PR COG'S GEAR GRINDINGS

April 21, 2010

“Writing is still important” or “Writing is like hygiene”

Over the last several months, notwithstanding going solo recently, I’ve spoken with a number of agency higher-level folks and internal recruiters  about the job market and the candidates they’re seeing and seeking.

Regardless of the position (Entry, SVP or Director) or company (from various agency-types all the way to in-house) or type of work (media relations to a social media specific position) the one thing I keep on hearing, in various forms, is “we’re not seeing a lot of candidates with really good writing skills.” In case it’s gotten lost somewhere along the way, this job is about effective communications.  Most of those communications will take place, or initiate, with the written word.  Even speechwriters write (look at the last half of the word).  Yes they’re writing something which will later be spoken – that makes it more difficult – cross-platform writing isn’t easy.  Wanna try something real tough – write a pastiche’ – something in the style of another writer or specific book.  Then give it to someone who knows that writer’s work and see if they buy it.  (I had to do it for a class project as a HS senior (I selected The Stranger as my model text, of course and wrote the final chapter – the original final chapter ends a bit in medias res) — hardest and longest 1K words I’ve ever written, but well worth it when I saw my teacher’s face upon her initial, and final (as in she had no suggestions), review).

Consider this – we still get most of our information through the written word.  Even if you’re the type who only gets their news through TV or radio, only use audio books, podcasts, radio, etc. — for the most part all those readers are reciting something someone else wrote.  Unless the only thing you pay attention to is improv comedy or the weather-people who stand on the beach doing broadcasts during hurricanes, then it all comes down to the written word.

Show me a candidate with good writing chops and I’ll show you a hiring manager or department head who’s very happy to be considering the candidate  in front of them.  By no means do I claim any special skills or information when it comes to writing.  I manage, sometimes I write something pretty good.  Sometimes it comes out as drek and needs to be rewritten.  This isn’t about how to write, it’s about realizing that effective and platform- and audience- appropriate writing is important (and will be different than the same project taken on for a different audience or different platform), and will always be.

Still in doubt?  Consider this – one day you’ll be taken off the PR frontlines.  Pitching, monitoring and clipbooking won’t be your primary timekillers.  You’ll be responsible for supervising the work of others and communicating what’s going on to those above you and to clients.  Yes, one day you will be my age, and for those of you just coming out of college that means you’ll be about 10-12 years along in your careers – SVP or VP level at a large agency.  It all comes down to the writing.

The client paying you between 3-15K dollars per month — do you think they want weak sentences, improper grammar, ambiguous sentences, fragments, run-ons, etc. (unless of course it’s really done for effect)? No — they want to see your best all the time.

Let me guess – you can write well when you want to but for your blog or Twitter it’s just for fun so you don’t take the time?

Why wouldn’t you want to take every single chance to improve your skills and/or show off your mad skillz?  Writing gets better one way – do it more often and then honestly evaluate it or ask someone else to evaluate it for things like tone, not spelling.  Spelling can be fixed and taught – effective writing is an art – how are you going to sway or sell your reader?

Saying you “Can write well when you want  to” is just like saying you “Can practice proper hygiene when you want to” or “Behave like a respectable person online when you want to.”

Why wouldn’t you want to all of the time? I’ll answer — there is no reason not to want to.

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21 Comments

  1. Thanks for this great read, bud.

    I’ve had to work at being a better writer. You can’t just flip the switch and say, “Ok, I’m going to be George Will today.” I want to be a better writer, but like an athlete (sort of) I have to practice. I’m writing every single day, whether it’s a proposal, a news release, or a blog. If I send something that looks like an elementary school student wrote it, I’m toast.

    Jason

    Comment by jasmollica — April 21, 2010 @ 8:55 am

    • Good morning sir, and welcome my lil blog where I really get to vent :) Definitely not, and rarely should we try to be something we’re not – we can’t all be Hemingway, but we can all learn from his style (and fishing technique :) ). For us the written word is what we’ve got at the end of the day to separate the men from the boys.

      I do think it’s possible to throw another colloquialism in there, but it might be overkill :).

      Comment by prcog — April 21, 2010 @ 9:49 am

  2. Amen.

    Comment by Carolyn — April 21, 2010 @ 8:56 am

  3. Nice post! It is surprising to see how many people struggle with the very basic components of writing (sentence structure, grammar, spelling) even in advanced classes at my university. Even advanced writing classes. I can’t say I am immune to criticism in that area, especially when writing casually vs. professionally, but it is frustrating when even the “good” writers are just writers who knows the rules and follow them, and can create certain pieces for certain audiences, purposes and platforms–without a unique voice or style.

    I could point my finger at a lot of things, I suppose, but the first one would be not reading. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about–where you have a conversation with someone, ask what his/her favorite book is, and he/she responds, “Well, I don’t really have one. I don’t really like to read.”

    Good readers = more natural and confident writers. And while the writer isn’t expected to create the next prize-winning novel, immersion in reading makes writing easier and more comfortable. So when the assignment is to “write a persuasive email for X audience, to do Y,” the task is less overwhelming, and one where the struggle can be in the strategy, not in the mechanics of the piece.

    Now we just have to convince everyone to read like their writing depends on it (because it does).

    Comment by Natalie Thomas — April 21, 2010 @ 9:06 am

    • Hi Natalie –

      So very true. A visual artists could be asked to sketch a scene they’ve never seen before but it wouldn’t look write (pun intended). And while it could be a fantastic sketch wouldn’t meet the requirement of sketching that particular item.

      A writer can be asked to write a speech but if they haven’t read the (good) speeches of others (or heard them delivered in that particular case) it’ll be a huge timesuck. Exposure to various forms of writing and authors broadens all of our horizons.

