Four tips to help leaders of volunteer engagement to write

Four tips to help leaders of volunteer engagement to write

Back in June 2019 I wrote and article on writing – “Why I write (and four reasons why you should too!)”. Last year I planned to do a follow up with some practical tips but, well Covid-19 got in the way and there were more pressing issues to write about. So here, somewhat overdue, is an insight into my writing process with four tips to helping you get started, or do more, writing for our field.

Routine

Lots of books on writing will tell you a simple truth – the way to write more and to get better at what you write is to do more writing. If you’re struggling to get started then this advice may seem stupid, but it works. To produce content you have to make the time to sit down and write. Write something. Write anything. But write. You don’t have to set aside days or even hours at a time, a few minutes will do. Just do it regularly.

Don’t waste time looking for the perfect environment, the best lighting etc., simply set aside a bit of time and write.

Forget about agonising over the right pen, paper, electronic device for software to use, simply set aside a bit of time and write.

To make this really powerful I recommend establishing a routine. I write three days a week. I start the first draft of a new article every Tuesday. I then come back and edit that article on Wednesday and again on Thursday. After that it’s done. This approach keeps Mondays free for other work (using the fresh energy of the week) and Fridays clear to review the week and get ready for the next week. This routine has helped me write more than 80,000 words between May 2018 and February 2021, the equivalent word count for the average novel.

Find a routine that works for you – a good time, a good frequency and then commit to it. Simple but powerful.

NB. Paul J Silva’s book, “How To Write A Lot” has lots of advice about establishing a writing routine. There is a link to the book in the further reading section below.

The first draft

The worst part of writing is sitting in front of an empty page and figuring out how to start. If you write on an electronic device then get comfortable with the tyranny of the flashing cursor on a blank page – you’ll become good friends.

Author Anne Lamott (see link to her book, ‘Bird by Bird’ in the further reading section below) encourages writers to embrace the concept of the ‘Shi##y First Draft’. This concept is simple – whatever you write first time will not be what you publish and so can be truly terrible because nobody else (other than you) is going to see it. Don’t worry about perfection, punctuation, grammar. Just get your thoughts and ideas down in front of you and worry about editing them later (we’ll come to that in a minute).

Which brings us on to writer’s block. If this is something you experience (and you will at some point) then take this advice from Seth Godin. Seth argues that writer’s block isn’t an absence of ideas, it’s a fear of expressing yourself in writing. You might have an idea but struggle to see how you’ll put that on paper. The solution is to write a shi##y first draft then take it from there.

If you really have no idea what to write then Anne Lamott has a solution, write about how it feels to not be able to write and see where it takes you. I know, it sounds crazy. But if you have a regular writing routine and embrace the shi##y first draft then, in time, you’ll be amazed at the writing that flows out of you.

Writing is editing

William Zinsser’s book, “On Writing Well” (see link in the further reading section below) has been instrumental in my approach to writing. Aside from being one of the few writing books aimed at non-fiction writers, Zinsser give sound advice about the importance of editing.

“Writing is an evolving process, not a finished product. Rewrite by putting yourself in the reader’s place. Reading aloud can identify improvements.” – William Zinsser

In the past I would sit down, write something, check it for spelling and hit ‘publish now’ to put it out into the world. That stopped when I read “On Writing Well”. Following Zinsser’s advice I took an old blog post and tried to edit it. I made lots of changes. Lots. So many I was embarrassed that I’d ever published the original post. What I ended up with was so much better – it was clearer, more succinct and it flowed better too. Now, anything I write gets at least two edits before it’s either published or shared with anyone else.

If you write, whether blog posts, books, emails, reports, social media posts, embrace editing. Take your shi##y first draft and give it at least a couple of polishes. Your readers will be grateful and you’ll feel much more confident putting what you’ve written out into the world.

Putting it out there

So far, only half the battle is won. You’ve done your shi##ty first draft, refined and revised it and now have an article ready to go. Get ready for the biggest obstacle still – actually publishing your writing. I don’t mean deciding what blogging platform to use. I mean actually getting up the courage to publish.

