GOOD WRITING IS GOOD PUBLIC RELATIONS
Steward, Hal D
The prevailing perception of most working journalists is that public relations practitioners produce deplorable news releases because of bad writing.
The reason for these opinions probably arises from those PR people who do not take the time and concentration to master the craft of good writing.
This is so even though the mastery of good writing techniques would more often than not bring them success in the execution of their projects.
How, then, does a person master the art of good writing?
In the words of an authority, Dr. Robert H. Sykes, of Bethany, West Virginia, who has been a professional writer and college English professor for more than 50 years, says this is how:
“We assume PR writers use impeccably correct grammar and faultless diction, do not substitute ‘flounder’ when they mean ‘founder’, or make the great error for which a member of my Ph.D. examining committee impeached my dissertation (I had used ‘anxious’ where the text wanted ‘eager’)-a common error these days.
“I think the writer should employ action verbs and concrete nouns,” Sykes said. “‘Is, are, was, were, am, be, been’ are weak verbs-avoid them in favor of the strong verbs such as ‘gained, thrust, broke, tore, run, swim, shot, beg’, etc.’
“Moreover, the writer should keep adjectives to a minimum,’ Sykes said. “Adverbs generally strengthen a text, but adjectives take the energy out of it. The writer’s best friend is the participial phrase, born from a verb and descriptive by nature, it carries the effect of both verb and adjective in a single word.”
More of Sykes later.
In the present days of visual communication, primarily television, many believe the written word is passé. Don’t you believe it.
If you don’t believe the written word is the most vital element in human communication, think of the Bible and Koran. Those two books brought messages that have had powerful influence on billions of people over the past 2,000 years. The authors of those books were masterful wordsmiths.
Dan Rather, former CBS News anchorman, told a National Press Club audience in Washington, D.C., that a successful journalist must be a good writer. He said this applied to both print and broadcast journalists.
The same requirement can be applied to the successful public relations practitioner.
If you can’t write clearly, concisely and interestingly, how can you communicate the message you want your public to grasp and understand?
As the La Jolla, California, novelist and retired editorial writer for the San Diego Union-Tribune, Bruce Dexter, said:
“The rules I’ve tried to follow, not always succeeding, were: 1. tell a story, and 2. create an atmosphere.
“There has to be something that pulls the reader along from one sentence, one paragraph, to the next. It can be as simple and frequently crude as a tease, a promise to illuminate something intriguing, but only partly revealed. It can be suspense about what happens next, what is the outcome of an interesting situation, or what happens to a person or person made interesting at the start.
“If we’re talking about a product, we will want to know the use, availability and price of something we might want.’
Dexter believes creating an atmosphere in their copy “is usually overlooked by writers.
“But it is something that often can be done in a few words that makes copy more interesting to read. Although editors are prone to cut such words as extraneous, I don’t think they are if they add to the readability of the copy, and newspapers and magazines in particular should be exploring ways to engage readers these days.
“Even when you’re writing public relations copy it matters to create an atmosphere around an event or a product.”
There will be more of Dexter later.
It is vital, then, for the PR person to learn and practice the rules of good writing. The key ones are set forth here.
It’s axiomatic that the person who writes the most interesting and fascinating news releases, speeches, scripts, letters, et al. is the person who will most successfully convey his message to his audience.
Good ideas require good writing to project them. Mediocre ideas need even more the help of good writing.
Think about it!
Dr. Rudolph Flesch, in the AP Writing Handbook, gave this advice to the wire service’s writers:
“Don’t use words that are not generally used in everyday conversation, if you can help it. Remember, the AP isn’t in the business of increasing people’s vocabulary. If you have to use a word that may be unfamiliar to an ordinary reader, explain it. Follow the example of the reporter who explained that “tularemia” is rabbit fever. In particular, be sure to explain geographical terms for readers who live at a distance.”
When referring to a person’s title in the lead paragraph of your news release, be sure to make clear in the following paragraph who the person is. Here’s an example from the Professional Journalists by John Honenberg:
“The new director of the city’s Museum of Modern Art promised today that he would broaden its benefits to the community.
