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Break the Rules

When you’re communicating with your ministry’s donors, writing in plain English is important. 

But in direct mail especially, it’s also wise to go beyond common English, turning an appeal letter into a virtual transcription of the spoken word. 

No, the letter doesn’t wind up looking like a formal business communication, but it’s a worthwhile sacrifice, because it has the effect of connecting with the reader. 

Direct mail breaks the rules — and even though a former English major on the ministry staff often reacts with horror, this rule-breaking significantly improves the effectiveness of a ministry’s donor communications — and the donors’ response rates. 

Why Direct Mail Should Break the Rules 

  1. Letter-format direct-response packages designed for fundraising purposes must meet response standards –– which is a fancy way of saying This Letter Must Raise Money. 
  2. A letter must carry the reader’s eye forward from phrase to phrase, from thought to thought, because of the average reader’s strong inclination to “scan” fundraising packages rather than read them carefully.
  3. We subscribe to quite a complex science of alternative punctuation, unorthodox capitalization, and sentence fragmentation –– all of which increases response to a package, but sometimes drives secretaries and editors batty!
    • For example, we make significant use of ellipses (…)  
    • and dashes (––) 
    • and frequently use capital letters after these items, even though a capital is not technically called for. 

This helps hold the reader’s eye on the page (but doesn’t generally reflect too negatively on your reputation for editorial precision, since most readers don’t process their mail through a mental filter of “the rules”).

    • This “science” of direct mail response also accounts for short paragraphs,  
    • increased use of commas,  
    • indented paragraphs,  
    • centered or otherwise realigned text, 
    • mid-sentence page breaks,  
    • use of hyphens where they might otherwise be omitted (like re-aligned instead of realigned),  
    • starting sentences with bridge words like And, Or, But — or an ellipsis or dash, 
    • and a number of other oddities. 

Break up paragraphs into bite-sizes with ellipses … and dashes –– and underlining

                                                                       and odd margins 

and Strange Caps  

and sentence fragments  

and even perhaps the occasional ALL CAPS OUTBURST! 


  • Producletter-format packages to look like letters. Type, don’t typeset. Do not justify the right margin; too stuffy. 
  • Use 10-pitch type (10 characters per inch), preferably Courier, like this paragraph. 
    Elite or 12-pitch type (12 characters per inch) is 20% less readable –– and this will cut down on response. 

Can’t stand breaking some rule of conventional punctuation or formatting? OK. But each of these rules incrementally increases response rates. If you’re comfortable with the tradeoff, go with the rule. 

We’ll be happy to help you communicate more effectively with your donorsContact BBS & Associates today.