Boom for Real

There’s a reason I’ve been focusing on practice writing all week.

No matter what kind of professional writing we do – corporate, marketing, journalism, PR – when we’re working on an assignment and it’s time to get our fingers on the keyboard, typically two things are going on at once while we’re trying to craft great sentences:

  1. We’re on deadline, and
  2. We’re trying to find unique, meaningful ways to put words together to connect with our readers

Even if we’re used to turning out solid work on deadline, the combination of these two things can be deadly for interesting writing that resonates with our audience. It’s why practice writing is so important, because it helps take the pressure off the deadline (we’ve done this before and learned to do it well) and allows us to concentrate deeply on writing that connects.

I saw a beautiful documentary recently, called “Radiant Child,” about the late painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. Whenever I watch documentaries about artists – of the written word or the visual art variety – I’m always fascinated with the “How.” How they developed their style, how they get down to work every day, how they translate ideas into the solid three-dimensional world.

A number of people who knew Basquiat spoke about the confidence with which he wielded a brush, the speed, steadiness and directness of the brushstroke. Basquiat, who died at the very young age of  27, leaving behind more than 1,000 paintings and even more drawings, apparently had an expression for what was happening when he was creating.

“Boom for Real!” he called it.

What “Boom for Real” meant to Basquiat only he knew. But, the phrase resonates for me because those of us who write for a living are so frequently called upon to produce with speed, accuracy and brilliance each and every time content is needed.

It’s not so much about the rote repetition, the “Practice Makes Perfect” approach. It’s more about the confidence that all those practice sessions instills. It takes confidence to pound a keyboard under deadline pressure and make meaning of a story or messages in such a way that an audience feels the writing is real and relevant.

It’s why we practice so hard, so when the time comes, we’re ready to Boom for Real!

Craft Clever Headlines, Lure Huge Audiences, Earn Millions of Dollars & Love of Nation

The subject, as you’ve surely guessed, is practice writing for headlines. The crafting of great press release- and news article-toppers was a long, lost art until Twitter showed up and everyone started thinking like a headline-writer.

Since headlines are supposed to be short, sweet and to-the-point, I won’t belabor the discussion here, especially when this wonderful article by Jessica Levco, “5 tips for writing the sexiest, most stimulating headlines EVER!,” is available here.

The only thing I’ll add to Ms. Levco’s piece is that the best headlines aren’t necessarily the funniest or most clever – what’s key is capturing the essence of the content (news story, press release, tweet) that follows. In an oversaturated world of information, this is the best service you’ll provide your potential audiences. Help them, and refrain from annoying them by wasting their time, and even your headlines can define you as a valuable resource.

Around my office, we’re in awe of The Economist’s headers and captions. Smart, observant, funny, brief-but-encapsulating, they rarely put a foot wrong. Between pages 58 and 83 of one issue, I found a half-dozen great headlines and captions, including “Guttbye Guttenberg” over a story on the resignation of Germany’s defense minister because of allegations of plagiarism – the photo caption read “Copy, alt, delete.”

In the meantime, those of us who suffer from headline-writer’s-block (yes, that’s me), can practice on our Twitter accounts.

What Velveeta – and Ann Wylie – Can Teach You about Practice Writing

An interesting article by Ann Wylie illustrates the practice writing I’ve been talking about this week. She shows how you can take great sentences or grafs – something that really stood out for you when you read it – and use them as templates for what you’re trying to say.

It works for brand marketing, PR, journalism, fiction or blog post!

You can check out the article “Want to write better? Break down – and rebuild – your favorite prose in 3 steps” here.

Gate-crashing: Writing PR that Reads Like Reporting

Yesterday’s post about practice writing was weighted toward creative writing (not that professional communications can’t be creative, but, in this case, I was talking about fictional creative writing). Today, let’s look at it in the context of PR and corporate writers.

On the first day of work as a young PR professional, I was handed a clipboard with a three-inch stack of press releases penned by my predecessor. They were a helpful starting place: a guide to the way the institution positioned itself, branding language, boilerplate, the annual cycle of announcements, events and new hires.

BTW, in those days, that clipboard was the official storage file for press releases, so I wound up retyping things that I found useful, like boilerplate, into a computer for safe keeping – practice writing of the organization’s best practices.

Today, you’ll find company press releases on almost every corporate website, which makes it easy to see – and practice – your competitors’ best practices, especially those examples of releases that you know earned those other guys valuable media coverage.

But, if you’re going to be a great PR writer, learning the ins and outs of press release-writing doesn’t come solely from practice writing of press releases. The best practice is to study and copy the kind of writing done by the media outlets where you’re hoping to secure coverage. So, if that’s the industry trades, you’re going to be writing in a completely different, and more highly technical, style than a press release going to network and cable broadcast news organizations. Just like pitch letters, you may want to think about writing more than one press release per subject, each with its own targeted type of writing.

Study – and copy – your target media outlets’ writing for:

  • Style – is it newsy, technical, folksy, humorous, stodgy? Do columnists or bloggers have writing styles that vary from the rest of the publication or website?
  • Language – the nuances, catch phrases, technical terminology of the industry.
  • Substance – what facts or new information are revealed in stories, how are trends and thought pieces backed up by data? What is the publication’s commitment to reporting, digging for details?
  • Length – how long is the typical story about the subject of your press release? If their coverage of new business leaders runs to two grafs, how much of your two-page release will they be using?
  • Color – do they typically use quotes, statistics, sidebars? If you can provide similar items that match theirs, you may pick up additional coverage.

Keep on reading and copying your target media. It’s where you’ll pick up story ideas, learn who covers what subjects, discover which reporters have pet peeves and interests, and develop a style that reads less like PR and more like the story about your company or organization that you want to see online, on TV and in print.

Practice Writing

There are plenty of inspiring books that discuss the importance of writing practice – if you have a favorite writer, she or he has probably written one – so this post won’t go into detail about that. I assume, if you’re a writer, that you already have a regular practice.

No, this is about practicing someone else’s writing. Also known as “copying.” But, without plagiarizing. Perhaps you do this all the time, jotting down sentences from beloved books. Writers are obsessed with words and usage, and your journals, like mine, are probably dotted with examples that made your heart leap, stirred your mind and caught your fancy.

Do you practice writing these phrases? With intention?

I remember an instructor at Berkeley telling us that he spent a summer typing the screenplay for a movie he loved. The film had hit the theaters, and the instructor, then a young writer, had managed to get his hands on a copy of the screenplay. He spent a whole summer copying the thing (on a manual typewriter, in those days) just to understand how the writer had done it – how the story built, characters developed, dialogue formed and, the very essence of screenwriting, how the screenplay format worked.

A few days ago, reading filmmaker Edgar Wright’s blog, I saw that he’d done it too, locking himself into an edit suite at college with a stack of VHS tapes of other people’s movies, cutting together other directors’ footage of things like car chases and gun battles. He wanted to understand the visual lexicon.

“I basically made these for myself and to figure out how to edit,” he writes. (You can read his discussion of the “mash-up” process here and find links to both montages. Note that the blog post has one bit of language unsuitable for younger readers, and the “Gun Fetish” mash-up contains extremely violent images.)

The first writer who ever made me want to retrace his steps was probably Tom Wolfe. The first novelist was John Updike. I’ve sat in libraries, under trees, at kitchen tables, waiting for quiet to descend, slowly moving my pen across the page, trying to put myself in their minds, to see how the words came to these writers in that specific order. It’s a way of learning that can be as valuable as your own writing practice.

Writing that inspired me this week:

“The cave of his skull furs with nonsense.”
~ John Updike, “Commercial”