“Dr. Frederick V. R. Langaam, the director who succeeded the late Albert Arnold Bunker, explains his plans in a “White Paper of Art.”
Some writers would reverse the order of the name and title this way: “The director, Dr. Frederick V. R. Langaam,” and so on. It works just as well.
There are those who believe that in an age of electronic communication the importance of the written word has diminished. That isn’t so.
If that were so, how could the success of Andy Rooney be explained? CBS’s “60 Minutes” has featured his essays since 1978. They have won him three Emmy Awards and a Lifetime Achievement Emmy in 2003.
“The most felicitous nonfiction writer in television,” is how Time magazine once described Rooney, who has won the Writers Guild Award for Best Script six times – more than any other writer in the history of the medium.
So, who says good writing has been downplayed because of advancement in electronics?
When what you’re writing is long and complicated, give your reader a break every now and then. Inject an element that gives him a breather, but at the same time advances the subject.
Good writing is put together in a series of building blocks. You need to know what the blocks are, where they go in a news release, and how to construct them. The blocks are: (1) the lead, (2) anecdotes, (3) quotes, (4) description, (5) transitions to move the article along smoothly and rapidly, and (6) the conclusion. There is a seventh element, the “Why Care” paragraph. It too, will be discussed.
Now to digress, briefly, to explore an essential part of a successful nonfiction article even though it isn’t one of the primary six elements. But it is a vital part of the lead. It’s the paragraph in the lead that informs your reader, either directly or by implication, why he should care about your subject.
This is how the author did it in the third paragraph of his lead in the news feature about former Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, distributed by Gemini News Service, London:
“The rebirth of Agnew and the facts behind it are important for an understanding of the U.S. capitalistic system and how it offers opportunities even to a man who has discredited himself in the nation’s second highest office.”
The “why-you-should-care” paragraph should be up high enough in the lead because it’s the key part of the reader-grabbing process. Here’s another example of the “why care” paragraph from the author’s Gemini News Service feature story on bone marrow:
“The work of Tavassoli and his fellow researchers is important because they may be on the threshold of discovering how bone marrow has an effect upon disease, infections, and other physical malfunctions.”
So, in the lead, you must tell your reader why he should care about your subject.
It’s axiomatic that every piece of successful nonfiction writing needs a “why care” paragraph. For instance, the reader of this article needs to care about its subject if he wants to improve his writing and become more proficient at it.
So, there you have the “why care” paragraph.
One of the problems neophyte writers have is how to start the first paragraph of whatever they’re writing-news releases, memoranda, letters, et al.
There is a technique to this that many professional writers keep to themselves. Why buy competition?
The technique is a simple one. Just use this phrase to get started: “The purpose of this news release is to (and then include the essential subject of your message.) Later you can remove the phrase, but you used it to get yourself started.
Still another professional technique involves what to do when you need a direct quote to reinforce a point in your release, but you have none.
You do, however, have indirect quotes of someone who helped make your point. What to do?
This is where the phrase “in effect” is handy. You take the indirect quote and turn it into a direct quote like this: “John Quotation said, ‘in effect.'”
The use of “in effect,” helps maintain the integrity of your article as well as emphasize and liven up the point you’re making.
It’s another one of those secrets professional writers don’t spread around.
Bruce Dexter, the author who lives in La Jolla, California, believes there is a long-held writing technique that might need rethinking-he refers to the inverted pyramid so long practiced by journalists.
“There are reasons not to give away the whole story in the first paragraph,” Dexter said. “The first paragraph should want to make a reader want to read the second paragraph, etc., etc. When I wrote reviews, I was damned if I was going to dismiss a book in the first few paragraphs, I wanted the reader to read the whole review, since I took pains to write well, and interestingly.
“I think also that writers today need to take account of the fact that fewer people apparently are reading traditional prose media, and that attention spans are far shorter than they were. Writers now need not only to think about writing well, but also to create readership, creating fans for prose,” Dexter said.
Robert Sykes, the West Virginia English professor, offers specific techniques of writing to achieve what Dexter suggests.
