Do you want to work in journalism, press, marketing or public relations?
If you can learn to write succinctly you’ll have a much better chance of success.
A journalistic style means short words and short sentences using the fewest words possible.
Here are some handy tips…
- Understand the information
- Order it
- Keep it simple.
1. Understand the information
This sounds obvious but it’s surprising how many ‘don’t knows’ you hear in corporate communications if you ask the meaning of something.
In order to write clearly, you need to fully understand the information.
Imagine you’re writing about how to look after your dog.
You’d know the subject well. You’d have no trouble writing about it.
You’d start with the most obvious like where the gourmet tuna is kept.
Then move to the next. And then the next.
Speak out against jargon
Consider this: you’re a communications officer and your boss asks for a press release on a report written by someone in the company.
You read it. Do you understand it? Is there a top line? If yes, great. If no, read it again. Do you get it now?
Only with a thorough understanding will you be able to write about it in plain English.
Perhaps it’s so technical or written in jargon that only your boss and the author understand. In which case you’ll need a healthy dose of confidence to convince them of your argument.
A number of communications staff are afraid they’ll be seen as ignorant or stupid if they query something.
Often a journalistic-type phone call is what’s required with the person who wrote the report or who has responsibility for the project.
Or use your judgement and deconstruct the thing.
As a journalist you work on different subjects each day. Sometimes two or three.
You’re often new to an area, unless you’re a specialist.
The only way to tackle this is to ask questions. Really basic ones like
- What’s the story/report/event about?
- Why are people going to be interested?
- What’s the most important information you want publicised?
So many people get irritated at being asked questions especially members of the scientific or medical community or those who’ve bothered to join Mensa.
But if you don’t really understand it, it’s unlikely anyone reading your copy will either. Develop a thick skin, a child-like curiosity and ask away.
2. Order information well
Having taken the above steps, you finally begin to understand the subject. So now, the fun part. Translating into plain English.
First, weed out unnecessary information (see below for advice on how to do this).
When you lack confidence, for instance at the start of a career, you do things you wouldn’t ordinarily do.
You worry about weeding in case something’s important so you keep too much in. Then you produce a thesis, not a press release.
So many press releases cover two or three pages before the Notes to Editor and Background sections even start.
To avoid cloudy thinking, it can help to imagine you’re explaining it to children who are, by nature, excellent jargon cops.
Nothing gets past them. Visualise them asking, Why?
Why are you writing in this incomprehensible style?
Why are you confusing us with all this excess information? Just get to the point.
If something repeats itself it’s usually fine to edit the second mention out.
Thoughts on screen – a personal brain dump: write out your understanding as one mammoth brain dump on the screen – for your eyes only.
Keep the words simple and sentences short. Two things help:
- Write for a child
- Write as you speak (imagine you’re telling your friends in the pub and use that language.)
Keep it loose and informal. Do the buttoning up later when you consider the audience.
Put the long words to one side. You may need to reinsert them.
Who, what, where, when, why: following this rule ensures your brain dump retains the essential information.
You need to explain these five things as close to the top of your press release as possible.
But don’t cram them into one paragraph.
Too much information: Consider this so-called “top line”: Via a school-led astronomy project that took place on Tuesday the 16th of March at the London Space Centre, London, England, six people with no formal training in astrophysics helped to discover what could be a thrilling and productive new place to search for planets outside our solar system, a large disk of gas and dust encircling a star known as a circumstellar disk.
Sadly this sentence is representative of how many press releases start.
In this case, the story is strong so gaining coverage probably wouldn’t be a problem.
But let’s use it as an example of long-windedness to illustrate how the editing process takes place.
By pulling the sentence apart word by word, you can achieve a far more simple way of writing that’s kinder on the person reading your material.
*** WARNING – WHAT FOLLOWS MAY HURT YOUR BRAIN ***
Using the who, what, where, when, why checklist, you can divide it up like so:
- Who: Six people with no formal training in astrophysics.
