Three Biggest Style Mistakes in PR Writing

I’ve written and edited hundreds of press releases, blog posts and other media materials throughout my career. And I’ve coached writing students on the basics of newswriting. There are three errors in applying Associated Press style that I see the most in writing.

Using Commas in a Series

If the series is simple, then lose the comma before the last element. More complex series which include phrases have a whole different approach. My favorite example to illustrate this point:

The flag is red, white and blue.

Titles

Titles can get tricky, especially when you must describe military, courtesy and legislative titles. That’s when you keep the Associated Press Stylebook on your desk. But, for the simple act of identifying someone for a piece of journalistic writing, it’s clear. A Title used BEFORE a name in a sentence is capitalized. AFTER a name, lowercase.  Here’s the simplest example ever.

President Obama signed the bill into law.

Barack Obama, president of the United States, signed the bill into law.

Months of the Year

Little months are always written out in press material. If there are 5 or less letters in its name, the month is never abbreviated. It helps that it’s most of the spring and summer months.

This means: March, April, May, June and July are written out, while the remainder of the months are presented this way:  Jan., Feb., Aug., and etc.

Next time you are working on a piece for a client, take a moment to proofread one more time with these three mistakes in mind. Bet you’ll find at least one!

Read More About Style Here

What Style Are You Using in Your Public Relations Writing?

Picture of writing stylebooks

For public relations practitioners, writing style can be boring and dry. But style is important in good writing. It sets standards and formats that give uniformity to writing. Surprisingly, many in the profession are unaware of style types and how they can bolster your writing efforts.

Applying a style to your writing puts an end to questions like “when should I capitalize that?’ and “where does this comma go?” and enables individual pieces of writing to look like they belong together.   For large projects, like web site rewrites, press kits or backgrounders, style can unify the voice of many writers.

But not all style guides are the same.

First, let’s eliminate the style types you will NOT use in public relations writing. These are the academic styles of writing you used in school.  Chances are you used one of these in college:

APA –American Psychological Association, the nations’ largest scientific and professional organization representing the field of psychology. Their style has been adopted by numerous professions.

MLA- Modern Language Association Members are comprised mainly of English and foreign language teachers. The style they’ve adopted is usually the first one you learn in high school and is often used in language and literature writing.

Chicago-This style method, developed by the University of Chicago Press is among the oldest and began to be used in the early 1900s.  Today it’s largely used in historical and legal writing.

Forget them! What you really need is a style which encompasses the types of writing you do every day.  If you are writing press releases, blog posts, brochures, web copy or any other type of writing that doesn’t need the academic touch, then you need to look to two types of stylebooks: traditional and digital.

Traditional Stylebooks Still Rock

The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual

This is my go-to guide. It was developed to create unity in early newspaper reporting and is updated annually. It is always on my desk (or on the floor next to my desk) but I recently fell in love with their iPhone app. It’s easier to carry around and it’s updated frequently. This stylebook focuses on elements of writing, but has important sections on style specifics for sports, financial and web writing.

Washington Post Deskbook on Style

The post developed their own stylebook over the years, but recently added online digital publishing guidelines which cover issues like citing sources, social media and use of third party information – all important issues to public relations pros.

The New York Times

I do not use their Style and Use Guide. But, I have recently discovered a NY Times Blog called After Deadline which is run by Philip B. Corbett, the associate managing editor for standards—the guy in charge of The Times’s style manual. What I like about this blog is that Corbett uses real examples from the paper.  It’s reassuring to know that even journalists are responsible for the occasional dangling modifier.

Digital Stylebooks: A New Genre

A handful of digital stylebooks have appeared in recent years, with a broader focus than the examples above. These style guides are embracing topics like information architecture, usability guidelines and page design.  While many PR Pros may not THINK they need a guide like this, they are easy to access and use online and force you to think about how the information you are presenting will LOOK in its finished state. Here are several  I’ve recently discovered:

Yahoo

I bought the printed version of the Yahoo Style Guide a few years ago and used it occasionally. Now that it is indexed and searchable online, I use it far more often. I especially like its section on presenting numbers.

Web Style Guide

I came across this site by accident. I particularly like their section on usability and designing for usability.  As communicators, we need to make sure that we are thinking universally about how people will use what we write. The credentials of its authors are pretty impressive.

Media-Specific Guidelines

Many news organizations are developing their own guidelines and standards.  Two which are of interest are the BBC News Guidelines http://www.bbc.co.uk/guidelines/ and CNN’s iReport Toolkit.

These resources should help you and your organization adopt a style based on your particular writing needs. You might even be inspired to develop your own house style. I am sure there are many more. Do you have favorite style resources?

You can browse all these resources by going to my writing style resources list on Diigo.

It’s About Great Writing

While the decline of the publishing industry over the last decade is no secret, there is one emerging trend that new professionals should be watching. – the role of brands as publishers.  At last week’s  South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, this topic was covered heavily. One panel had a razor-sharp view on the subject.

Brave New World: Debating Brands Role as Publishers examined the intersection between the decline in traditional journalism and the opportunity for brands to use storytelling  to talk directly to consumers using great content.

One member of the panel said all brands should think and act like publishers.  Another talked about how different content channels can be used by brands to talk about different things. Yet another believed we should be eliminating the middle men – journalists – altogether.  One panelist was concerned about how we would police brands when they lie.

What does this mean for the new public relations professional?  It means that public relations pros in organizations of all sizes have more opportunities to tell their story directly to the consumer – through blogs, wikis and other online places.  And organizations also have an obligation to tell stories honestly, in a timely manner, and using the most basic tool of all – great writing.

Lately great writing has a lot of new buzz words in the online community – dynamic content, content creation, content strategy.  All of these titles are jargon for writing with purpose, or writing with the audience and market in mind.

The labels may be new, but the principal behind them is not.  William Zinsser is the quintessential journalist and nonfiction writer whose landmark work On Writing Well has been the reference against which all others are measured.

At the heart of Zinsser’s beliefs about writing is that it’s a transaction between writer and reader. When done well, two qualities will emerge:  humanity and warmth.

“Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next, and it’s not a question of gimmicks to ‘personalize’ the author. It’s a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest clarity and strength,” Zinsser says in the first chapter.

This advice rings true for all forms of nonfiction writing – magazine, newspaper, web site, blog and any others you could imagine creating as a public relations professional.  As PRSA members telling the stories of a brand, cause or an organization, we are also obligated to tell it honestly and ethically.

New professionals can be confounded by the actual process of writing – it may or may not have been part of a degree program. So where should you look if you want to improve your writing skills?

Here are four ideas to improve your writing immediately:

  1. Read “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser
  2. Start a daily journal in which you write about something that interests you in a journalistic style.
  3. Find a writing buddy and exchange and critique each others’ work.
  4. Set aside time each day for writing, even if it’s only 30 minutes.

There are many more steps you can take to improve your writing, but these are a great way to get started. So when your boss starts to talk about the new content strategy, or creating dynamic content, you’ll know that all he or she is looking for is great writing with a purpose and an audience.  And you will be ready to deliver it.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This post originally appeared in the PRSA National Newsletter for New Professionals in May, 2011.