How to... Write effective personalised letters to supporters

Breast Cancer Care needed some training in letter writing to help its supporter care team communicate with supporters, many of whom have been personally affected by breast cancer.

The task was this: how do you demonstrate your gratitude, keep your writing fresh and stay objective when your in-tray fills up with hundreds of letters each month from people who have helped you? 

Many writing courses are standard one-day events. One training manager told me: "They tick all the right boxes for the HR department and don't take people away from their desks for long."

Breast Cancer Care wanted a bespoke course that would be more valuable over the long term. I suggested four half-day sessions, using real letters, with exercises to build the team's writing skills.

Each week, team members brought recent letters to work on. Over four weeks, we explored the challenges they brought up, finding ways to give supporters a more individual response without slowing up work.

1. Get yourself a notebook

In our sessions we wrote with old-fashioned pens and paper. Nothing was lost. With word processors, you delete and change text, and get bogged down trying to achieve perfection. Faced with a tricky letter, open your notebook and quickly jot down four possible opening paragraphs, then decide which one you prefer or amalgamate a couple of them. You can recycle the rest later.

2. Start a language bank

Building your own language bank is a really constructive use of time. Transfer all your best phrases and favourite words to a document, then cut and paste them into future letters. Breast Cancer Care aims to show how much it appreciates the fundraising done by its supporters by tailoring thank-you letters to individuals. One of our first tasks was to create a long list of alternatives to 'fantastic', as in "it sounds as if you all had a fantastic time at your pink party". Whenever a good word popped up, it went straight into everyone's notebooks and onto their PCs.

3. Grammar

Almost everyone feels a little insecure about apostrophes, semicolons and dashes. For me, punctuation is about politeness: it helps people read more easily and is a bit like taking the trouble to use your indicators when you drive.

Punctuate correctly and no one will be upset. Punctuate badly and people may be disappointed. If you don't know your ellipsis from your exclamation mark, I'd strongly recommend the Penguin Writer's Manual.

4. Writer's block

As every writer knows, sometimes you lack inspiration. There are classic places where people find their muse: on holiday, in the bath, watching the light streaming through stained-glass windows - but never in an office building, staring at plasterboard walls. To unplug your writing blockage, try a three-minute write.

Recall something that grabbed your attention within the previous few hours. Start writing about that and see where it takes you. Write non-stop for three minutes - less time than it takes to make a cup of tea. Taking your mind off the task in hand and producing a paragraph of completely new thoughts helps to get your writing to flow.

5. What's the worst that could happen?

Fear of writing the wrong thing can bring you to a complete halt. How on earth do you start to reply to heartfelt letters from fundraisers or people affected by breast cancer? On paper (never do this on your computer), write the complete opposite of what you think your reader wants to hear. In the privacy of your own notebook, you can be as outrageous as you like. Then take the result and write the reverse. This may sound clinical, but it works. By taking it to the brink and then doing a U-turn, you'll end up with a polite, insightful letter that concentrates on the important points.

6. Work together

The Breast Cancer Care team developed a strong sense of cooperation and appreciation of each other's strengths. Sometimes, when you're really stuck, the best way to find inspiration is to ask the person next to you "How would you handle this one?"

- Sarah McCartney is a business writer and author of The Fake Factor 

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