“Prefer active voice instead of passive,” Sykes advises. “‘Police caught and arrested the robber at Fourteenth and Market’ is stronger than ‘The robber was arrested at…’ Likewise, The shortstop threw the ball to first base’ is stronger than ‘The ball was thrown to first base by the shortstop.’ Besides, active voice takes fewer words than passive forms.
“Strive to write a short lead,” Sykes said. “The beginning paragraph must capture the reader’s attention and interest him enough to keep him reading.
“I’m well aware,” Sykes continued, “that the journalism school professors preach, Who, Where, What, When, Why are essential to a text, but these ingredients should not be permitted to fatten up a lead. The ideal lead is one of 10 words or fewer – nobody has ever improved upon ‘Call me Ishmael,’ or ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and earth.’ I recall how eagerly I once read an article which began, ‘I have cancer, you may have it too.’ That is to say that a startling lead is effective and it can’t be effective if it winds along like a wounded snake. Give us more like ‘Bruno Richard Hauptmann walked into a room in the Trenton prison and sat down in the only empty chair in the room.’
“If you have good quotations, get them into the news releases early on,” Sykes said. “Not in the lead, if the quotation causes the lead to be obese, but certainly high on the first page.”
Sykes believes in short “takes.”
“Develop an idea in a succinct paragraph,” he says, and then get to the next idea; don’t waste your word budget in analysis if the simple declarative sentence presents a clear thought.”
As for his pet peeve in writing, Sykes says it is what he calls the “disembodied anatomical parts syndrome (DAPS).
“Defectively educated persons write ‘Her lips formed a smile on her face.’ Of course, one cannot smile with the elbow. Say it in two words, ‘She smiled.’ The worst case of DAPS I ever encountered in 40 of years teaching composition came from a student, who, trying to illustrate boredom, wrote, ‘My eyes ran across the front of the lecture hall and climbed the wall to the clock.’ Can you imagine a pair of disembodied eyeballs scampering across the floor and climbing the wall? It is the beginning of a Tom and Jerry cartoon. ‘I looked at the clock,’ says it, man.”
Description is, of course, vital to good writing. And in using it a writer needs to first understand that “tell” is static, and “show” is action.
He was nervous tells.
He wiped the sweat from his forehead with a quivering hand, shows.
A writer can learn much about how to write description and at the same time be specific from Hohenberg’s book, “The Professional Journalist.”
Hohenberg points out the importance of one idea to a sentence, and he warns the tense of the story must be consistent.
“News writing must be specific,” he says. “It is often a waste of time to string generalities together. Instead of writing that a man is tall, it is better to describe him as six-feet-four. Instead of calling a girl pretty, she should be described briefly. Instead of reporting that a speaker was nervous and upset, it would be more effective to write that he shouted and banged the table.”
Hohenberg emphasizes you must give meaning to what you write. “If statistics are to be used, they must be given some meaning. To say that New York City’s subways have only one-candle power confuses the readers. It is more informative to write that the average New York subway rider sometimes reads his paper by less light than Abe Lincoln had when he studied by firelight.”
There is essentially only one objective when you write description: to create pictures in the mind of your reader. Let’s look at two examples of description built upon factual information: “Nailan Fenian is 42, six feet tall, and weighs 175 pounds. His hair is light gray and curly. His eyes are light blue.” That gives us the details about the subject, but how about describing the same man this way: “Nailan Fenian is 42 years old, a trim six-footer who looks as if he could still run the 100-yard dash in nine seconds. His gray hair is curly- he looks like a younger Paul Newman – and his blue eyes give off a look that captivates women.” It’s obvious which of those two pieces of description creates a better picture in the mind of the reader.
Let’s now move on to transitions. Specific words are used as keys to propel one set of facts or anecdotes to move an article along smoothly and to give it continuity.
These are examples from magazine articles written by the writer:
“The military exercise called for members of the second Regiment of Legion Paratroopers to climb up, over and down the 5,000-foot high Mount Cinto and rendezvous with boats on the beach at the mountain’s base.