In my experience there are three common obstacles that cause people to keep their writing to themselves instead of sharing it with the world:

1/ People won’t want to read what I have written

If you’ve gone to the trouble of writing something then there is only one way to find out if people want to read it and that’s to give them the chance. If you never publish, you’ll never know.

2/ I don’t want to face the criticism I might get for sharing my thoughts

Since my first blog post back in April 2011 I have (at the time of writing this) published 199 articles and had 378 comments on my blog sites. That sounds like a lot but it’s a little under two comments per post (on average) and fewer than one comment per week over the last decade. Most articles get no comments at all.

This may sound harsh but, at least initially, the chances are that not many people will read what you have written and even fewer will bother to comment. Of those that that do they might actually leave a positive comment. And if they say something negative, see what you can learn from it to become a better writer.

Put your anxiety about what people think about your writing into perspective and hit the ‘publish now’ button. Then let me know you’ve done it and I’ll read it and give you some feedback – I promise.

3/ What I have written isn’t good enough to publish

What exactly defines something being ‘good enough’ to publish? Seriously, I’d like to know what the accepted standard is because I’ve read some great books and some real stinkers, terrible wastes of time that some publisher thought derived a wider audience.

Same with blog posts. Chances are some people probably think I’ve written some of the stinkers! Oh, and I’ll let you into a secret – some of the articles that I thought were the worst things I’ve ever written are some the articles I’ve had the most positive feedback about. Go figure!

The truth is, you’ll never know if what you’ve written is good enough to publish until you do it. Unless you put your writing out there you’ll never get any feedback, information that’s vital to help you improve. Josh Spector wrote a short blog post with some very wise words to get us all over that feeling what what we’ve written isn’t good enough to share with an audience. Read Josh’s article, “You Have to Be Ok with Being Ok to Become Great”, and then publish what you’ve written.

Further reading

If you’re interested in writing or want to do some more reading about writing from writers vastly superior to me, please check out the following list of one article and five books. The book links all go to Amazon but feel free to get a copy from your library or any other retailer:

“40 One-Sentence Writing Tips” by Josh Spector

“On Writing Well” by William Zinsser

“On Writing” by Stephen King

“Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott

“How to Write a Lot” by Paul J Silvia

“The War of Art” by Stephen Pressfield

And finally, remember…

”Being a good writer is 3% talent and 97% not being distracted by the internet!” (Original source unclear)


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Photo by Art Lasovsky on Unsplash

Why I write (and four reasons why you should too!)

Why should leaders of volunteer engagement put pen to paper or finger to keyboard and share their views, opinions, insights and thoughts on anything and everything volunteering?

One of my aims when I started Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd in April 2011 was to write more and, since then, I have lost count of how many articles I’ve written. It must be coming close to 170 for my own blog, where I now publish one piece every two weeks. There is also a monthly column I write for Third Sector online which has been running since the early days of my freelance career. And, of course, the quarterly Points Of View feature I have co-authored since 2013 for e-volunteerism.com, first with the late Susan J Ellis and more recently with the wonderful Erin Spink.

On top of all that are guest posts for others, commissioned writing for clients and two books: “From The Top Down – UK Edition” with Susan J Ellis; and “The Complete Volunteer Management Handbook” for the Directory of Social Change, both the third edition and the forthcoming fourth edition with Dr Eddy Hogg, Mike Locke and Rick Lynch.

But why do I write and, more importantly, why should you?