      Comment by prcog — April 21, 2010 @ 9:54 am

  4. This is so true!! An additional comment I would make, to expand on the great points in your post, is that one of the additional characteristics of becoming an effective writer is making sure you are not so in love with your own work that you can’t accept constructive criticism from good writers who you trust.

    I am reading a hardcover book right now that retails for $19.99 and have found TWO major, glaring typos in the first 26 pages. Disgusting — why would a major publishing house not have someone check for the obvious stuff? Maybe they’re not worried since it’s just an accomplishment to get some of those “non-readers” to pick up a book!!

    Comment by Paula Kiger (@biggreenpen) — April 21, 2010 @ 9:22 am

    • Hi Paula –

      Also very true, and I have been guilty of this one while younger. You assume you’ve got some bit of authorship in front of you and are just looking for a pat on the back and get redlines. I’ve stopped assuming anything I write is going to be life-changing – makes it all the better when it’s actually just day-changing for the occasional someone. Have a great week.

      P

      Comment by prcog — April 21, 2010 @ 10:00 am

  5. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by PRCog: New Gear Grindings Post – “Writing is still important” or “Writing is like hygiene” http://wp.me/pBoww-4M 1 of 2 notes to be sent today….

    Trackback by uberVU - social comments — April 21, 2010 @ 9:39 am

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  7. I agree wholeheartedly with this post! At any time on a typical work day, I will have to write e-mails, letters on behalf of others, press releases, feature stories, talking points, copy for brochures/invitations/Web pages, etc. etc. Being a good writer at one type of writing is not enough. In this business (PR/communications) you have to be able to write well (grammatically correct as well as compelling) in a variety of styles for a variety of purposes and audiences.

    Comment by Kiley Mallard — April 21, 2010 @ 9:44 am

    • Hey Kiley –

      Thanks so much – versatility really is the name of the game for the great majority of practitioners in our field and being able to fill all those roles is invaluable.

      Cheers
      P

      Comment by prcog — April 21, 2010 @ 10:07 am

  8. YES YES YES!

    Writing is the basis of all communications. Right now, I’ve seen too many folks focus on the MECHANICS of communications and totally ignore the CONTENT.

    Paula’s comment above is spot on. Be proud of your work, but not too proud to have it edited.

    Comment by Mike Schaffer — April 21, 2010 @ 10:01 am

    • Thank goodness!

      Totally agree with you Mike. Comms goes beyond the strict rules – sometimes the rules need to be broken to be effective. The Gettysburg Address wasn’t in AP style (“Four score and 7 years ago” — goodness, an AP editor would have his red pen out in no time) – but it was what was needed and Lincoln (or his speechwriter) knew it.

      Have a great one.

      Comment by prcog — April 21, 2010 @ 10:14 am

  9. I could not agree more. Writing skills are #1 in my book; it was the main thing that I looked for in hiring interns/AAEs. You don’t have to be perfect, but you have to have some ability and the willingness to learn. I had to learn AP Style on my own, as well as the general idea of writing for PR. Nothing has been more valuable in my career.

    Comment by Renee Libby — April 21, 2010 @ 10:14 am

    • So true. Perfection’s tough to achieve going in (if ever), particularly given the various styles each school or prior profession follows (and when you have to mix them it can get hellish), but being able to adapt and learn new skills will help everyone in the long run.

      Comment by prcog — April 21, 2010 @ 10:30 am

  10. Totally agree, and I think it’s especially tough given the variety of writing skills you need in today’s world. From blogging to Tweeting to story pitching to writing features and news releases–it’s fast paced, ever-changing and a lot different than what you may learn in the academic world. I find the best quality is someone who knows the basics, but is teachable and open to criticism.

    And the best writing lesson I ever received? My professor in my political thought class in college made us write weekly papers. 10 point font, double spaced, two pages only. Inevitably, you’d write the first draft and end up with an extra paragraph. It took longer to edit and tighten down those few extra lines than it did to write the whole thing. But so worth it.

    Comment by Laura Scholz — April 21, 2010 @ 10:25 am

    • Hey Laura :)

      Love the prof’s assignment – random writing exercises are great, you never know when you’ll be limited in some odd way. Sadly 140 chars seems to be the absurdly logical end of needing to limit yourself :)

      Cheers,

      Comment by prcog — April 21, 2010 @ 10:38 am

    • Laura, editing is so crucial. I hated the college assignments where you HAD to write 15 pages. I always thought that if I was able to write and edit a paper to 10 pages and still deliver the same information, which should I write another five pages of filler? I like that assignment.

      Comment by Renee Libby — April 21, 2010 @ 10:39 am

  11. Cog,

    When you mentioned your HS assignment the first thing that came to mind was the fact that I’ve been at my first PR job for exactly 2 months tomorrow, and one of the most important writing lessons I’ve learned is “don’t write for you, write for your audience”. In other words, write in the voice that my audience will be perceptive to. Everyone has a natural style, good or bad, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s effective.

    I’ve found it to be very valuable in avoiding the word “rewrite”, something I’ve grown accustomed to hearing :)

    Great post!

    Comment by Andrew — April 21, 2010 @ 11:01 am

    • Hey Andrew –

      I too had the same problem at my last gig. My previous profession had a pretty set of rules on how things are to be written which didn’t carry over directly so it was a bit of a shock when the first set of edits started coming in. Being humbled (and schooled) definitely had its long term benefits though.

      P

      Comment by prcog — April 21, 2010 @ 11:19 am

  12. […] fair enough.  This one I obviously agree with (though I’m unsure on the number, and am willing to accept that) “How do you reach an […]

    Pingback by No More Kool-Aid « PR COG'S GEAR GRINDINGS — April 26, 2010 @ 6:43 am


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