Category Archives: Writing

Mistakes people make: The too-clever headline

A headline is important but I see bad ones on press releases too often. The fact is that these make me less, not more, likely to read on in the release. The headline is important and it’s worth taking some time to get it right.

Some examples might include the colleague who edited a number of women’s magazines. Every year, around February, she’d receive releases with something like “Hurrah for chocolate” and on about paragraph seven you’d find it was actually a plug for a new Easter egg, or offer of some sort.

That’s when she bothered reading it. Often she wouldn’t, because journalists receive around 60 press releases a day and if they don’t leap out and grab us, the chances are very good that we’ll ignore them.

What to put in a headline

…and when I say “headline” I mean it. That’s how we’re going to regard subject lines of emails, they are headlines and they need to reflect the story.

So, what am I looking for? First a lot of journalists like to have the word “press release” or at least “release” at the beginning so that their smart folders on their email systems can file it for them. Second, just tell me what’s happening. Nothing florid, nothing grandiose, just A is doing B, C has signed a deal with D, whatever is going on.

This can cause an issue for writers of some press releases. I get releases because a client has expressed an opinion, because a client is attending an event and plans to make a speech, because a client is going to fire the PR company if a release doesn’t come out soon.

Underlying problems can be very real, and the client who insists on a release coming out when they don’t actually have anything to say is a problem. It’s worth considering behaving as a consultant and pushing back properly when this happens.

Actually, perhaps a good test of a press release is whether it’s possible to write a short, snappy headline to go with it. If you descend to the need for waffle, perhaps it’s time to go back to the client and tell them the story isn’t up to scratch?

Do you or your clients need help with your corporate writing? I can help – contact me by emailing here or fill in the form below.

Writing tips 1: don’t overcomplicate it

When I train people on corporate writing, either independently or with the Henshall Centre, there can be a tendency for delegates to overcomplicate things. Ideally corporate writing, and indeed journalism, needs to be as accessible as possible. The best thing to do therefore is to keep it simple.

One way of managing this is by keeping sentences relatively short. This is something I was told as a young journalist. Everything needs to be short and staccato. There is only one problem with this. The resulting paragraphs end up stilted. They look artificial because the sentences are too uniform.

I actually had trouble writing the sentence above, it was so uniform and manufactured it didn’t read naturally at all. So if the short, sharp approach is likely to be stilted, what will work instead?

Subject, verb, object

There are times when the stuff you learned at primary school will pay off, and if you’re struggling with your writing then the old structure of “subject, verb, object” is a good one to stick with. (And don’t worry about people who tell you not to end a sentence with a preposition like “with” – I’ll deal with that in another post but it’s nonsense.) So, subject: who or what is doing something in the sentence; verb: the doing word; object: the recipient of the action.

So you get “The cat sat on the mat” rather than “The mat was sat on by the cat” – it just tells the story more easily. Sometimes a verb doesn’t take an object, which is OK – “The Prime Minister resigned.” is obviously fine.

Try also to keep the subject and the object close together. “The cat, which had a ginger head but an oddly dark body and which would scratch you if you tickled it in the wrong place but probably didn’t have a vicious bone in its body, at least no more than most of them, sat on the mat” isn’t good. There’s too much going on. Not only have I lost track of the mat, but in the reader’s mind there are probably many more interesting things than mats going on by this stage.

Writing traps

The trap a lot of corporate writers fall into is that they think it has to be articulate and to look somehow “official” if it’s any good. Too often this comes out as “officious”. If you’re on the staff somewhere you’re almost certainly going to have to adhere to some sort of house style; within the confines of that, though, try to keep it as simple as possible.

Five things not to say to editors

What should you never say to an editor if he or she is commissioning you?

I’ve been involved in setting up a new website for the New Statesman this month, editing numerous supplements for them and also editing Professional Outsourcing Magazine for more than a couple of years. It strikes me that there are still some pretty fundamental mistakes being made by a minority in the PR and business world.

Let’s make this clear: this is about people pitching commercially-driven articles rather than independent journalists or members of the public being interviewed. Journalists will know how we work and members of the public shouldn’t have to.

