Jan 31, 2011

Words matter.

As one of the primary contributors to this blog since its inception, I’ve been busily writing for almost four months straight.   And to fuel the writing, I’ve been consuming books, blogs, magazines and newspapers with a ferocious appetite.   All this reading and writing has me thinking about  — reading and writing.

Or, more specifically, how writing effects the message, and affects the reader.

Language

One of the things I like most about the blogs I frequent is the humanity with which they’re written.    The best ones draw any barriers aside, and feel like you’re having a chat with the writer over coffee.    The issues of the day are unvarnished, the observations are sharp, the advice is real.   There’s a marked lack of hyperbole.

As a reader, I find that personable writing affects me in a few ways.  First and foremost, it draws me in, and makes me want to stay awhile.  Secondly, for me, it’s more believable and credible.  And finally, I find that friendlier writing is stickier writing – it’s memorable, and is more likely to shape my behavior down the road.    The first time I realized that was when I had followed direction to buy a book.  My finger was hovering over the ‘buy’ button on Amazon, and I quite literally thought to myself, “How did I get here?”   Well, I had been gently convinced, and it turns out, I loved the book.

Oh, and that book?  It was Content Rules, by C.C. Chapman and Ann Handley, and if you want to do a better job of creating and using content to increase your brand’s visibility on line, you won’t find better advice than that contained within the two covers of this book. It’s also a fast, lively read, probably due in part to the fact that the authors rigorously heeded their own writing advice.   I’m personally committing to avoiding use of the “Eighteen Business Buzzwords We Need to Ban Because They Make Us Sound Like Tools.”

Voice

A few years ago, when I ran a blog for a local charity,  I found that writing came easily and felt natural.   My first few blog posts here didn’t feel as good – because I hadn’t really found my voice. However, as II’ve ratcheted up the writing volume, I find that my voice has become more distinct, and my writing once again feels like it’s actually mine.

This experience got me thinking about all of my fellow writers out there in the marketing and PR communities who focus mainly on writing articles, press releases or other content to support and promote their employers’ brands.    I think we can all admit to seeing some voiceless content out there – on the press release wires, on web sites and in press kits.   Much of it feels wooden and dry, as though it was phoned-in and rubber-stamped.   (I know that I personally am guilty of contributing to this pile of written gobbledygook.)

C.C. and Ann raise the issue of developing a voice fairly early in their book, encouraging brands to lighten up the tone,  understand their audiences, and write for them specifically, developing a personality along the way.

Editing

For a recent article, I had the opportunity to work Mike Azzara, bona-fide editorial guru, currently the principle at Content Marketing Partners, and chief content strategist for Stein Rogan.   Upon receiving the edited version,  I was stunned.  I sounded great!  I called the Mike, to compliment his work, and he reminded me that he really hadn’t done much.   But the tweaks he made to my writing made a profound difference,  sharpening the points I was making, and clarifying the thinking I was trying to convey.

Mike wasn’t surprised. “When start writing, you know what you want to say.” he told me, “But it may not be coming through to others.  When you read your words back to yourself, they mean what you want them to say. You’re the only reader that’s inside your head.  The process of having someone else read your work is that first giant step toward to conveying your thoughts to someone else.”

I asked Mike for advice on how a write who doesn’t have a talented editor at her back and call might edit her copy herself.   The secret of self-editing, according to Mike, is time.

“Take time away from the work,” he advised.  “The bigger the work, the more time you need in order to go back and read it with fresh eyes.   If you don’t have the luxury of time, at least go focus specifically on something else for a while.”

In addition to looking at a work with fresh eyes, Mike also noted that the best way to write effectively is to understand clearly what you want to say right off the bat.

“The hard work is in really understanding what you want to say,” Mike told me. “If you understand what you really want to day, then the text will start to structure itself.”   Asking yourself what you really want to say in your piece is a good start.  Even better, Mike suggests, is asking yourself how you’d explain the concept to your mom, which will force you to simplify your language and explanations, resulting in a clearer presentation of your ideas.

Mike also recommends continually distilling the language you’ve used.  “Continually distill the essence of what you’re saying,” he advises. ” Challenge yourself to tell your story in the fewest words.”

The point:

And thus, we arrive at my point. It’s tempting to dash off blog posts or press releases according to tried-and-true formulas, using the language with which we’re comfortable.  But the bland product we produce when writing becomes an afterthought are ultimately a waste of our time  – because producing the writing isn’t the end game.  Encouraging audience interaction and engagement are what we’re trying to achieve, and boring stuff doesn’t generate responses.

We’re in a new environment with respect to content consumption.  The press releases you have put over the wire have a new life of their own in the social layer, where they’re found and shared.  The content you put in a virtual press kit and then forget about can be found by search engines and may be generating audience interest – behind your back.   When I’m writing these days, I’m thinking not just of the assignment, but of the potential outcomes a great piece of content can generate.

What are your favorite tips for polishing your own writing?

Authored by Sarah Skerik, VP social media, PR Newswire.

PR Newswire just issued a new white paper, titled “Amplifying your Social Echo,” focusing on measuring the conversations that reverberate around brands and issues in the social layer.   To learn more about how to influence and measure these powerful conversations, download the free white paper, and reconsider the effect the content you write can have online.

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