The actress and author Louise Brooks, who began her working life as a Jazz Age flapper and concluded it as an acclaimed essayist, described her writing process this way:
“Writing is 1% inspiration — and 99% elimination.”
All writing — even the best writing — needs editing. In my years as a journalist, corporate PR executive and now agency owner, I’ve found that the most important edit is the edit we do to our own work, before we ever hand it over to the boss.
Let’s take press releases, for example. I can’t tell you how many releases I’ve had to heavily revise for subordinates over the years, when in most cases the writer was fully capable of doing it themselves, if they had taken the time to view their work with a critical eye. In the rush to get the product out the door, too many of us forget quality control.
To make sure the press release draft you send your manager or client is ready for primetime, here are nine tips for getting it right:
- Set aside time for editing at the outset. Think of your press release as a three-legged stool in which each of the legs — research, writing and editing — are equally important. That means they all deserve an equal amount of time and attention. Too many of us wait to complete the writing until just before the deadline, so we shortchange the editing process. If you have trouble with procrastination, force yourself to quickly get everything you want to say out — call it a “vomit draft” — so you’ll have plenty of time for editing.
- Give it a fresh read, from beginning to end. After you’ve put together a draft you feel good about, put it aside for a few hours or a day if you can. Then come back and read it with fresh eyes. If you don’t have time to set the release aside before your deadline, use other tricks to wake up your brain and force a new perspective: switch the font to Comic Sans, change the text color to vermilion, print it out and physically mark it up with a blue pencil — whatever it takes.
- Revisit the original assignment. Before worrying about the draft’s accuracy and grammar, first check to make sure it fulfills the objective you set out to achieve. Review the assignment or project brief; does your release deliver the message and tell the story you set out to tell? Does it logically make the case you’re trying to make? If not, determine where you went off track and correct it. One of the most common reasons press releases lose the plot is that they get bogged down in technical details or peripheral facts. Strip the release down to its basics and rebuild it from the ground up.
- Scan for weasel words and buried ledes. "Weasel words” are words used when making vague claims — like “arguably,” “experts say,” and “research shows.” Cite your sources or edit the claims out. Similarly, don’t bury the lede in your story, particularly if it’s bad news. Don’t send out a release hailing your company's “strategic restructuring” in the first paragraph, for example — then bury the layoff of 2,000 people in the seventh paragraph. Believe me, the reporter will notice.
- Review tone, voice and style. If you work for a PR agency and every press release you write sounds the same, you’re doing something wrong. Every brand is different and every story is different; your writing should reflect those differences. A consumer brand might want its releases to sound casual and fun, while a B2B business might take a more formal approach. A release that celebrates an award should convey a celebratory mood, while one announcing a company layoff should be sober and empathetic. Press releases should never read like they were written by an automaton. If yours does, do what journalists call a “write through” and go back through your piece, keeping the core narrative intact but updating how it reads with language that fits the desired tone.
- Scrutinize the use of jargon. It’s easy to slip into jargon when writing press releases, because typically they are based on interviews with SMEs — subject-matter experts who deeply understand a topic but don’t always know how to explain it simply. That’s your job. Your role as a communicator is to translate that inside-baseball talk for external audiences. Even if you’re targeting your release to the industry trades, journalists still don’t want to read jargon and buzzwords. Replace them with plain English.
- Trim the superlatives. People trust what other people say about you more than what you say about yourself — so why bother with flowery self-praise that your readers will discount or dismiss anyway? Leave the superlatives to the customers and analysts you quote in your release. You can say you are the “largest” widget maker if that’s objectively true — but don’t say you are the “leading” one unless you can back that up with data. Stick to the facts and edit out the rest.
- Check your facts — all of them. Nothing kills your credibility with journalists faster than including inaccurate statements in a press release. Think of this part of the editing process as like checking your answers on a test. Go through each sentence and where a statement of fact is made, go back to the original source and make sure you got it right. That is especially true for names and titles; more than one PR firm has lost a client because it spelled the CEO’s name wrong in a release.
- Give it a proofread — a human one. Spell checkers and grammar checkers are great tools (and getting better all the time), but they are still no substitute for a manual proofread. Just because your release clears a spell check doesn’t mean it’s right. It won’t catch that extra “e,” for example, when you meant to write “be” but wrote “bee” instead. When you make careless errors, it causes your reader to wonder whether you got your story and facts wrong as well.
I’ve been a Business Wire customer for more than two decades. One thing I’ve always liked about it is how the pricing goes higher as your press release grows longer. It forces you to think carefully about whether you actually need all those words. A thorough edit will help you answer that question. Edit your releases to ensure they are straightforward in structure, clear in language, and backed by facts.
Scott Baradell is CEO of Idea Grove, a unified PR and marketing agency in Dallas. For more than 15 years, Scott has been a thought leader on the future of public relations. Scott is currently completing his first book, “Trust Signals: Brand Building in a Post-Truth World,” to be published by LionCrest. Scott has an Accreditation in Public Relations (APR) from the PRSA and speaks on PR and marketing topics at industry events nationwide.
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