So, some pretty fundamental errors I’m still hearing:

  1. That’s the deadline? I’ll try. You’re trying to be helpful, I understand that. But if you’re going to struggle with a deadline, the longer I have to plan, the easier my job becomes. Editors get so close to the job (as do other professionals) that we assume you understand this – so when you say “I’ll try” we hear “I’ll definitely have the piece with you in plenty of time”.
  2. The deadline is difficult for us this month; can we go into next month’s issue? The chances are this is a “no” because I’ll already have the next slot filled. It gets worse. The person who asked me this recently was asking about a specific supplement for a specific magazine, so there would be no repeat of an appropriate slot in the immediate future; not only that but the magazine is weekly. The magazine I actually edit is quarterly. Anyone asking me about “next month’s issue” goes straight into my mental “not a clue” file. (I do stress I’m talking to people who are pitching to me for their own company or client’s gain – so I have the right to expect them to have done the basic research; readers and members of the public can make all the mistakes they want without prejudice).
  3. I’ve written over length, that’s OK, isn’t it? Yes it is as long as you don’t mind me making all the cuts I fancy. Editors, when they ask for 1000 words, mean precisely that. Technically you can indeed go over length on the Web, but if our house style is for shorter pieces we won’t accommodate longer pieces. And on the printed page we don’t have the flexibility. I’ve actually had people send 800 words for a 600 word slot and failing to understand that we can’t fit it in.
  4. I’ve got a colleague/associate to write this. This is probably fine as long as I know about it in advance. Next week there’s a supplement coming out from the New Statesman. I’ve edited it and there’s a piece from an academic; it was prompted by an interview with one of his colleagues, who I initially approached. It was clear very quickly that choice 1 wasn’t going to be able to fit it in, while choice 2 was probably a better expert anyway. They kept me fully abreast of this and re-confirmed when they’d made a firm decision; the resulting article is utterly superb. I’ve had other instances in which, at the last minute, having the layouts done including a headshot of the contributor, copy has come in by someone who’s been a complete stranger to me.
  5. I decided the subject wasn’t interesting enough so I’ve written about something else entirely. Genuinely, I had this only the other week. Now look, guys, I’m the editor – and if I’m expecting an article on a given subject I don’t want to be surprised at the last minute. Nor do I want to read an article that appears completely irrelevant after discussing it with you. If you find there isn’t enough substance in the original idea I’m fine with that – pick up the phone, talk to me, it proves you’re thinking about it and engaged! That’s a great thing. Never, though, decide you’re going to do something else and forget to tell me. For all you know I’ve commissioned someone else to write about something identical to, or too close to, your new idea, rendering it unusable.

The majority of people get it spectacularly right, most of the time. The guy in point 4 has written one of the best pieces I’ve ever commissioned, seriously. If you’re one of the small number who do otherwise, please take note!

Do you need help engaging with the press? Contact me via this form and we’ll talk.

How to write an advertorial

I’ve been editing a few supplements carrying advertorials recently – I did some for the New Statesman last year, you can click here to see an example (the ones with the green flashes on the top are the advertorials). I’m delighted to say that most of the writers “get it” – just a couple don’t. Here’s the secret.

An advertorial is an opportunity for the client to put their message out there and generally hint at how wonderful they are. Roll up, roll up, come and see we’re terrific. And the best ones…do no such thing. Instead, they address an issue, they provoke some thought and barely mention the brand. To inexperienced marketers and PR people this seems baffling. So why does it work?

Writing for readers

The thing is, you might think your organisation or client is excellent. You might think that paying an outlet for an advertorial is a superb opportunity to shout this from the proverbial rooftops. That’s understandable. The problem is that so far this is all about what’s interesting to you. Should you really be writing for yourself, though?

I’d suggest you shouldn’t. Writing for the reader is a much better idea. A single paragraph of puffery and they’ll stop reading. Arrest their attention with something relevant to their lives or work and they’ll continue. Of course they might not be inspired to go and buy your stuff or to start working with you immediately but that’s not how the medium works.

If you want rapid impact and someone to start buying from you immediately, you should probably look at involving yourself in a straight advertisement. Advertorials are a slower burn. Readers will be resistant to them because they know they’ve been paid for, so you need to establish credentials and make points even more effectively than you would in the case of independent editorial. Once you’re over the resistance, though, you can establish that you’re a real authority in your field, and become a trusted resource of knowledge.

That’s when the magic starts to happen. People who want to know something about your area start to think about you before the competition because you’ve already offered so much. It’s all about putting the reader first and forgetting the “advertorial” label – just write a really good piece.

Longer term, it’ll deliver far better results.

Do you need help with your business writing? I can help – call me on 07973 278780 and we’ll talk.

Media mistakes 6: Don’t write the headline

I’ve been editing supplements and articles for clients again and one of the corporate contributors has been late.

This often happens so it’s just as well I lied through my teeth about the real deadline (experienced editors will know this is essential when dealing with non-journalists who have no reason to be accustomed to deadlines). The writer was a pleasant and professional person – she explained the delay was because she’d written the article but hadn’t put the headline or the subheadings in.

Another contact was writing a piece for me and made the headline into a question. The text started “That’s something I’m often asked, and the answer is…”

Uh-uh. That’s not how it works.