“As darkness closed in around the Legionnaires, the trek up the mountain became more difficult and dangerous.”
You can see the transition was made with the key word “mountain.” It also can be done with time, or with time and place, with emotion, or with movement. The idea is to repeat an exact word or phrase to make the transition.
Here’s another example:
“From this moment, his only chance was to spot a clearing in the thick jungle below, head toward it, and trust to good fortune he would survive the crash landing.
“‘If I survive, Denglen thought, the next task would be to attempt to evade the enemy and avoid capture until rescued.'”
The word “survive” in this example was used to make the transition. Transitions are essential to help your reader follow what you are writing.
Transitions can be a problem area for writers, but so can conclusions. Nowhere does overwriting occur more frequently. Many writers don’t know when to stop. The professional writer ends his article when the last fact, interpretation, or anecdote has been set down.
So the conclusion can be a single pointed question, an understated suggestion, a repeat of the article’s lead paragraph simply stated in a different way, or a brightly worded summary.
“When all is said and done,” Paul W. Kearney says in his book, “Free-Lance Writing for a Living,” the basic elements of expression (‘communication’ is the word in vogue) are the same in all mediums, be it painting, music, the dance, flower arrangement, or blowing up a bridge. What you normally do is:
“1. Strike the match (capture attention).
“2. Light the fuse (arouse interest).
“3. BANG (explode the story for the desired reaction or response).”
As Kearney said, good expression applies to all mediums; this article is primarily aimed at the news release writer.
The final point here, but one that should be first in the character of a professional writer, is his dedication to accuracy, honesty and integrity. To achieve this a writer could best be guided by the words William Shakespeare gave to one of his characters, Polonius, in “Hamlet.”
This, then, is the advice of Polonius to his son, Laertes:
“To thine own self be true;
“And it must follow, as the night the day;
“Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
The time has come for public relations practitioners to dispel the perception of journalists that PR news releases are deplorably written. The keys to the techniques of how to do it have been thrust, forcibly, here.
STEWARD, HAROLD DAVID (HAL STEWARD), author, journalist, retired army officer; b. East St. Louis, Ill., Dec. 2, 1918; s. Owen Bob and Margaret Alice S. LLB, La Salle Ext. U., Chgo., 1948; BS, Boston U., 1961; PhD, Columbia Pacific U., San Rafael, Calif., 1979. Cert. flight instr. And instrument-rated pilot, FAA. Enlisted U.S. Army, 1937, advanced through grades to Li. Col., former intelligence and pub. Info. Officer, unit comdr., gen. staff; staff officer NATO; comdg. Officer Hdqs. And Hdqs. Bn., Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo.; asst. chief staff G-2 Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo.; ret, 1961; reporter L.A. Examiner, 1961-62, San Diego Union, 1962-65; corr. Copley News Svc., 1965-66, N.Am. Newspaper Alliance, 1967-75; exec. Editor Daily Chronicle, Centralia, Wash., 1975-79; roving conn. Newsletter on Newsletters, Rhinebeck, N.Y., 1980-99. Spkr. In field. Author: The Successful Writer’s Guide, 1970, Money Making Secrets of the Millionaires, 1972, Winning in Newsletters, 1989, also 3 others; contbr. Over 500 articles to nat. mags. Including Mil. Rev., Arty. Jur., Coast Arty. Jour., Mil. Engr., Mil. Transp. Jour., Armed Forces Digest. Assit. Dir. Calif. Dept. Human Resources, Sacramento, 1970-71; asst. to it. Gov. State of Calif., Sacramento, 1971. Recipient Copley journalism award, 1963; named to U.S. Army Pub. Affairs Hall of Fame, 2000, U.C. Army Officer Candidate Sch. Hall of Fame, 2000. Mem. Nat. Press Club, San Diego Press Club, Rancho Bernardo Press Club (pres. 2000). Republican. Avocations: travel, reading, walking. Home: 5240 Fiore Ter Apr J-306 San Diego CA 92122
Copyright Public Relations Quarterly Winter 2005
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