Before you write anything at all

Posted by Kate Betts on 29th December 2018

You know what it’s like; you’ve got to get that piece written, that report finished, that document completed. It might be a press release, a case study, copy for a website; whatever it is, it is easy to focus on doing the task, without thinking how it is going to be received.

Before writing absolutely anything (including this blog) you have to think: who am I writing for and what do I want my communication to achieve? It’s about starting with the end result in mind.

It doesn’t matter if you are writing an email, a blog, a tweet, an e-newsletter, a video script or a press release. You must ask: who is my audience, what is my message and what do I want that audience to do? If you start from that approach you should at least head off in the right direction.

Too often people start off with other things in mind: I’ve got to just get this report/ case study/ blog written; I want to impress my peers with my clever use of language, or I’ve got to get this approved by internal stakeholders so I’d better name-check / praise them, never mind the external audience this is going to.

I appreciate there are all sorts of pressures on us as PR people to write things in a way that pleases the client. How many times have you written a press release for example only to have the client come back and make changes that make them sound amazing, but make it sound less like a press release and more like blatant marketing spiel, which will not appeal to the audience it is intended for – the journalists.

Difficult I know when the client pays the bill, but I often remind myself that if you hire an electrician, you don’t tell them how to do the wiring. And we as PR professionals need to push back; we know how to write for the audience, in the same way a plumber knows how to plumb and a carpet fitter knows how to fit a carpet.

So now we have worked out who the audience is, we need to work out what we are going to say and how we are going to say it.  Writing for PR is not like writing fiction. With a novel I may struggle through the first few pages because everyone says it’s worth reading; with any PR communication I need to be clear from the outset, I need people to read on and do whatever I want them to do.

You need to make sure clumsy language and poor grammar don’t trip people up on their way through your writing. I feel like an old stickler when I go on about the importance of clear writing in communication, but it is vital. A comma in a different place or a misplaced apostrophe can make a lot of difference to the meaning.

‘Let’s eat grandad’ is a bit different to ‘Let’s eat, grandad’. Or how about this example from the late newspaper columnist Keith Waterhouse: ‘What is this thing called love’ versus ‘What is this thing called, love?’

As well as teaching writing skills for PR for the CIPR, I used to teach writing skills on a university journalism degree. Some students used to object and say that simple writing was dumbing down. It is not; it is writing that can be understood and acted upon on one reading (or hearing). I am not saying all sentences need to be five words long. That would be a travesty. That would make it dull. This sentence has five words. This is becoming really dull. It starts to drone on. We need to vary sentence lengths. To make sentences sing, dance and have rhythm and take you with them.

So before you write that report, document or press release, think: what do I want the recipient to do with this? And how can I write it in a way that engages and inspires?

Do that and you should get that piece written, that report finished, or that document completed in a way that might actually lead to an end result.

First published in Influence https://influenceonline.co.uk/2018/12/19/before-writing-absolutely-anything/ 

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