We have experts

Think about a magazine or newspaper for a minute. If you have one handy, pick it up and have a look at the headlines. It may not be obvious but they will be set out according to a particular font and a particular size depending on where they are in the paper. The headlines will also be set to a strict formula – in Professional Outsourcing Magazine, which I edit, you hopefully won’t notice but when I point it out you’ll see that all of the headlines are two decks (that’s journalist jargon for two lines), the straplines are three lines each.

It gives the thing a uniform feel. Now look at the sub-headings. Ask yourself whether they’re there to break up the text visually or there because of the sense of it. Ideally it should be both but – and it’s a big but – ask yourself whether there is a subhead at any point at the beginning of a column or at the end of one. If the subs and production people are doing their job, there won’t be. It looks messy.

So, back to my contributors. There was actually no point in putting the heading or subheading in – if it doesn’t fit exactly it’s going to be thrown out. Likewise, the subheads: unless you can predict exactly where a particular piece of text is going to fall in a column, we’re going to move them or rewrite them for neatness’ sake. And of course the same goes for tying a headline in too closely with the text.

It’s always useful to have a change of tone or subject emphasised, or a suggestion for a subject of a headline. I’d suggest, though, that you don’t bust a gut over it if you’re contributing an article; it’s quite likely to be used as a guideline and then jettisoned in favour of something that will showcase your article better.

Do you need help with writing for publication? I can help – call 07973 278780 and we’ll talk.

Do journalists and PR people have to “believe”?

Someone asked me a question on Quora, the social “question and answer” media network, recently. They were in PR and they had been asked to represent a politician whose views they found abhorrent. What, they asked, should they do?

A number of people also tagged in the question responded. Be true to yourself, some said, while others said swallow your pride, it’s only a job. I have no idea how extreme this politician’s views were but I’d stick with the one answer. Or rather I’d ask one question.

Do you believe in democracy?

It’s not about me

A couple of years ago I was editing a few supplements for the New Statesman on the subject of Gibraltar. It was a fun assignment and I still edit the magazine’s web hub on the Rock after one year edited by someone else. We wanted something from an MEP for one of the supplements.

The obvious person was from UKIP. I should confess to a certain bias here; I regard UKIP as a political fan club for a leader who can’t even master the art of resignation. You don’t have to agree, but you can see where I’m coming from.

So you might think I had a dilemma. I didn’t. I got in touch with the guy’s press officer, who was more than helpful, and we ran the article that was submitted on time and to length. I made minimal cuts for length. If the press officer or MEP are reading, this will hopefully be the first indication they’ve had that I wasn’t 100 per cent behind them.

The thing is, I’m a journalist. I’m not an elected representative and anyone who is – much though I might disdain their view – has more legitimacy than I do. Unelected people seeking election also have a constitutional right to be heard.

As a journalist I regard it as part of my job to make sure they’re heard. In the same way, if they want to pay a PR person or company to get their message out there, as long as it’s not actual hate, that’s legit. The media and its support agencies are the messenger, not the originator, most of the time.

I’d welcome other people’s views.

IN DEFENCE OF THE PRESS RELEASE |

I’ve been taking part in a Facebook discussion on whether the press release is dead as a useful thing. My answer is generally “no” and a lot of my views are duplicated in this excellent blog from the Comms Dept:

via IN DEFENCE OF THE PRESS RELEASE |.

The problem is that there are some pretty naff press releases out there. So if you’re writing one or are part of the team doing so, here are some of the things that would help me as a journalist.

  • A clear subject line. Too often (ie more than once) people try something clever. Just tell me what has happened: Company X lands major contract, Company B launches new product – whatever it is. If you can’t summarise it quickly does it really need to be said?
  • A good summary in the opening paragraph. I’m a journalist and I’m used to writing news. I therefore expect to read news in a newsy format which means the important stuff goes in immediately – who, what, when, where, how. I may read no further if I’m pushed for time so why not put everything important at the front?
  • Good targeting. Yes it’s difficult to keep track of journalists as their careers progress and they move from title to title. But yes that’s part of the job. If you want me to be interested in writing something you’d better have at least a vague idea of who my readers are.
  • Available spokespeople. A colleague recently replied to a press release and had an autoresponse message that made it clear that the sender was on holiday for a month and didn’t want to be bothered. OK, you’re entitled to your holiday and if you can afford to take a month off, good luck to you – but don’t bother me with a press release if you can’t be bothered yourself, OK?
  • Decent English. I know, I know, it shouldn’t matter, I’m looking for relevance rather than eloquence ideally. However, if you don’t know the difference between their, there and they’re, its and it’s, I might find it irritating. If you clearly don’t know your stuff I’ll be more so. Remember the security breach at married dating organisation Ashley Madison? I had two releases commenting on the incident at Madison Ashley. It just looked like opportunistic grubbing around after half-reading a headline.

Other than the targeting, it all ought to be fairly straightforward.

Do you need help with writing your releases? Email me and we’ll talk.