Monday, July 7, 2008

It's Complex to Write Simple These Days - - But Hemingway's Rules of Writing Can Still Work

Why Can’t New Marketing and PR People Write?

This article was in response ( or supplement ) to "When It Comes to PR Writing, Only One Thing Beats Talent... and there ain't much talent around," written by Don Bates, director of the Master's Degree in Strategic Public Relations program at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. It was originally posted on the Media Bullseye site.

I’ve had Marketing and PR employees work for me right out of college, and found most were woefully unprepared for the real-world new PR environment. Not because of any inherent deficiency in the school they came from, but more from the frenetic pace of change in the PR industry. Blogs, Vlogs, Podcasts, Social Media, SEO, SEO PR, Tags, and on and on and on. The technology changes alone can be daunting or intimidating.

But the writing … the writing, that’s now part skill, part science and part art. It is the absolute foundation of being able to effectively use all the new technologies and communication tools.

Complex and Under-appreciated

It’s a skill and art that is complex, under-appreciated and, as far as I can tell, under-emphasized by schools. Or—if you have the teeth-pulling, Novocain-less pleasure of reading many press releases—companies, for that matter. Why is that? One of the main reasons is …

It’s Complex to Write Simple These Days

Ernest Hemingway had a clear understanding and vision of writing simply and effectively when he discussed the four rules of writing he learned as a journalist at the Kansas City Star.

Hemingway Four Rules (well, not really, they were the Kansas City Star’s actually)

  1. Use short sentences.
  2. Use short first paragraphs.
  3. Use vigorous English.
  4. Be positive, not negative.

“Those were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing,” Hemingway said in 1940. “I’ve never forgotten them. No man with any talent, who feels and writes truly about the thing he is trying to say, can fail to write well if he abides with them.”

These rules still work. Rarely used. But still work.

However, in defense of most PR practitioners and writers today, Hemingway didn’t have to contend with the New PR. SEO PR. Google News. Yahoo News. He didn’t need to be Dugg, or Stumbled Upon. Or Mixxed. Or blogged about.

“Having your press release at the number one spot on Google or Yahoo News is the same as a front-page article in print.” - PR WEEK

From Their Eyes

For just a second, step into the shoes of a new PR practitioner, right out of school, or even an experienced practitioner, who has not kept up with the rapidly changing online PR processes and communication tools.

Hear Ye, Hear Ye!

The first thing (and it would be super if this happened) they might hear about is the Hemingway rules above. That’s probably a stretch. But they might hear something like, “to effectively use all the new technologies and communication tools in ‘New PR,’ you have to be able to write simply.”

Let’s start with the simple. A simple press release. Doesn’t get much simpler than that, does it?


What’s simple? Well that’s easy, simple is simple. Easy-to-read, easy-to-understand, with specificity and authenticity. Elegant simplicity will build trust and credibility for you and your organization.

Wow—that is simple. Sounds simple anyway. However, I forgot to add …


Make your headline less than 10 words with an imperative verb. Try to keep it around 65 characters if you can so it’s not truncated by news search engines. Oh — include a key word or key phrase (average search term is 2.67 words long) in that title for the search engines—and not just for the web search engines. “News search engines” have different algorithms than the normal web-based engines.

Of course, that’s simple. Everyone knows that, even a freshly minted Grad student. Don’t they?


Amplify the title. Try to include a keyword or key phrase here too, if possible. Test it for effectiveness. How strong is your keyword - your key phrase? Do you know? (Or, do you even know how to test it, might be a better question?)

BUT … also make it interesting, funny, mysterious, appealing, compelling … simple, easy-to-read and easy-to-understand.

Got it? Simple. Next …


Include a keyword/phrase in the first 50 words of the release (because you’ll be lucky if most journalists will ever get that far, so give it your best shot). Embed hyperlinks in the body of your press release to help draw your audience (prospects/media/analysts) into your story - prompting them to visit your website, or respond to a call to action.

Doesn’t get much simpler than that.


Yes, they’re boring. But you will use them. Hardly anyone will ever read them (except the Frankenquoted person). I’ve included some text below you can use — just insert your company or executive’s name.

