The Greatest Words You've Never Heard Buy the book

It’s Complex to Write Simple These Days … But Hemingway’s Rules of Writing Can Still Work

Posted · 10 Comments
Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestBuffer this pagePrint this pageEmail this to someone

Estimated reading time: 8 minute(s)

I’ve had Marketing and PR employees work for me right out of college, and found most were woefully unprepared for the real-world new PR environment. Not because of any inherent deficiency in the school they came from, but more from the frenetic pace of change in the Marketing and PR industry. Blogs, Vlogs, Podcasts, Social Media, SEO, SEO PR, Tags, and on and on and on. The technology changes alone can be daunting or intimidating.

Complex and Under-appreciated

It’s a skill and art that is complex, under-appreciated and, as far as I can tell, under-emphasized by schools. Or—if you have the teeth-pulling, Novocain-less pleasure of reading many press releases—companies, for that matter. Why is that? One of the main reasons is …

It’s Complex to Write Simple These Days

Ernest Hemingway had a clear understanding and vision of writing simply and effectively when he discussed the four rules of writing he learned as a journalist at the Kansas City Star.

Hemingway Four Rules

(well, not really, they were the Kansas City Star’s actually)

  1. Use short sentences.
  2. Use short first paragraphs.
  3. Use vigorous English.
  4. Be positive, not negative.

“Those were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing,” Hemingway said in 1940. “I’ve never forgotten them. No man with any talent, who feels and writes truly about the thing he is trying to say, can fail to write well if he abides with them.”

These rules still work. Rarely used. But still work.

However, in defense of most PR practitioners and writers today, Hemingway didn’t have to contend with the New PR. SEO PR. Google News. Yahoo News. He didn’t need to be Dugg, or Stumbled Upon. Or Mixxed. Or blogged about.

“Having your press release at the number one spot on Google or Yahoo News is the same as a front-page article in print.” – PR WEEK

From Their Eyes

For just a second, step into the shoes of a new PR practitioner, right out of school, or even an experienced practitioner, who has not kept up with the rapidly changing online PR processes and communication tools.

Hear Ye, Hear Ye!

The first thing (and it would be super if this happened) they might hear about is the Hemingway rules above. That’s probably a stretch. But they might hear something like, “to effectively use all the new technologies and communication tools in ‘New PR,’ you have to be able to write simply.” Let’s start with the simple. A simple press release. Doesn’t get much simpler than that, does it?

Simple?

What’s simple? Well that’s easy, simple is simple. Easy-to-read, easy-to-understand, with specificity and authenticity. Elegant simplicity will build trust and credibility for you and your organization. Wow—that is simple. Sounds simple anyway. However, I forgot to add …

Headline

Make your headline less than 10 words with an imperative verb. Try to keep it around 65 characters if you can so it’s not truncated by news search engines. Oh — include a key word or key phrase (average search term is 2.67 words long) in that title for the search engines—and not just for the web search engines. “News search engines” have different algorithms than the normal web-based engines.

Of course, that’s simple. Everyone knows that, even a freshly minted Grad student. Don’t they?

Subtitle

Amplify the title. Try to include a keyword or key phrase here too, if possible. Test it for effectiveness. How strong is your keyword – your key phrase? Do you know? (Or, do you even know how to test it, might be a better question?) But … also make it interesting, funny, mysterious, appealing, compelling … simple, easy-to-read and easy-to-understand.

Got it? Simple. Next …

Body

Include a keyword/phrase in the first 50 words of the release (because you’ll be lucky if most journalists will ever get that far, so give it your best shot). Embed hyperlinks in the body of your press release to help draw your audience (prospects/media/analysts) into your story – prompting them to visit your website, or respond to a call to action.

Doesn’t get much simpler than that.

Frankenquotes

Yes, they’re boring. But you will use them. Hardly anyone will ever read them (except the Frankenquoted person). I’ve included some text below you can use — just insert your company or executive’s name.

We’re Great!

“We’re Great.” “Our company is great.” “Our customers love us.” “The industry analysts love us.” Here’s a video that describes Frankenquoting pretty well.

Remember the Rules!

