Great Britain and then in the United States.
I own three copies, including the illustrated edition. Yes, I am one of those people who care about the black squiggly marks.
Confession: I started writing my column GIVING TOMORROWTM to share with readers a few tips on avoiding punctuation mistakes that I see all the time in nonprofit communications. (The legacy society was founded in the 1800s, not 1800’s. No apostrophe!)
Thankfully for all of us, I re-considered that plan because wow, would that be a boring article! You can get all that from Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Lynne Truss is funny about punctuation in a way only a Brit could be.
Instead, I’d like to share with you my favorite piece of advice for non-writers:
Write like you speak.
No offense development people, but most of your writing is stuffy and pompous. You write about “individuals” instead of just saying “people.” You use four syllable words you’d never actually say in a normal conversation.
Here’s the irony. Most of the development folks I’ve met are not only wonderful, kind-hearted people, but you are also excellent communicators in person. You build relationships, inspire donors, help plan legacies. But then something weird happens when you have to write. It’s like you’re typing with the ghost of your high school English teacher looking over your shoulder.
Try this: Next time you have to write a newsletter article or a direct mail piece, break the rules! Start sentences with And or But. Write incomplete sentences. End a sentence with a preposition. Don’t even think about punctuation or grammar the first time around.
When you’re finished, read it out loud. Does it sound like you?
Once it sounds like a real person (you) talking to real people (your donors), get your communications team or the family grammar geek to quickly proofread it so you don’t embarrass yourself with a grammar gaffe like this recent news headline—“Man Saves His Dog from a Mountain Lion in His Underwear.” (The mountain lion was wearing underwear?)
Your writing will be fresher and livelier if you aren’t worried about perfect punctuation and impressive vocabulary. It will be more genuine. More you. And that’s what your donors want. •
Editor, Giving Tomorrow Magazine™
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