Writing Without Fear and Editing Without Mercy
French writer Annie Ernaux, this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, is admired for her storytelling ability that relies on “plain language scraped clean”. Professional communicators working for businesses, nonprofits and public agencies can benefit by her example. Using plain language scraped clean is more than a writing style; it is a writing strategy.
Ernaux uses brevity to bring clarity to her stories about growing up in a working class family, her personal struggles and her feminist activism. Fellow French writer Didier Eribon said Ernaux captured “in one sentence what I couldn’t say in one page.”
That’s not a compliment lavished on the typical press release.
“Vigorous writing is concise.”
William Strunk Jr., author of The Elements of Style, counseled to “omit needless words”. Strunk said, “Vigorous writing is concise”. E. B. White of The New Yorker praised Strunk’s “devotion to lucid English prose”. Journalists are taught (or at least they used to be) to put their best fact as the lead in their first paragraph of a story. AP style coaches the use of lean language.
Despite that expert coaching, many press releases contain flabby writing and puffed-up content. It’s little wonder they get immediately tossed into trash cans or deleted from email.
Writing tight copy is hard work. It requires thought, discipline and ruthless editing. The reward is getting a quote from a press printed read or an op-ed published.
Thinking before writing
Before composing, think about what you are writing, why it’s important and the audience it’s meant to reach. Then in reverse, identify what’s the most important fact your audience will want to know. That’s the cue for how to write the lead paragraph for your press release, fact sheet, op-ed or backgrounder. This process will help you avoid backing into your story’s punchline.
Writing with discipline
Lots of details may be interesting. Your job is to distill the most essential details of the story. Your job also involves arranging the essential details in a logical order to boost reader understanding. Readers also can benefit by thoughtful use of graphs and illustrations to underscore essential details.
Edit like a demon
The job isn’t done until you edit what you’ve written ruthlessly. Are there unnecessary words or confusing phrases? Have you missed or obscured a key point? Editing can include test-marketing the piece with representatives of the intended audience, which can offer big or small suggestions worth considering. As one coach encourages, “Write without fear. Edit without mercy.”
Beware the adverb
Start your search for superfluous verbiage by hunting for adverbs. We use adverbs freely in speech but they usually serve little purpose in writing. Writing coaches also advise against using longer words when a shorter word would suffice. Don’t use words to impress; choose words for clarity.
Vigorous writing doesn’t come naturally to most people. Ernest Hemingway, who influenced modern prose with straightforward sentences, said of editing, “The main thing is to know what to leave out. The way you tell whether you’re going good is by what you can throw away.”
He also advocated seeking gentle readers to provide feedback on what he wrote. “Intuitively you know when your story is about 90-95% right,” Hemingway said. “For me, I really need the feedback of others at this point because I can’t see it anymore. After so many read throughs and edits, I can hear the song of my story but I can’t understand its lyrics.”
Write prose like poetry
This is a suggestion you won’t find many places. It is not a suggestion to write a press release in iambic pentameter. It is a suggestion to review word choices with the sensitivity of a poet. A well-crafted phrase can spark interest and trigger recall. It’s a way to aspire to make your best fact your best line.
The bottom line
Press releases don’t have to be dull and op-eds don’t have to be dry. The path to press release and op-ed clarity is through vigorous writing, thoughtful word choices and thorough vetting and editing. Your boss may not always be happy but your audience will be.