Four reasons why I write

  1. To contribute to and build up the field. The vast majority of what I write is done voluntarily – I don’t earn a penny for 99% of my written work. Why? Because I am passionate about volunteering and the essential work of those who lead and manage volunteers. When I started in the field I benefited from the freely available writing of leaders like Susan Ellis, Steve McCurley, Rick Lynch, Jayne Cravens, Ivan Scheier and Linda Graff. Now I can share the insights and experience I have developed during my twenty-five years of experience and contribute to the field myself. “Pay it forward” in action.
  2. From personal experience, I know how busy the day-to-day life of a volunteer manager can be. It can feel like an isolating role, with demands mounting up daily from volunteers, colleagues, managers, prospective volunteers and organisational leaders. Consequently, it can be hard to carve out thinking time during the day – time to reflect on some of the big issues facing volunteerism. And if we do manage to carve out the time, what are the big issues? Through my writing I hope to provide food for thought for colleagues, musing on issues relevant to you in your busy professional lives. My aim is that what I say leads to actions that help volunteers to have a more rewarding experience whilst they make important contributions to organisations’ missions and society’s needs.
  3. Whilst things have improved more recently, I think we have a shortage of independent people in the UK who speak out when issues come up that affect volunteering and volunteer management. Volunteer Managers have traditionally relied on our peak bodies (NCVO, Volunteer Now, WCVA and Volunteer Scotland) and professional associations (AVM, Heritage Volunteering Group, AVSM, NAVSM etc.) to speak for us. And they do, but they can’t always take the line that’s needed or speak out on every issue. As an independent writer, I believe I have a voice that is free from the potential constraints of political influence, funding or inter-agency politics.
  4. Whilst my main motivation for writing is to give back to and build up our field, I also do it because it is great marketing for me and my work. I hope those of you who read what I write like it, feel challenged or inspired by it and so might consider hiring me to work with you as a consultant, a trainer or a speaker. Of course, what I write will continue to be freely available, even if you do’t hire me, but some have, and for that I am grateful.If you’d be interesting in getting in touch about how I can help you in your work then just drop me an email.

Four reasons why you should write

  1. Writing things down makes you think about what you want to say. Whether it is sharing an insight you have, a response to a news story, or something you feel passionate about, the process of getting what’s in your brain down into written form forces you to have an opinion. Not enough people working in volunteer leadership and management roles share their opinions about the strategic and operational issues we all face.I am not urging you to go write a book – although perhaps you might! But what about replying a blog post (like this one – hint hint) or to an article in an online magazine, or making a social media post?
  2. Which leads me to my second reason more people in the volunteerism field (you!) should write. Once you have an opinion and you share, it gives an opportunity for others to engage in debate over your views. Such debate forces us all to think, to sharpen our understanding, challenge our perspectives and advance the theory of volunteer leadership and management (and ultimately the practice, for there is nothing as practical as a good theory). My own views on working with volunteers have developed significantly (and continue to do so) from reading and discussing the thoughts and insights of others. I haven’t always agreed with them but I have always learnt something. What could you help others learn and think about today?
  3. And so to my third reason why you should write – I want to know what you think. So do others. It isn’t just the ‘leaders’ in volunteerism from whom we can learn. All of us have something to share. That’s why I started UKVPMs over twenty years ago: as a forum for people in the trenches of volunteer management to ask questions, share tips and ideas and advance our collective knowledge. That’s why I got involved in co-editing the free Turn Your Organisation Into A Volunteer Magnet eBook (link opens a PDF download), in which forty people from across the field of volunteer management around the globe (contributions come from Australia, Britain, Canada, Italy, New Zealand and the USA) share what they have learned about making your organisation attractive to volunteers. You have fabulous treasures of knowledge others could benefit from, so please share.
  4. My final reason for encouraging you to write is that it has never been easier to share your ideas and insights. Blogging, social media and new technologies have revolutionised the provision of – and access to – information on volunteerism. It’s no longer necessary to write a book or dissertation to get your voice heard, so there is no longer an excuse for not having the time to comment.

Susan J Ellis wrote that the internet means no volunteer manager should ever feel isolated again. This is true, but the more people write and contribute to the ever-growing library of knowledge online, the richer we all become.


This article is an edited and updated version of one that originally appeared on my old blog site on 25 July 2011. You can access all the articles I published before switching to WordPress in November 2016 here on the old blog site.

If you have an idea for an article on volunteering matters and you’d like to suggest is as a guest post on the Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd blog then I’d love to hear from you. Just get in touch here.