You are here

Stewardship Matters: Direct mail tips to boost readability

Stewardship Matters: Direct mail tips to boost readability
Cynthia McChesney, Missioner for Stewardship and Legacy Giving

The best Stewardship letter in the world – the most engaging, interesting, action-oriented letter – will not do any good if no one reads it. Same for emails. With that in mind, let's look at some layout tips from the direct marketing world that can help boost readability in Stewardship (and other) correspondence:

RULE 1: No big, dense, blocks of type

Let's say you are a college student, and you have a text to study. You open the book, find the chapter heading and start to read. You're prepared to concentrate and think hard about the text. You will probably be faced with big gray blocks of type and, because you know you need to read and concentrate (whether you want to or not), you are prepared for it.

That may work for academic and professional communications. But if you want your correspondence read, NO DENSE PARAGRAPHS. They turn into gray mush to our eyes and we don't want to read them. If you have a paragraph that will be more than 4 or 5 lines long, consider breaking it up.

RULE 2: Don’t justify the right margin

A "justified" right margin is a where all the lines in the right margin line up, like in a newspaper column. It is neat and clean. It also means that it's not as easy to read. Our eyes prefer a ragged right edge, that feels more "open." Resist the temptation to be too “neat,” and use a ragged right margin.

RULE 3: White space is your friend

Big gray blocks of type are your enemy and white space is your friend. Leave space between paragraphs. And for line spacing, be kind to your readers! No single-spaced lines.

Rule 4: Font legibility

Generally, serif fonts are easier to read. Serif means the letter shapes have little "hooks" on them, and the thinking goes that those hooks help pull you along. Times New Roman, Garamond, other common fonts are all serif faces which generally work best for text.

Remember, your objective is legibility. That goes for font size too, of course. Never use a too small font size. Use 12 at a minimum, but 13 or 14 can be better.

Sans serif can be best for headings and sub heads. Another tip, minimize the fonts in one letter – one for the text and possibly another for subheadings. Not three, four or more. It's messy and your reader's eyes will want to skip over the mess.

Rule 5: Simple fonts – not time to get creative

Stay away from any italics, except in small doses. Don't be tempted to use an italic font for an entire paragraph. Our brains see sentences in italics and know that we have to slow down if we want to read it, and what do we do instead? Skip it. The same goes for any kind of "creative" hard-to-read font. They're annoying.

While it is wise to be careful about italics, a judicious use of bold, can move the eye across the page and help the reader.

Rule 6: Bullets!

You probably expected this one. Bullets can be extremely effective in stopping the reader's eye and helping them pay attention to a list. Don't over-use them but used judiciously, they can be helpful. Numbered lists can be good too.

Rule 7: Easy to read language means short words

Our brains are very adept at finding ways to save time. One of those skills we have is to see a long, multisyllabic word, and skip right over it. On the other hand, if the same sentence is written using short punchy words, we aren’t as likely to skip.

I like to use a readability test to check whether I've kept my writing simple and easy to read, especially for something like a Stewardship letter. You can simply copy your text into the test, and they will score it for you, and if your score is too high, you can go in and exchange some of those five-dollar words (I mean, really, why do we feel the need for "utilize" when "use" can do the trick?).

Here's a (free) readability test site. You can copy and paste your text in and they will score it for you.

Rule 8: You should use the reader's favorite word!

What is the reader's favorite word you ask? Your favorite word too: "YOU."  When we see the word "you" and "your" in letters and communications we feel that the letter is being written to us and for us. We are more inclined to read it. So look through your communications. Full of "We," or "I" or "The church"?  Consider reworking your language to use "you," and "your."

Rule 9: You are a human writing to a human

If you are sending a hard copy letter (which I do recommend you do, yes, even to Millennials), the letter should be sent to a human, NOT "Dear Parishioner." Think about it from your own perspective. Are you more likely to read a letter that starts "Dear Parishioner," or one that uses your name? Which feels more personal? Mail/Merge can automate the personalizing by linking the text and your database.

A second alternative, if for some reason you can't personalize before printing, after the "Dear Parishioner letters" are printed, use a blue pen to cross that out and hand write the name in above the salutation.

Similarly, the letter should be signed by a human. Use blue ink.

10: How long is too long?

There are some who believe that you never send a long letter, but the people who believe that are not direct mail marketers. How long should a letter be? Long enough to tell your story. If you use the tricks suggested above and are committed to making it legible and easy to scan, then I'd not worry about two or three pages as being too long.

11: And a bonus tip!

Use a P.S. Direct mail marketers have tested how people read a letter. They open it up, and check the salutation (remember, write to a human) and second, they look for who signed it. Third? If there's a PS they read that, and only after that, do they go back and read/skim the rest of the letter. So don't forget the P.S.!

Hope this is helpful, and don't hesitate to reach out to me with any questions – you can email me at or give me a call at 973-430-9909.

P.S. We hope you will join me and other members of the Stewardship Teaching Team on Thursday, October 27 at 7 PM for a one-hour Zoom “Stewardship in the Moment” Workshop. Topics include

  • Digital Giving
  • Accepting gifts of Stock and Donor Advised Funds
  • Tax-Smart Donating from an IRA

No registration necessary. Send an email to to receive the Zoom link that day. It will also be sent to subscribers to Stewardship Matters.