One thing beyond dispute is that the PR function is typically relied upon for writing. From crafting strategy, the brand narrative and key messages, to developing media materials (duh!), pulling together nifty web copy and social media posts, business presentations and speechwriting — it’s PR that’s usually asked to wield the proverbial pen as sword.
That’s one of the reasons I chose 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 Strategic Objectives 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 required to put words to work. While most of these individuals have been 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, salesy and/or corporate. Often, because the author is concerned with ‘sounding professional,’ they lose the story itself, and their writing doesn’t really say anything. That’s a problem.
At SO. we believe that excellent, convincing, message-driven writing is key to strategy development and the future of PR; and that we must differentiate the PR function by delivering writing that transcends mere communication to engage and enthrall. After all, even as technology advances, the need to turn out spiffy copy isn’t going away any time soon. To that end, I thought it might be helpful to share a few personal writing precepts that have always served me well. These eight 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.
Eight Writing Precepts:
1) Write with Punch.
That is, use short punchy sentences as much as possible, they pack a real wallop. In fact, because shorter sentences are easier to remember, their content often resonates most. Need I say more than, “I have a dream!”?
2) Dare to be Daniel.
This line from a biblical song, frequently quoted by the late, great basketball coach 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.
3) 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 must 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 select 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’s 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 encourage you to read George Lakoff’s wonderful book, Don’t Think of the Elephant.
4) Paint with metaphor.
I, for the most part, disagree with typical PR writing best practices that call for ‘plain language.’ Yes, plain language is easy to understand, and that’s good, but simplicity shouldn’t come as a sacrifice for 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 encourage every writer to discover the Imagiste poets. Their mastery of metaphor is a radiant benchmark for any scribe.
5) Find your rhythm.
While you’re thinking about metaphors, don’t forget the metonymic function of language – how words fit together visually, orally and aurally. This isn’t exactly new. Poets have always thought about metre (e.g. iambic pentameter) and how the ‘sounds’ (even when read silently) or rhythm of words can pull a reader through a piece, make it more memorable, increase desired emphasis, or strategically disrupt a reader.
6) Write as much as you need to.
Yes, short sentences are wonderful (see point #1). However, don’t be bound by arbitrary rules when looking at the total length of your 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. Write what you need to write … but no more.
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.
8) Make it a fairytale.
Always ensure that the story you’re telling has a beginning, middle and end.
That’s it! Some 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 make writing stand out sometimes gets lost. In PR, we must always do better if we want to remain the go-to writers for brands and businesses.
So, what do you think? Are these tips useful? What are your tips for delivering really great, engrossing, gorgeous writing? Please contact us here.
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