Astounding Reports From Everywhere
As a writer, I’ve been fascinated by the fundraising emails and pitch letters I’ve received during the presidential campaign. They're especially interesting when you take the politics out and look at them purely from the point of view of craft.
These pitches have changed a lot over time, but the essential requirements remain the same. They have to grab you immediately. They have to connect emotionally. And they must convince you to take action. Those first two imperatives also apply, in a different way, to writing fiction.
In my files I have hard copies of fundraising letters from the 2000 presidential campaign—one from George W. Bush, which was actually addressed to my neighbors (sorry guys—I didn’t think you’d mind if I kept it) and one from Al Gore, which was addressed to me. I’ve studied them from time to time, running them through Word Count, looking at words per sentence, sentences per paragraph, the Flesch Reading Ease score, and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score. Both letters seem nearly perfect to me, and I still use them as models when I need to write similar (though non-political) letters at what I call my day job.
A couple things stand out as I look at those letters now. One, they’re long—several pages each. And two, they were delivered by snail mail. What the hell were we thinking back in 2000? We still read stuff on paper?!?
In contrast, this year’s emails from the Obama campaign were marvels of concision. They came with perfectly conversational subject headers and rarely sounded canned, though of course they were. Sometimes, three would come in a single day. Maybe I have a high tolerance for this sort of thing, but it never bugged me, and the call to action worked on me more frequently than I expected. Maybe Romney was sending out great stuff too—I don’t know; I still get my neighbor’s mail once in a while, but the Internet never sends me his email—but it strikes me that the Obama email campaign will be used as a model for years to come.
Yet none of these modern pitches can even come close to the one I’ve saved from 1972. It’s a Western Union Mailgram from George McGovern. It arrived in early November, and though Nate Silver had not yet been born, we all knew the cause was pretty much lost at that point. At yet the Mailgram did its job of creating hope.
GETTING ASTOUNDING REPORTS FROM EVERYWHERE, it read. MASSIVE SHIFT AWAY FROM NIXON TOWARD OUR TICKET.
For sheer jaw-dropping amazement, look at the call to action. No “click here to donate,” no prepaid return envelope. They were asking me to go down to the freaking post office to wire money! Would that approach even raise a dime in today’s world?
Another thing I notice, reading it now, is that it wasn’t true. There was no massive shift. And I’m guessing McGovern, Frank Mankiewicz, or Gary Hart or whoever composed these sentences knew it at the time. Which, in fairness, makes me reluctant to pile onto FOX News and the Romney campaign for pretending to be winning when they knew they weren’t. Democratic or Republican, losing campaigns always put on a brave face. What else would you expect them to do?
I was a student at Antioch College when I got this Mailgram—which means I was young, an idealist, maybe a little naïve—but I was still well informed enough to read, as Nate Silver tweeted the other night, “On The Wall, The Writing.”
In other words, some part of me knew Nixon had it in the bag. But I walked down to the post office anyway, and I sent George McGovern twenty-five dollars. There was no election eve telecast, and history has not yet saluted me. The act of giving the money was its own reward. Sending it drew a miniscule connection between me and a man I admired, a man whose memory I honor more than ever. I’ve never regretted it for a moment.
Time moves on, of course. Those much-admired Obama emails were brilliantly constructed and yes, they worked like a charm.
But if you still have one 40 years from now, let me know.