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Last week I received a Christmas appeal I’d written in the mail. I opened the envelope then pulled out the letter and coupon. And my heart sank.

As a copywriter, I may spend hours putting blood, sweat and tears into an appeal pack. (And I’m not exaggerating about the tears – some beneficiaries have gone through horrific things.)

Then I receive the mailed pack with changes that I know will at best reduce response. At worst, it will make the appeal fail.

This doesn’t happen to me often because I encourage my clients to consult me if they wish to make changes to copy I’ve written. I also ask to see the design, especially when working with a new client. Usually, this works well to eliminate most major issues.

However, I thought it worthwhile to highlight certain aspects of a pack you should never change without consulting your copywriter first.

1. Headlines

If I’ve put a headline on your letter, it’s very likely I have spent considerable time on it. I may have written up to 10 headlines, possibly more, before selecting one. Then I’ll write another 5-10 versions to make it as compelling as possible and to incorporate as many direct response devices as possible.

I don’t know if other writers do this or whether the headline is an afterthought for them.

But I spend time on it because the headline is one of the most read parts of a direct mail pack. If you want to change it, please consult your copywriter first.

Also, when I write copy, I provide it in a Word document that’s formatted to give an indication of how the headline should stand out in comparison to the rest of the copy.

This is one of the reasons why I like to see design. So I can ensure the headline hasn’t been mashed into a corner. Or severely cut so it “fits”. Or been embedded into a fancy graphic so its impact is lost. Or has been put into the same font size as the body copy so it barely stands out. And yes, I’ve seen all these things!

2. Repeated asks

I’ve written about repeated asks here. But for this post, suffice to say I include at least one ask on each page of a direct mail letter and often also in the headline and PS. I usually also highlight them using bold or underlining or both.

This is so donors can grasp your appeal quickly no matter what part of the letter they’re looking at.

So please don’t remove the repeated asks. Please don’t remove the highlighting.

Here’s another problem I’ve seen. Once the copy goes to design, the first ask in the body copy gets shifted to page 2 because it doesn’t fit the template or design.

So instead of the highlighted ask on the cover page jumping out at the donor, it’s buried overleaf.

If this happens, you need to rejig your design. Or ask your copywriter to amend the copy so that first ask appears on page 1. Or do a combination of both.

3. Coupon

One of the worst things you can do to a coupon is to remove or change specific dollar handles or suggested ask amounts.

Yes, the ask amounts are in the letter. Yes, they may be in your brochure, insert or catalogue. But you still need them on your coupon!

Here’s why. Apart from reinforcing your ask and offer, your donor is likely to get all emotional from your letter and decide to give. So then the coupon and reply paid envelope go into a pile of bills and other things to be dealt with later.

When the donor gets around to the pile, she knows she wants to give… but there’s no dollar handles or ask amounts on the coupon to guide her.

If you want to change the dollar handles or suggested ask amounts, please consult your copywriter.

4. Specific, benefit-oriented copy

Copywriters like specifics. But approval committees seem to like generalities, usually with the justification of making the copy more “representative”.

Don’t do this. Because donor-centred copy that describes the specifics of your work in terms of benefits brings in donations. Vague generalities don’t.

If the copy really is completely misleading as it is, talk to your writer about how to make it accurate without losing its impact.

5. Cutting copy because it doesn’t fit the design

I don’t why this is but when copy doesn’t fit design, the first things to go seem to be the parts of the letter or pack that are most important.

Headlines – “It takes up too much room.”

Repeated asks – “We’ve already said it once!”

The stories – “The info about the organisation is more important.”

Aaaargh. A decent direct response copywriter will know what are the best things to cut while retaining the impact of the letter. Ask your copywriter to do this for you.

Sure, it’s extra work for the copywriter. But not as bad as seeing the pack flop.


This is not an exhaustive list. But for some reason, these seem to be the bits most tinkered with in a direct mail pack.

As a copywriter, I understand some things may need to be expressed differently or tweaked for accuracy. And I accommodate as many changes as possible that won’t reduce the effectiveness of the pack.

Good copywriters won’t argue over changing copy simply because they wrote it. But they will – and should – argue over changes that are likely to reduce response or income.

As for the appeal that made my heart sink, the client and I will no doubt have a friendly discussion in the New Year…

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