We’re Great!

“We’re Great.” “Our company is great.” “Our customers love us.” “The industry analysts love us.” Here’s a video that describes Frankenquoting pretty well.

Remember the Rules!

Remember, though, you still have to make it interesting, funny, mysterious, appealing, compelling, simple, short, easy-to read, easy-to-understand and … use specific keywords and phrases.


Does anyone ever read this? Hardly ever.

Under-Boiled and Under-Valued Piece of PR Real Estate

However, the boilerplate is one greatly under-valued piece of PR real estate. Do not, I repeat, do not repeat any of your Frankenquotes in your boilerplate. But do use the Four Hemmingway Rules of Writing to answer the four questions that any reader wants to know;

  1. What do you do?
  2. How do you do it?
  3. Why are you different?
  4. Why should I buy from you?

Reinforce those four questions with embedded hyperlinks back to your web site with specific and credible information to back up your statements.

Money Makes You a Better Writer

We’re almost done with the simple press release. Important fact here - You also need to do all of the above in 400 or less words. Now, I know what you’re thinking: ‘What!?’ You inherited a corporate boilerplate that was 2,400 words long by itself! Why under 400 words? Typically the wire services charge you around a dollar per word after 400 words. Ouch.

Spend the money like it’s your money. It will make you a much better writer, better businessperson, and a more responsible and trusted employee.

Delete the 2,400 word boilerplate. Concentrate on a great eye-catching headline that’s less than 10 words long with a keyword/keyphrase. Nail the story angle with elegant simplicity in the first 50 words.

Money can make you a better writer … But only if you write like it’s your money you’re spending.

Whirling Dervish of the New PR World

Writing simply is hard. It is far easier to write long, complex pieces, believe it or not. But like it or not, writing simply is THE KEY to effectively communicating within this whirling dervish of a new PR world.

Good Can …

A good writer can adapt, learn and flex with the new PR technologies.

Bad Can …

An unskilled, lazy or bad writer, with a great knowledge of the new PR technologies can trash your credibility to a worldwide audience quicker than a supraluminal tachyon (a hypothetical quantum particle that never travels below the speed of light … Hey, I worked for a tech company).

Part Skill - Part Science - Part …

Writing for the new PR world is part skill, part science and part art.

The Art Part

The “art” part is putting the pieces above together so they’re interesting, appealing, compelling (take a digital breath here, breathe in, breathe out) easy-to read and easy-to-understand in ….

  1. Short sentences.
  2. Short first paragraphs.
  3. Vigorous English.
  4. Positive, not negative tones.

Simple isn’t it?

And that was just the press release. Are we ready to move on to the social media news release yet?

Steve Kayser is currently the director of PR for Cincom Systems, a global software and services company. In addition to his PR duties Steve publishes Cincom’s award-winning Expert Access E-zine which has grown to 135,000 subscribers globally. Steve is also an award-winning business writer. Steve can be reached at


Publicity-Hound said...

I'm so glad you mention press releases.
Good headlines are critical if you're writing press releases because you only have a few seconds to attract a reader's attention, and the headline is what either pulls them in, or loses them.

I’m offering a free email course called "89 Ways to Write Powerful Press Releases."

I explain why we should no longer be writing press releases only for the press, but for consumers who can find the releases online, click through to our websites and enter our sales cycle, even if journalists don’t think our release is worthy of attention.

The course includes several terrific press release samples as well as "before" and "after" makeovers.

You can sign up for the free press release writing tutorial at

It's a very long tutorial, with an entire week devoted to writing good headlines, but please stick with it. By the time you're done, it will be like earning a master's degree in writing and distributing press releases. And you'll know more about this topic than many PR people.

Joan Stewart, The Publicity Hound said...

Steve, I love the four questions you've listed regarding the boilerplate. I see so much boilerplate that is so boring and useless.

Also wanted to let you know that many of the points you've made so well are included in my free email tutorial called "89 Ways to Write Powerful Press Releases. It's a 12-week course (yes, 12 long weeks) that teaches press release writers everthing they need to know about writing direct-to-consumer press releases, and how to get those releaases also picked up by journalists.

You can opt into the course at htpp:/