A Common Sense Declaration … Or Why Thomas Paine Would Not Have Survived the Copy Approval Process

In January 1776, Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense, was first published. It’s reported to have sold 500,000 copies in its first year. Considering that the population of the 13 colonies was around 3,000,000, a book would need to sell over 50,000,000 copies (or downloads) to reach the equivalent percentage of Americans today.

Commemorating the publication’s anniversary in The Writer’s Almanac, Garrison Keillor recently wrote that Common Sense “explained why the American colonies should declare independence from Great Britain. It was easy to understand, it was popular, and it rallied a lot of people for the revolutionary cause who had not been involved before they read it.”

Mr. Paine had a talent for conveying complex ideas plainly and convincingly to people who were barely literate. In his introduction to another of Paine’s works, The Rights of Man, Howard Fast describes how: “[Thomas Paine] simplified by going directly to the heart of the matter, to the crux of the issue, not by writing in pidgin English.” (Emphasis mine.)

Common Sense certainly wasn’t edited by committee, as happens to so much of today’s fundraising copy. Brand consistency obscures the heart of the matter. Reviewer after review buries the crux of the issue under soulless organization-speak. In other words, there’s a lot of pidgin English out there.

With the pressure of deadlines and schedules, it’s tempting to give in to – rather than challenge – edits that weaken strong copy. I’ve been there. As a client, I’ve needed to have specific sentences approved by fellow staff members and volunteers. (Yes, volunteers.) As a consultant, I’ve dreaded the email with a word document attached, tracked-changed within an inch of its life, and sympathized with my frustrated client.

But by letting these edits through, we are doing a disservice to our causes. Every dollar lost from a watered-down appeal is less money for hungry children, abused animals, human rights, cultural institutions…. The list goes on.

Let’s make a Common Sense declaration. With Mr. Payne’s persuasive rallying cry as inspiration, let’s all resolve to fight for the appeals that we know will raise the most money. Of course, not every edit is worth going to the carpet for. So let’s pick our battles accordingly, pushing back on changes to leads, the ask, the P.S. and key transitional sections. We must defend powerful words and phrases that evoke, not tell, the story against dry language that could have been pulled from a foundation proposal.

Consultants: let’s be mindful of the challenges our clients face during the approval process, and arm them with facts and test results they can use to build bridges with their colleagues in programs, marketing, and other departments. No, none of this is easy. The conversations will be difficult; some even may be risky. But we owe it to the causes we are so passionate about.

Hey, Common Sense rallied a bunch of scrappy colonists to unite against – and beat – Great Britain. Surely we can fight against soul-numbing boilerplate and passive voice.

Bonnie CatenaOur guest blogger, Bonnie Catena, Principal, Catena Connects, provides integrated fundraising consulting services to nonprofit organizations, including direct response program management, copywriting, and program and creative audits. Follow Bonnie on Twitter and connect with her on LinkedIn.


2 Comments on A Common Sense Declaration … Or Why Thomas Paine Would Not Have Survived the Copy Approval Process

  1. One of Paine’s most admirable qualities was that he told the truth — as he saw what was true — without regard to his reputation or personal well-being. ‘Common Sense’ was but the first of his efforts to rally others to the cause of human rights. He earlier wrote against the enslavement of Africans in North America, and against slavery anywhere. Attacking another form of slavery, Paine in ‘Agrarian Justice’ attacked the laws that allowed the accumulation of vast landed estates without compensation to society for what he called the privilege of landowning. ‘Right of Man’ elaborated on the idea that people by right form societies voluntarily and have the right to choose the form of government that secures their rights, removing any government that fails in this responsibility. And, in ‘The Age of Reason’ Paine challenges the privileges granted to established religions, arguing that freedom from religion is of even greater importance than freedom of religion. Sadly, the “scrappy colonists” you refer to ignored most of what Paine had to say about how to secure and preserve justice and equality of opportunity for the future and future generations.

    Edward J. Dodson, President
    Thomas Paine Friends

    • Thanks for your comment, Mr. Dodson. Indeed, Mr. Paine was one of our finest human rights visionaries. Whether or not the “scrappy colonists” or any other individual, group or entity adopted his tenets, that he conveyed those tenets in a clear, simple–yet still intelligent–manor makes his work even more admirable.

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