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Lessons in Letters

Posted on Sunday, February 26, 2017 at 12:32 PM

Don't be so quick to toss those fund-raising letters in the garbage. There's a journalistic lesson in those letters.

By Peter Jacobi

The message came to me some years ago. I can't remember when. But it has stuck with me: "It's like caring for a 150-pound infant who needs constant attention ... an infant who asks you the same question 50 times a day ... an infant who will never grow up. There's no peace, no time to rest."

Captivating Message

My eyes were drawn to the words, so much so that I continued to look at them, ignoring that there were words above that message and words aplenty below. I'd never really focused on the issue raised in that draining narrative. It brought a "Wow" into my mind and heart. And then, suddenly -- when my eyes moved to the top of the page bearing that striking message -- its contextual meaning came to me; it hit me. The page had a letterhead: "Alzheimer's Family Relief Program," and the following words just beneath in smaller type, "A helping hand in a time of crisis."

Shifting down to the initial message, I discovered that its words were attributed to an "Alzheimer's victim's husband."

As I've mentioned to you from time to time, I receive tons of such letters, promotional letters, fund-raising letters. The more I respond with a check, the more such letters I get, often along with calendars. And certainly by the thousands they've come to me via my mailbox since the missive from the Alzheimer's Family Relief Program, to which I did answer with what they hoped for, a check. I'm sure you know the game, in all-too-many cases a very serious game dealing with some sort of crisis or expanding problem.

The letters differ in approach and language style, in what follows informationally and tone. This particular letter required more narrative in informational extension of the "no peace, no rest" call of desperation that so overwhelmed me emotionally. I wanted to know more. I needed to know more, less in reaction than seeking greater knowledge and understanding.

The writer appears to have predicted his readers' needs. "Dear Friend," he or she started, "They call it the 16-hour day -- for good reason. It's the plight of anyone who takes care of an Alzheimer's disease victim at home ... perhaps the most difficult job any of us might undertake. Let me outline one husband's daily routine, now that Alzheimer's disease has robbed his wife of her mind, her memory, even her personality."

We've been given entry. The writer continues: "His day starts early, when his wife pounds on the locked door of her bedroom (he put a lock on her door to keep her from wandering away during the night). When he unlocks her door, she stares at him as if she's never seen him before. 'Who are you,' she asks him, though they've been married for 43 years. She asks him these questions over and over during the course of their day. She can't remember his answers for more than a minute or two.

"He leads her gently to the bathroom so she won't have an 'accident.' So many times she can't remember where the bathroom is, or simply forgets that she needs to go there, or why. He joins her in the bathroom to encourage her to comb her hair."

And so it goes throughout another harrowing day. Although I was sold with the pre-narrative quote, I gain from what the rest of the husband's story conveys. This is a provocative and evocative fund-raising letter. It provides a compelling argument strengthened by sincere storytelling and detailed expository support.

Solid Information and Writing with Gusto

I have no idea whether you write such letters. No matter, if not. The letter above can be easily turned into a feature story for your newsletter. We're talking about solid information and writing with gusto. That's a working motto for us to practice. I happen to be a wide-ranging reader. I write nonfiction material for adults. But I learn from the fiction I read. I learn from the children's books and articles I read, fiction and nonfiction. I learn from the poetry I read. I learn from what's entertaining, what's educational, what's inspirational. I keep loads and loads of samples, every item saved to help me strengthen my work as a writer. And, of course, I also learn from editing what my students and other clients write.

When I receive those letters, asking for financial or another sort of help, I read not just to determine a yes or no in giving but to learn, so to sharpen my craft. Don't throw away those letters, even the ones you choose not even to open and tend to toss immediately into the wastebasket. Don't toss. Read, then toss after you've made full professional use of what another writer has sent you.

Telling an Interactive and Touching Story

Wildcare, Inc. is a shelter, hospital, hospice and rehabilitation center here in Bloomington, to which my wife periodically delivers troubled animals. In a recent fund-raising letter, the folks at Wildcare told us about Alestor the crow and Loki, an arctic fox kit.

Alestor's bio says, in part: "At only a few days old, a beautiful, blue-eyed American crow experienced a horrible trauma, both physically and mentally. Over the course of several days, this young crow was beaten with sticks by a group of young boys. American crows are an extremely intelligent, self-aware, emotional and nurturing species. The young crow's family did everything they could to protect him. They cried for him, cared for him, and mourned his loss as he was taken for rehabilitation. He would not have survived the first night following the abuse had his family not cared for him, bringing him food, water and comfort. His beak was shattered, his jaw broken into more than 30 pieces, and his right eye was lost by the time he was rescued. His rehabilitation was not easy, and his prognosis was poor."

But Alestor survived, thanks to Wildcare. All of his problems could not be solved, but he's now a "permanent resident" at the shelter. "Alestor is slowly learning to trust humans, and he shows immense affection towards those who have already earned it. He is overcoming his disabilities and surprises us every day with his extraordinary problem solving abilities. It is an incredible experience to watch him flourish, despite his debilitating beginning."

How can we not give when Alestor's story and interaction with Wildcare is so touching?

As for Loki, he was found in downtown Bloomington "in very bad shape. He was severely underweight, his fur was missing in patches and it was matted with fly eggs and feces. His growth had been stunted from improper care, so we estimated he was around four weeks old.

"Every day, we worried that he wouldn't make it," Loki's story continues. "A highly-trained team of volunteers and staff were assigned to oversee the fox kit while he was in critical condition. It took him several days before he was able to eat on his own without human assistance. His initial diet was a specialized fox formula, and then he advanced to soft, solid foods. He was bathed daily. The kit's caretakers used toys and intersected with him multiple times a day to help rebuild the muscles in his legs that had suffered atrophy."

Loki now lives at the shelter, happy to reside with another fox. How can we not give when Loki's story, again, is so touching?

I could give you an endless flow of examples, but each one that strikes me (and probably would strike you, too) in some way uses facts that make the case and language that expresses the case with language that makes a reader care. There's a journalistic lesson in those letters.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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