Remember, though, you still have to make it interesting, funny, mysterious, appealing, compelling, simple, short, easy-to read, easy-to-understand and … use specific keywords and phrases.

Boilerplate

Does anyone ever read this? Hardly ever.

Under-Boiled and Under-Valued Piece of PR Real Estate

However, the boilerplate is one greatly under-valued piece of PR real estate. Do not, I repeat, do not repeat any of your Frankenquotes in your boilerplate. But do use the Four Hemmingway Rules of Writing to answer the four questions that any reader wants to know;

  1. What do you do?
  2. How do you do it?
  3. Why are you different?
  4. Why should I buy from you?

Reinforce those four questions with embedded hyperlinks back to your web site with specific and credible information to back up your statements.

Money Makes You a Better Writer

We’re almost done with the simple press release. Important fact here – You also need to do all of the above in 400 or less words. Now, I know what you’re thinking: ‘What!?’ You inherited a corporate boilerplate that was 2,400 words long by itself! Why under 400 words? Typically the wire services charge you around a dollar per word after 400 words. Ouch.

Spend the money like it’s your money. It will make you a much better writer, better businessperson, and a more responsible and trusted employee.

Delete the 2,400 word boilerplate. Concentrate on a great eye-catching headline that’s less than 10 words long with a keyword/keyphrase. Nail the story angle with elegant simplicity in the first 50 words.

Money can make you a better writer … But only if you write like it’s your money you’re spending.

Whirling Dervish of the New PR World

Writing simply is hard. It is far easier to write long, complex pieces, believe it or not. But like it or not, writing simply is THE KEY to effectively communicating within this whirling dervish of a new PR world.

Good Can …

A good writer can adapt, learn and flex with the new PR technologies.

Bad Can …

An unskilled, lazy or bad writer, with a great knowledge of the new PR technologies can trash your credibility to a worldwide audience quicker than a supraluminal tachyon (a hypothetical quantum particle that never travels below the speed of light … Hey, I worked for a tech company).

Part Skill – Part Science – Part …

Writing for the new PR world is part skill, part science and part art.

The Art Part

The “art” part is putting the pieces above together so they’re interesting, appealing, compelling (take a digital breath here, breathe in, breathe out) easy-to read and easy-to-understand in ….

  1. Short sentences.
  2. Short first paragraphs.
  3. Vigorous English.
  4. Positive, not negative tones.

Simple isn’t it?

And that was just the press release. Are we ready to move on to the social media news release yet?

10 Responses to "It’s Complex to Write Simple These Days … But Hemingway’s Rules of Writing Can Still Work"
  1. Publicity-Hound says:

    I’m so glad you mention press releases.
    Good headlines are critical if you’re writing press releases because you only have a few seconds to attract a reader’s attention, and the headline is what either pulls them in, or loses them.

    I’m offering a free email course called “89 Ways to Write Powerful Press Releases.”

    I explain why we should no longer be writing press releases only for the press, but for consumers who can find the releases online, click through to our websites and enter our sales cycle, even if journalists don’t think our release is worthy of attention.

    The course includes several terrific press release samples as well as “before” and “after” makeovers.

    You can sign up for the free press release writing tutorial at http://www.PublicityHound.com/pressreleasetips/art.htm

    It’s a very long tutorial, with an entire week devoted to writing good headlines, but please stick with it. By the time you’re done, it will be like earning a master’s degree in writing and distributing press releases. And you’ll know more about this topic than many PR people.

  2. Joan Stewart, The Publicity Hound says:

    Steve, I love the four questions you’ve listed regarding the boilerplate. I see so much boilerplate that is so boring and useless.

    Also wanted to let you know that many of the points you’ve made so well are included in my free email tutorial called “89 Ways to Write Powerful Press Releases. It’s a 12-week course (yes, 12 long weeks) that teaches press release writers everthing they need to know about writing direct-to-consumer press releases, and how to get those releaases also picked up by journalists.