- What: Helped discover a new place to search for planets outside the solar system.
- Where: The London Space Centre, London, England.
- When: 16 March 2017 (you don’t need to list the specific day of the week)
- Why: Part of an initiative that aims to make space exploration more accessible to young people (this info you find later in the report comes later and is not outlined above).
Here’s how you might explain it to your flatmate:
Six people with no formal training in astrophysics (the who) have found a new place to search for planets outside the solar system (the what).
It was part of a school astronomy programme (more of the what) at the London Space Centre in England (the where).
That’s got the who, what and where. The first paragraph should contain the ‘killer top line’ that’s in your heading (the new place to search for planets).
The killer top line draws in your reader and makes them want more. The second paragraph expands on this and explains more.
The when comes next.
The project, which took place on 16 March, identified a large disk of gas and dust encircling a star known as a circumstellar disk (more of the what).
And then onto the why (for the purposes of this post I haven’t included the entire press release. The ‘why’ information isn’t in this selected example.)
The scheme aims to make exploration of the universe more accessible to young people. The six participants were among 50 schoolchildren who took part (the why).
Structuring a news story – the inverted pyramid
To be in with the best chance of getting your press release noticed by journalists in busy newsrooms, you should treat it like a news story.
All news stories are structured around an upside-down pyramid, the so-called ‘inverted pyramid’.
As mentioned, the top two or three paragraphs will contain the most important information – the who, what, where, when and why and sometimes the how.
The tapering lower parts of the pyramid show that other material should follow in order of diminishing importance.
The middle section can contain pertinent but not essential information, alongside the quotations from the main people involved.
The bottom is where you put periphery stuff like dates, location and contact details.
(NB: the pyramid above breaks all the rules on correct use of capital letters!)
3. Keep the language simple
Catch yourself when you get flowery and bring your style back to short and snappy.
Why write in a different way to how you speak when the words are forming in the same brain?
Heading: The main message should leap out in your heading and the tight top paragraph.
Try to keep the heading on one line only as a condensed version of the opening paragraph.
Overuse of superlatives
Avoid superlatives like ‘groundbreaking’, ‘applauding’ and ‘pioneering’.
Most press releases with headlines containing the word ‘groundbreaking’ are anything but.
And how can an organisation ‘applaud’ something?
Two-line paragraphs: Try to keep each paragraph on two lines only, if possible, especially the first.
(NB: This rule regularly gets broken especially if the client’s name, report title or product is lengthy. But it’s a great exercise in achieving brevity.)
Aim for one side only: Try and keep the bulk of your press release on one page with the Notes to Editor and background stuff at the top of page 2.
(NB: This rule regularly gets broken especially if there’s more than one organisation that needs to be included in the press release.)
A hefty medical or legal journal is unlikely to be bothered by a press release spanning two, three or even four pages. But if it’s a newsroom you’re targeting it’s best to remember how journalists are notoriously busy … or lazy.
Unless your story is dynamite they’ll not read past the first two or three paragraphs.
Press release skeleton – after structuring your brain dump around the inverted news pyramid, writing short sentences in easy language and using the ‘who, what, where, when, why’ checklist, you should now have a good skeleton press release.
Now it’s time to edit, amend and formalise.
One is ideal. Two are ok but any more, when the message is effectively the same, is tedious.
If the press release is about a new report or study, you’d quote the author and perhaps an expert.
If it’s about a scheme or product, you’d quote the chief executive or another senior person.
Try to remember the ‘write as you speak’ rule when drafting quotations.
It’s also time to consider your target audience.
If you’re writing for a consumer magazine and are confident the journalists will understand the technical terms you stripped out at the start, you can reinsert them if you think they’ll add anything.
This applies to all forms of publicity writing. Is your audience a youth market, the over-50s or people with specialist knowledge?
Whoever you’re targeting, you can’t go wrong if you stick to plain English as most content writers and journalists do.