Communicating well in writing is one of the most important skills you can have, whether your job formally involves writing or not. At Peak we’re constantly striving to create engaging content for our clients: blog posts, white papers, reports, articles, tweets. The list goes on.
Once you know your purpose and audience, you need to get some words on the page. Here’s how.
Fill your brain
Before I can write about a topic, I need to know what I’m talking about. Once I’ve processed the background information, it’s much easier to synthesize cohesive arguments and writing goes a lot more smoothly. To organize my thoughts, I create a text file devoted solely to research and notes. In here I copy and paste relevant information I find online, any ideas that occur to me as I’m researching, and raw quotes from individuals I interview. If you come up with key points or sections you want to convey in your piece, put them in here.
Dump your brain
The biggest inspiration killer for me is setting rules or expectations for my piece of writing at the beginning of the creative process. Instead, just write down whatever’s on your mind. Set a time limit and keep typing until your timer goes off. If you think of a phrase that sums up what you want to communicate, put that at the top and work to it, but don’t feel limited by it. While you’re doing this, there will be additional questions that come up. Whenever I feel a brain blank about a topic, I highlight it so I can come back to it later, like so: [insert in-depth description of the process here]. Then I continue writing about something else.
At this stage, value quantity over quality. Only in the editing stages should you polish this piece. Beware of correcting grammar and restructuring sentences. Just dump your ideas.
Fit the pieces together
Now it’s time to determine which ideas you’re going to keep and how you’re going to sequence them.
Once I think I have sufficient content on the page to start putting my ideas in order, I create a new document and save the research doc as-is. It gives me peace of mind because my research and ideas notes are always there for reference. It’s an assurance that frees me to use this new first draft document to experiment with order, change wording and delete with abandon.
Defining sections is a handy way of designing the big-picture information flow for your piece. As you determine your sections, insert subheadings and make sure you put only information related to that subject into that section. You don’t have to keep these headings in the final piece.
Once I have these headings, I shuffle my research, quotes and idea fragments into the different sections.
As you’re doing this, delete irrelevant information mercilessly. Shorten and rephrase cumbersome sentences that are essential. Cut out redundant information, or synthesize it with the bits you want to keep. If there are phrases that don’t fit anywhere but you like them, keep them at the end in an Extras section. Later you can delete them forever, or bring them back from purgatory as supporting points.
If you’re using info from an interview you did for the piece, use quotes very selectively. Quotes should insert information you couldn’t deliver any other way, such as your interviewee’s colourful opinion, interesting phrasing or their retelling of an experience.
Continue to insert your notes as you go through, highlighted like so: [insert better transition sentence here].
Let it sit
If you can, take a couple days off.
Kill your darlings
Come back with fresh eyes and a taste for blood and slash anything that doesn’t support your points. Zero in on anything that sounds awkward or doesn’t make sense and tinker with it until it works, or remove it.
This piece of writing is not about you. Remember your audience and write the piece with their interests in mind. Show your sentences no mercy.
Whittle and polish
Your piece has structure and it’s streamlined. It’s nearly done. Now it’s time to tweak the small stuff. If you fiddle with the details before this stage, you risk wasting your time crafting exquisite sentences about irrelevant points that get trashed.
- Do any remaining research and fact checking
- Make sure there are clear transitions between each idea
- Use active voice whenever possible
- Clarify long and/or convoluted sentences into concise thoughts
- Vary sentence lengths
- Replace vague phrases with specific ones
- Include illustrative examples where relevant
- Think your piece is good to go?
Here are some final tests to make sure it’s bulletproof:
- Get someone else’s feedback
- Read it aloud
- Leave it alone again and come back in a week
- Accept imperfection
It’s usually better to publish something that’s less than perfect than to leave it sitting forever unpublished with the hope of someday achieving perfection. Ain’t no such thing. After you’ve done your due diligence to ensure the piece makes sense, let it loose.
It helps me be more creative when I remember not to take myself so seriously. The quality of your writing doesn’t reflect your personal worth. If the article turns out bad, learn from your mistakes and take them into account next time. Once you’re OK with the worst-case scenario that this might be the worst thing you’ve ever written, you’ll feel freer to put words on the page.
Tags: copywriting, editing, journalism, Vancouver PR, Vancouver public relations
I was in the media for more than 30 years and the first rule is PR and journalism don’t mix. If you want to do PR, you leave journalism. Simple.
In 2011, I was a consumer reporter at CTV and was offered a job as Premier Christy Clark’s press secretary.
