Being a great writer, in any field, takes practice. This is as true in PR as it is in writing a novel. Angela Casey, managing director of PR agency Pagoda Porter Novelli, says that even though she was told early on in her career that she “could not write and would never write” she now enjoys writing because she has dedicated time to it. She explains: “I believe the key to good writing is a combination of persistence and practice. Taking every opportunity to write copy will help you in the long run, whether it is blogs, tweets, emails or press releases – practice is the best way to learn. The other tip I would give is to read other people’s writing and learn from it. Look at what makes a piece of writing brilliant and try to copy it.”
More good advice from Casey is to prepare: “Good planning is crucial for any piece of writing. It is rare to sit down without thought and then just bash out a piece of brilliant copy – it just doesn’t work that way. Thinking ahead about what the reader needs to know, what you want to say and how you will make a big impact, are all essential during the first stage of planning your writing. Your copy simply won’t work if you don’t do this.”
Casey concludes: “Half a day spent reading good writing followed by half a day of practice is way better value than a day’s writing course.”
Assuming you have gained writing skills drawn from practice, and you have a basic plan for what you want to write, we have put together a PR-writing checklist. So before you file your next brilliant piece of copy, make sure you can answer ‘Yes’ to all of the following questions…
12 questions to ask before you write
From Peter Meikle, head of news at PR firm FleishmanHillard Fishburn:
- Is it news? Be honest – even if it hurts. Is the story you’ve written telling people anything new, interesting, unusual or different? A lot of clients are from companies that think they’re really interesting, but have they got a story worth telling to the wider world? It’s the PRO’s job to tease out tales with proper news merit. Test your story on a colleague who doesn’t work for the same client before sending out to journalists. Do their eyes light up with interest or glaze over. Redraft if it’s the latter.
- Is it tailored? Your story’s got much more chance of landing if it’s sent to an individual journalist rather than “spraying and praying” to a load of generic news desk email addresses. So make sure you’re sending your story to the right journalist and it is the kind of story they want. If you don’t know the journo personally then mug up on them with a quick bit of Googling. Journos’ Twitter feeds are priceless for learning what kind of stories they write and are interested in.
From Sally Maier-Yip, managing director of marketing agency 11K Consulting:
- Is it succinct? Whether a copy is for print, social or digital media, the copy must be straight to the point, as we all have even shorter attention span than ever. A great copy works like spoon-feeding a baby – it must be easy for readers to digest, without thinking.
- Is it relevant? No matter how well-written copy is, the content must be relevant to target readers. Relevancy involves having a real understanding about what the local audience desire, want or need.
- Is it unique? As information has become so accessible and constant, we have all become tired with receiving new information. Hence any great PR copy must have something unique about it – be it inspiring, new or quirky – which makes it memorable and encourages people to share it with others.
From Matt Watson, programme director at PR agency Hotwire:
- Is it accurate? Whether you’re scripting a video, penning an op-ed or drafting a press release, it’s important to do your homework before putting pen to paper. Consider who you’re talking to, what they care about and what you can tell them that’s new or interesting. You can invest a lot of time and resources in producing written content, but if you don’t really understand the intended audience, the content you produce may not strike the right note and can easily go unnoticed or even worse damage your brand’s reputation.
- Will it get the results you want? Think carefully about what you want to say and why you’re saying it. What are the main messages that you want the reader to take on board and how do these differ from those of your competitors? You should be clear on what point you want to make, how you want the audience to react, and how you will measure the response. If you’re not sure what you want to achieve or how you’re measuring it, it will be impossible to assess whether the content you have produced is effective.
From Simon Turton, owner of agency Opera PR:
- Does it present details clearly? What makes for a good press release is for all the details about the product, service, widget, whatever, to be clearly presented. When writing press releases I ensure that the opening paragraph gives the reader a clear view about what is to follow; I aim to ensure that if the reader goes no further than the first paragraph they know exactly what the story is about.
- Does it avoid exaggerating claims? Avoid hyperbole at all costs; let the journalist or editor decide if the product or service is ‘exciting’, ‘fantastic’ or ‘excellent’. I know from the comments that I have had from journalists and editors over the years and they hate flowery, hyperbolic press releases to the point that even if the story is relevant it is still likely to be consigned to the bin.
- Are you writing for humans? When writing copy for websites or marketing literature, you need to write for the audience and don’t try to write for Google (too many people still think that writing copy that includes search-engine phrases will help boost online ranking). You need to write for humans and not for the search engine robots that scan the text in order to deliver relevant search results. For marketing literature you often need less text than you think. People like images and the copy reinforces the messages you want to communicate.
From Adam Leigh, strategy director at agency W communications:
- Have you got a good headline? Study headlines in relevant newspapers or websites to understand the conventions. They’re usually short and involve simple, direct language. So if that’s what you want to get to, help yourself achieve it by not presenting ideas in cluttered, confusing ways. Minimise pointless adjectives and eliminate jargon as far as possible (or as far as a client can be persuaded to allow).
- Does it grab the reader immediately? Attention spans are short, so the first paragraph is always the most useful. What are the most interesting details you can bring out? Be honest about these – don’t try to pretend something is interesting when it’s not.
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