Oh, Mary

On Red Smith and Better Writing for Public Relations

August 8, 2018
Roger van Oosten

Writing is a foundational pillar in the world of public relations. It is essential for any public relations professional to be able to write clearly and precisely, to communicate messages, to draw attention and to achieve goals. But in my long career in PR, I have increasingly seen effective, interesting writing become a neglected, vanishing part of the profession.

Perhaps it’s the rise of email, instant messaging and texting, especially on smartphones. These types of communications encourage colloquial, even lazy language. Many colleagues have actually accepted a signature that says, “sent from my iPhone, please forgive the tpyos.” In my opinion, self-reporting laziness does not entitle you to a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Public Relations professionals need to up their game where writing is concerned. Luckily, the best way to become a better writer is the same as it always has been: read. Great writers are great readers. There’s no doubt about it.

When thinking about how to become a better writer, start by reading. For the purposes of this article, the most effective example of great writing is this opening paragraph of an obituary written by the late Red Smith, the Pulitzer Prize Winning sports reporter:

When Harry Ruby, the songwriter, died in California, the obituary bestowed the title of “world’s greatest baseball fan” on the composer of “Three Little Words,” “Who’s Sorry Now?,” “Baby Face” and many other hits. The obit didn’t tell the half of it. Harry Ruby felt deeply about music, yet given his choice of composing Beethoven’s Third or ripping a line drive over second like Bill Dickey, he would have suited up on the spot. He loved the piano, but would infinitely rather have been Pete Rose than Arthur Rubinstein.

To my knowledge, Smith never held a card in the Public Relations Society of America. He never set out to tell other people how to write. But in this one paragraph, he has demonstrated a remarkable amount of the skills that are needed by anyone who cares about or wants to care about writing.

In just 89 words, Smith has defined a man’s life. He has told us, the reader, what the man accomplished in his life. But more importantly, he has told us the man’s inner desires, his greatest ambition, his most unrealized dream. And, don’t forget, as a newspaper man, he wrote this on deadline.

Smith has revealed knowledge, incorporated research, highlighted a human struggle, and applied a generous amount of humor. He has shown great economy by saving words that the reader already knows, such as saying “ripped over second” instead of “ripped over second base.”

More importantly, having read this one paragraph, the reader wants to read more. Smith has drawn us in by making this one man’s struggle between desire and reality a mirror of all human struggles to determine the same.

There are millions of examples of great writing and young writers would be wise to find works that impress them or inspire them. At first, imitate language and sentence structure. By doing so you will develop a voice.

Remember, writing is structure. All great writing has shape, namely, an introduction, a body of evidence and a conclusion. Or better put, tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.

Always research before writing. Red Smith mentions song titles, baseball players and composers multiple times in one paragraph. If you are assigned the job of writing a press release, find out if the news has an impact in society, or to an industry. Use research to prove the thesis of your press release.

After research, outline the assignment. Creating an outline is a lost art. But it is an essential part of getting your work right. It actually saves time by guiding your choice of length, words and structure.

Remember, in public relations, all writing, from blog post to bylined article, should be forceful, persuasive and, yes, elegant. The most frequent mistake I see from both young and old writers is to adopt a false, seemingly “important,” vaguely academic tone when they sit down to write something for a client. Don’t fall into that trap. Instead, think in terms of creative writing by using the tools of the novelist including humor, wit, analogy, parody and suspense. Experiment with styles and language. This is how you will develop a ‘voice.’

Once you have created a first draft, then the real work begins. It is at this point that you begin to edit. Shave away anything that doesn’t fit your thesis. The great author, Raymond Chandler said, “In writing, you must kill your darlings.” He meant that, however much you love a line you’ve written, no matter that a paragraph is sublime, if it doesn’t fit the narrative you are creating, you have to remove it to better the piece.

Next, you have to give up the piece to review by colleagues. Public relations writing is collaborative. Others may see something you could not, or know information that you didn’t have when you created the draft. Shed your ego. If partners can make the piece better, they should. Your clients deserve the best work products.

Great writers aren’t born. They develop greatness over time, first by reading and then by doing. Writing is an art form that one improves at by doing. Don’t hide behind fear when a writing project arrives. Jump at it. Rip one over second like Bill Dickey.