When I accepted the position I told CTV immediately, even though the job didn’t start for two weeks, and that brought my TV career to an abrupt end. My story for that night was cancelled; I was allowed to thank all the great people I worked with, clean out my desk and record a 20 second thank you to viewers.
I offered to continue to work off-air for two weeks before I started with government, to assist a new reporter stepping into my old role and CTV politely declined. Its rules were strict and I applaud them.
At CTV, we signed a document which spelled out potential conflicts and the consequences which were dire and immediate. All CTV personnel knew the rules and many like me made career choices.
It appears Toronto Global TV anchor and executive editor Leslie Roberts didn’t make that difficult choice.
According to a Toronto Star investigation, Roberts is the co-owner and creative director of a Toronto PR company BuzzPR and some BuzzPR clients appeared on his show. The Star disclosed Roberts tweeted about some clients to his more than 19 thousand followers and other clients appeared in Global news stories produced by other reporters. In fairness, some of those clients also got stories on other TV stations, which legitimizes their news value.
Global news has suspended Roberts indefinitely while it investigates the allegations.
Roberts’ says he never received direct payment from any client for appearing on his newscasts and never took a salary from BuzzPR, but those clients did pay BuzzPR of which he is a part-owner. He told The Star he went to BuzzPR everyday and conducted media training for clients and helped write media pitches. He told The Star he is resigning from Buzz PR effective immediately.
Global viewers trust the news they see. Primarily they trust that there is a separation between the journalist and businesses or guests featured on news programs. They trust that the people they see interviewed, particularly those playing an “expert” role, are chosen for what they know and not who they know.
How would those viewers have felt if full disclosure had been made such as “my next guest is an expert in widgets and his widget firm is a client of the public relations company of which I am a part-owner and creative director.”
Critics of the media have often charged that advertisers or others use their financial clout to influence the news. In my experience those critics are wrong. I was never prevented from doing any story that positioned an advertiser in a bad light. On occasion, my stories in radio and TV cost my employers a good client and a lot of money, but as an old boss at CKNW used to tell businesses “buying advertising is not news insurance.”
Also no sales person ever suggested to me that I should do a story on a particular business that was an advertiser. We kept sales and news separate. Roberts is a veteran award-winning journalist. He should have known that what he was doing at the very least had the appearance of a conflict of interest.
If we accept his word that at no time did he cross a line, that he was surprised when BuzzPR clients appeared on his show or elsewhere on Global news and that he had nothing to do with those appearances, that still does not explain other findings of The Star investigation: his tweets supporting BuzzPR clients and an apparent positive ad-lib on air about a client with a coupon app.
In my opinion, Roberts had a duty to viewers to disclose any conflicts and he failed in that duty.
Back in September reporter Charlo Greene of KTVA-TV in Alaska famously quit live on air as she disclosed she was the owner of a medical marijuana business, Alaska Cannabis Club, which she had just finished doing a story on.
Greene’s conflict is direct, Roberts’ is one step removed. Both are serious, in my opinion. Roberts’ credibility as a journalist has been irreparably harmed. I fear the reputations of his clients may be in danger of being tarnished as well because the public may wonder if the reason they got airtime was because of the Roberts connection. That would be unfortunate.
Tags: CTV, journalism, media, media relations, Public relations, reporter
In June, David Baines, Scott Simpson and John Manthorpe said farewell to Vancouver Sun business readers. They had accepted Postmedia’s voluntary buyout options. Postmedia is losing millions every quarter and is operating under a heavy debt load – reflecting a general decline in the viability of traditional media.
I will miss David Baines the most. He was an award-winning columnist who for the past 25 years exposed questionable practices, stock fraud and misconduct in the business world. He was afforded a generous amount of research time and he often took stories to the “legal edge.” His parting shot was a multi-page article looking at the financial stewardship of the Rick Hansen Foundation.
In his farewell column Baines said, “I learned that it takes money, not just to publish stories, but also to defend them. I am fortunate to have worked for a newspaper that has the means and mindset to do both, and to have had great libel lawyers … to guide me through this jungle.”
In the current media landscape, local TV, radio and print news seldom have the staff, the research time or the finances to pay for libel lawyers. There are still many talented journalists in our market, but they are provided with less opportunity to do in-depth work.
I’ll miss the journalistic excellence and in-depth stories that Baines provided. Let’s hope local media will still have the resources to cover much more than just the headlines in the months and years ahead.
Tags: business, columnist, David Baines, journalism, Vancouver Sun