One of the most powerful forms of communication is writing, and if you’ve landed yourself a career in PR you’ve probably done your fair share over the years.
From pitching to press releases to bylines, writing is an integral part of our daily lives. But it’s not every day we take a step back and truly appreciate the power of the written word. So today we’re going to explore the ins and outs of this art form, so we can turn this skill into one of our greatest assets.
Seth Arenstein, editor of PR News and award-winning journalist, graciously agreed to share his knowledge and experience on the subject. With 30+ years in the media industry, Seth is equipped to teach us all how to be more diligent, concise and effective writers.
Read on as Seth provides invaluable insight on the art of writing to help us better relay our messages.
rbb: If you could give people three tips to becoming a better, more effective writer, what would they be?
Seth: Guard your reader’s time jealously. In business writing, that translates to getting to your points quickly. A related point is to re-read what you’ve written to see if you can make it more efficient. (You usually can remove a few words.) See this clip from A River Runs Through It.
I don’t advocate “half as long,” but usually words can be removed.
A PR pro told one of our PR News writing boot camps to “Proofread everything to death.” It sounds extreme, but I think I remember that phrase because it’s extreme.
When writing or ghostwriting essays for executives or clients, make sure you are offering new ideas or a new viewpoint, especially when covering well-worn subjects.
Finally, it’s important to read so you know what topics are covered regularly. I just received a note from a PR pro who was trying to position his CEO as a thought leader. His pitch said the topics the CEO could speak to or write about were: “The impact of fake news on PR credibility; the rise of AI; and cutting-edge tools such as AR and VR.” I’m not saying it’s impossible to offer new ideas on those topics, but the bar is high, as they’ve been covered extensively lately.
rbb: What’s your biggest pet peeve or overly used phrases that you’d abolish if you could?
Seth: Avoid clichés, of course, but pet peeves/overly used phrases that I see in PR writing regularly include:
- “We’re introducing a new product next week…” Does anyone introduce old products?
- “In order to…” Just use “to.”
- “Today more than ever…” Do PR pros get a nickel every time they use this tired phrase?
- “The social media campaign resulted in over 1,000 new visitors.” “Over” is a direction (e.g., “My left hand is over the dog’s head”). Better to use “more than” as in “the social campaign brought in more than 1,000 new visitors.”
A pet peeve is when people use the word “piece” to describe an essay or blog post. Use “piece” when referring to a musical work or a slice of pizza.
rbb: In the field of PR, how important is it to be a great writer?
Seth: I’m unsure how to define a great writer, but I’ll take a shot at this question regardless. I feel it’s important in many professions to be a good writer.
Since PR is rooted in communications, writing well likely will be important in most positions in the industry.
rbb: Can you share any recommendations for those in PR looking to hone their skills?
Seth: Talk (to yourself and others) about what you want to write. It’s amazing how much better your work will be if you discuss it with someone either before or after you’ve written it.
As I noted before, proofread everything to death. Make sure what you’ve written is clear and be cognizant of your reader’s limited time.
A proofreading trick is to walk away from what you’ve written and then come back to it with fresh eyes. In addition, have a colleague read or proofread your work. Proofreading your own writing is difficult, because you know it so well and your eyes tend to skip over mistakes.
If your job requires you to produce a lot of a written product daily (e.g., press releases, statements or white papers), spend time trying to make each piece of work unique and creative. Perhaps add a bit of humor or a personal story. This tip relates to the next one.
Do anything you can to break the monotony of routine. How many times do you catch yourself driving a familiar route while thinking about something else? Somehow your car eventually gets to your driveway. That’s dangerous to do as a driver and as a writer.
Avoid doing too much research. Get a solid grounding in the topic you’re about to write about, but many writers avoid writing by digging too much into research.
rbb: Any recommendations for those looking to get published in prnewsonline.com?
Seth: The tips are scattered throughout this interview. Provide an interesting point of view and make sure your essay is lucidly and concisely explained and will be of value to PR News readers. Also, make sure to contact me regarding the site’s need for particular topics and for other specifics, such as word counts.
rbb: What’s the best piece of advice or constructive criticism you’ve received on your writing?
Seth: As a rookie reporter covering Soviet military developments (that I covered the Soviet Union should provide a clue as to how old I am), I often really didn’t understand what I was writing about. Since Soviet military technology and developments were arcane, I figured people would be impressed with whatever I put in my articles. I beamed with pride as I showed my dad an article I’d written about Soviet submarine developments. “Do you really understand what you’re writing about?” he asked. I didn’t.
rbb: Is there a writer you particularly admire? Why?
Seth: I admire George Will as an essayist for his clarity and conciseness, although I rarely agree with his politics. Stephen King is a terrific storyteller for the same reasons. More expository storytellers are Truman Capote, John Irving, Jennifer Weiner and Robert Harris. The international relations scholar Robert W. Tucker is one of the clearest writers I’ve ever read. I like the writing of JFK’s speechwriter and counselor Ted Sorenson, too. For humor I admire John Mortimer’s Rumpole stories, which I re-read regularly. For a unique use of language, Anne Proulx’s Shipping News is tough to beat.
The next time you set out to write that seemingly mundane press release or byline article, try to approach it with a different lens. By acknowledging the power of this art form, your words are sure to leave a greater impression.
Thanks to Seth for sharing your invaluable insight. You can read some of Seth’s stories right here.