3 ways to punch up your writing

Journalists often complain that press releases are poorly written. Here are three ways to ensure your prose survives the newsroom gauntlet.

Many news releases, email pitches and contributed articles suffer from three flaws: flabby prose, bloated and vague lead paragraphs and lack of specific details.

Here are quick fixes for each:

1. Keep headlines short and specific. “Many headlines are too long (two complete lines) and name things that aren’t easily recognizable,” says O’Quinn.

For example, one company’s recent headline referred to “acoustic filters” but was really just talking about sophisticated new earplugs.

How do you keep your headlines short and specific? “Eliminate jargon, adjectives, adverbs and excessive prepositions,” O’Quinn says. “Also, try to include a verb. You don’t need one, but it can spark your headline.”

He offers these two examples:

Pirated CDs Online Deal Another Blow to Music Industry

Talent War Rages in Auto Industry

Register for PR Daily’s Nov. 17 webinar “Write Amazing Press Releases” for more tips from Bozell’s Jennifer Stauss, writing coach Ken O’ Quinn, and Jason Chupick, former head of PR at Hearst Media.

2. Tighten leads to one sentence, while still being creative. Readers decide within seconds whether to continue reading your copy. Have the discipline to tighten the screws on what goes in the lead.

“Many leads stagger under the weight of technical terms, abbreviations, secondary detail and marketing fluff—all of which push the reader away,” says O’Quinn.

He believes a direct lead should focus on only two things: the core news and the reason it’s significant. Anything that doesn’t pertain to those two elements doesn’t belong in the lead,” he says. “It should either be repositioned farther down or removed.”

Take this lead, for example:

U.S. factory activity in November fell to the lowest level six years, as weak global demand and a strong dollar continued to buffet the manufacturing sector.

The core news is up front in the main clause of the sentence and the secondary element after the comma provides important context.

“Most leads in newspapers and on news sites run one sentence and fit this pattern,” says O’Quinn.

You can still be creative when writing news leads, despite their brevity. Here’s an example:

America is about to run on twice as much Dunkin’.

Dunkin’ Donuts plans to double its locations in the United States over the next 20 years, the company announced Wednesday.

That short, one-sentence opening plays on the Dunkin’ Brands slogan, “America runs on Dunkin’.” The second paragraph contains the news, says O’Quinn, but the writer piques the reader’s curiosity in the opening and doesn’t make the reader wait long to know what it’s about.

3. Provide vivid details in body copy. Good writing is built on specific details, says O’Quinn. For example, don’t tell readers about a superior product or unique experience. Instead, rely on precise details about why the product is useful and why people would want to buy it.

When speaking about a person, show how that individual is extraordinary. If you were to pitch a business reporter about profiling the man who created drugstore.com, this is the kind of detail that would make a journalist curious:

Neupert is turning drugstore.com into a family affair. Once purple had been selected as the corporate color, his wardrobe filled with purple shirts, purple ties and purple socks. He had custom leather jackets made for the entire family, including six-year-old Kelly and 10-year-old Katie. He bought a new purple Land Rover with vanity plates that say drgstr, and he and his wife often can be seen riding their purple tandem bicycle through Seattle. [Businessweek]

“The exact details all illustrate the degree of Neupert’s enthusiasm,” O’Quinn says. These include the specific items in his wardrobe, the names and ages of his kids, the type of vehicle he drives and even the lettering on his vanity plate.

“PR writers lean too heavily on adjectives and adverbs,” he says, “but no modifier can substitute for concrete language that provides imagery.”

Brian Pittman is a Ragan Communications consultant and webinar manager for PR Daily’s PR University. Bozell’s Jennifer Stauss, writing coach Ken O’ Quinn and Jason Chupick, former head of PR at Hearst Media, will share more tips in PR University’s Nov. 17 webinar, “Write Amazing Press Releases: New Ways to Get Your News in the News.”

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