So, one thing that the PR function is typically relied upon for is writing. From crafting the brand narrative and key messages, developing media materials (duh!) and pulling together nifty web copy to social media posts, business presentations and speech writing — it’s PR that’s asked to wield the proverbial pen.
That’s one of the reasons I made the choice to pursue PR, and one of the things I love most about my job. I’ve always thought of myself as a writer and beginning with my days as a speechwriter at Queens Park, I have been. It’s fun… or at least is should be!
Sadly, not all PR pros feel the same way. At SO we make it a point to hire really great writers but, throughout the various phases of my career, I’ve met many a communications manager, specialist and director who experiences real, honest-to-goodness anxiety when asked to put words to work. While most of these individuals have been good, decent, professional writers, time-and-again this fear (combined with what I suspect is a fair amount of training) results in writing that falls flat. It’s just too formulaic, expected and/or corporate. Often, because the author is concerned about ‘sounding professional’ they lose the story itself. Their writing doesn’t really say anything. That’s a problem.
If, and I believe this to be true, writing is key to the future of PR, it’s imperative that we do better; that we differentiate the PR function by delivering writing that doesn’t just communicate, but engages and enthralls too. After all, even as technology advances, the ability to spit out spiffy copy isn’t going away. To that end, I thought it might be helpful to share a few personal writing precepts that have always served me well. These 8 considerations when put into practice have the potential to add art and excitement to any written work. And if you don’t agree that art and excitement are fundamental to writing that resonates, I worry that you perhaps don’t read enough.
Adam’s Writing Precepts:
Write with added punch. That is, use short punch-y sentences as much as possible. But don’t think for a second that a short sentence can’t pack a wallop. In fact, because a shorter sentence is easier to remember, it is often what’s most resonant. Need I say more than, “I have a dream!”?
Dare to be Daniel. This line from a biblical song, frequently quoted by the late great John Wooden, actually communicates two writing lessons: (1) don’t be afraid to be yourself and let your personality shine through, and (2) make sure you write with purpose. Both are equally important.
Recognize the cultural and historical context of words. I understand that all a word can properly be said to represent is the word itself, and that meaning is a cultural construct. That said, we also need to accept that we live in the midst of that construct, and that means history and culture have imbued, and in some cases burdened, words with meaning. When framing a story, it is of vital importance that an author carefully selects the right word for each occasion. Take, for example, the following relatively mundane sentence, and note how changing just one word affects how you, the reader, feel about what is being communicated (even though the meaning is essentially the same):
My dad and I went on a road trip! | My dad and I went on an adventure!
See what I mean? If you want to explore this idea more, I’d encourage you to find a copy of George Lakoff’s wonderful book, Don’t Think of the Elephant. It’s definitely worth spending $15.
Paint with metaphor. One place that I often disagree with typical PR writing best practices is the use of what some call ‘plain language.’ Yes, plain language is easy to understand, and that’s good, but simplicity shouldn’t come at the expense of meaning, resonance, impact or memorability – and it certainly shouldn’t overshadow intelligence. On the contrary, I implore you to seek out smart, beautiful and unexpected metaphors that deepen, enhance and underscore your message.
As a very-much-related aside, I’d encourage every writer to become familiar with the Imagiste poets. Their mastery of metaphor should be a radiant benchmark for any scribe.
Find your rhythm.While you’re thinking about metaphors, don’t forget the metonymic function of language – how words themselves fit together visually, orally and aurally. This isn’t exactly new. Poets have always thought about meter (e.g. iambic pentameter) and how the ‘sounds’ (even when read silently) of rhythm of words can pull a reader through a piece, make it more memorable, increase desired emphasis or strategically disrupt a reader.
Write as much as you need to. Yes, short sentences are wonderful (see point #1). However, you shouldn’t be bound by arbitrary rules with regards to the total length of a piece of writing. Obviously there are certain contexts where length restrictions are unavoidable (hello Twitter!), but in general make your priority good writing that clearly tells a story, not short writing for the sake of being short. So, write what you need to write… but no more.
Steal! If you know me IRL, you’ve likely heard me quote T.S. Eliot’s wonderful essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent. In that piece, the seminal poet writes: “Immature authors borrow, mature authors steal.” I couldn’t agree more. So, if there is a famous sentence, lyric or quote that you love, don’t be afraid to make it your own. Just make sure that what you’re stealing fits, propels and enhances your writing in an authentic and meaningful way.
Make it a fairytale. One of my early mentors used to say this all the time. I didn’t like it back then and I don’t entirely like it now. That said, the meaning – which is ensuring that the story you’re telling has a beginning, middle and end – is valuable to at least consider. At the very least, never forget the story you are hoping to share.
That’s it! My perhaps unconventional, writing precepts that I hope you’ll find both interesting and useful. Before I close, however, I feel some need to clarify that more conventional rules for good writing still apply. Yes, your writing needs to be clear, clean, structured, active and specific whenever possible. My point is that by focusing exclusively on these more conventional measures of good technical writing, the artistry and joy that makes writing stand out may become lost. In PR, we need to do better if we want to be consistently turned to, even in the age of social media, as the go-to writers for brands and businesses.
So, what do you think? Are my tenets useful? What are your tips for delivering really great, engrossing, gorgeous writing? Leave a comment below or share your POV on social media using #PRforToday.