    You can opt into the course at htpp:/www.PublicityHound.com/pressreleasetips/art.htm

  3. Steve,

    This is such an important and relevant blog posting. Want to learn how to write? Begin by reading The Old Man and The Sea by Hemingway. Then, read a book by Ernest K. Gann. Both great writers, both used short and well-crafted sentences, free of adjectives. :idea:

    David

  4. Doug Vanisky says:

    Steve,

    I couldn’t agree more. This is actually an approach I’ve kept in mind for years as a guide to writing web content.

    When I first started writing for the web in 99, my work was too loose and rambling.

    At some point, it dawned on me that Hemingway would have been the ultimate web writer. Clear. Concise. Never giving too much away, but always making the point.

    What cracks me up now are some of the traditional advertising copywriters I’ve worked with who find this approach too direct. After all, what’s advertising without hyperbole and adjectives?

    Perhaps they’re just modeling Kerouac in an attempt to capture the elusive magic of their product/service???

    Thanks for the great post.

  5. Dustin says:

    This is great advice. A couple years back I had to write my second press release (the first was years and years earlier, when I had a) no aspirations to write professionally, and b) a great editor to fix all my mistakes). I went a-web-searchin’ for advice, and found article after article rehashing the same basic stuff — a rough outline, usually followed by a sample. This surpasses all of them, providing really useful advice about how to *craft* a press release so it stands out from the piles of dreck that fill the PR Newswire every morning. In the last couple years since my second release, I’ve picked up the ins and outs of release-writing, but anyone who reads this won’t have to waste two years learning the ropes like I did. Thanks!

  6. Steve!

    Brilliance as usual. Great stuff. I espescially liked your point, “BUT … also make it interesting, funny, mysterious, appealing, compelling … simple, easy-to-read and easy-to-understand.”

    As a recovered tech journalist and now a PR gal I can tell you that brevity was always key in terms of releases being picked up for stories.

    I’m not a fan of the hound comment on your blog commenting form, which touts the myriad ways one can write a press release, along with a thinly veiled commercial but has managed to highlight one of my pet peeves!

    As a journalist, misspelled words in releases drove me crazy. Just use a spellcheck! My favorite one, “Tainted Whine Reduced In Napa Valley,” sent to me as the headline of a release during the early dot com boom.

    And I’m still a great fan of Esther Schindler’s “The Care and Feeding of the Press” which details what journalists really want to see and gives some very good tips for garnering pickup of your news – http://www.netpress.org/careandfeeding.html .

    Favorite Schindler point, “Remember: Less is more. If you must write a press release that is longer than a page and a half, do so as if you will lose one article for every paragraph that goes over that limit. Write as if you’re working for Joe Friday: “Just the facts.”

    Tell us who you are, what you’re announcing, and why we should care. If you must include a quote from an executive, make it more substantive than, “We’re going to revolutionize the field.” Be specific. What is so revolutionary about your product that makes it newsworthy to a journalist who received 25 other press releases that day?”

  7. Dale Wolf says:

    Steve,

    Great posting. Very useful. I would add only an emphasis on understanding the audience at as deep a level as possible. Only then can your writing be relevant. Relevant, meaningful and well-written content will get read. It will get read even by the busiest people around. We all seek out sources of great writing that can help us work better and live better.

    My rule of thumb to arrive where content is relevant is: Listen, Learn, Amplify.

    First we must open our ears. Do critical listening. Learn from your audience because they know things you don’t know. Let this learning sink in. Let it twirl around in your head and blend with your own point of view. Now you are ready to put words on paper. Now your words will amplify … get bigger, more relevant, more impactful, more thought-provoking. That’s when your words will spread out to people yearning to hear ideas that are relevant to their needs.

    Let’s all of us who write or who review writing for approval put one quest before us for the New Year: Stop the Gobbledigook. Let’s kill jargon with a stake in its heart. Simple words and simple sentences that clearly, concisely and confidently communicate.

  8. Hemingway says:

    It’s hard to write simply. Hemingway’s rules work.

  9. Elizabeth says:

    Amazing content. Absolutely enjoyed reading the information. I even laughed out loud a few times. I am going to pass some of the info on to a friend who is currently building her business, and entrusting the Web site to professionals. These are things you should know for yourself as well. Especially noted the information regarding search engines and boiler plating.

  10. Smith says:

    You hit it. I dig Hemingway.

Comments are closed.