How to Write Like a Journalist
By Tannette Johnson-Elie
The press release is an important part of the PR toolbox and if written effectively, it could generate media coverage. But if it’s too dull, confusing or self-serving, then your release is doomed to end up in the newsroom junk pile or recycling bin.
While even the most brilliantly written release won’t guarantee media coverage, it wouldn’t hurt to write clean, crisp copy like journalists. For starters, think of a press release as a news story with an agenda; consequently, that story should be carefully crafted to provide the information that journalists need for stories.
Of the hundreds of press releases I have received during the two decades I spent as a print journalist, I learned to tell the difference between releases that became news and those that got tossed in the trash. To be effective, your press release should get to the important information as quickly as possible and it should be simple, concise and direct. It’s not pretty literary prose that’s going to get you coverage, but it’s the information you provide that will become the stories reporters ultimately will write.
Here are some additional tips from my writing arsenal that have been useful to me as a seasoned journalist who writes for both print and digital platforms:
Use an Attention-Grabbing Headline
Reporters and editors are busy people, always under the gun – as we journalists like to say about working under deadline pressure. That means you don’t have much time to get their attention. The best way to keep your release out of the garbage bin is to give it a hard-hitting and catchy headline. For example, instead of saying, “Chandler Adams Signs a Substantial Contract with The Seattle Suns,” a better headline would be, “Chandler Adams Signs $20-Million-Dollar Deal with The Seattle Suns.”
Go for a Strong News Angle
Journalists are trained to find the angle or news hook of every story they write and one of the first lessons you need to learn in order to write like a journalist is how to identify story angles. The angle is what makes your story newsworthy. Remember, the angle shouldn’t be about you or your client, but it should show how the story you’re trying to tell will affect readers. Ask yourself, “Why should readers care about this story?” Once you identify the answer to this question, then Bingo – that’s your angle.
Write a Compelling Lead
Just as strong leads are essential in news stories, they also are important for news releases. Your job is to win readers in the first two paragraphs, so give them your best stuff immediately. Starting a story often is the most tedious and time-consuming part of the job for journalists. Nevertheless, with time and practice, you will learn to write leads that succeed.
Here are a few helpful tips: collect your facts; include the 5Ws (the most important facts) – who, what, when, where and why; and ask yourself if it’s clear, active and compelling.
Reporters are bombarded with information – often news releases, emails and phone calls — and now, add social media to the list. In today’s 24-hour news cycle, reporters constantly are racing against the clock, so get to your point as soon as possible. Keep your writing concise and avoid clutter. Sentences should be short and punchy and paragraphs should be no more than two to three sentences.
Follow Associated Press Style
Associated Press is the gold standard for news writing in the U.S. Many newspapers, magazines, online media and public relations agencies use AP style. As a PR practitioner, you should have a basic knowledge of AP style. The Stylebook is the bible of the news profession, and most journalists wouldn’t be caught dead without one; the same should hold true for PR practitioners.
When writing for Canadian publications, follow the Canadian Press Stylebook. It’s a one-stop reference book used by journalists at Canada’s national news agency as they deliver hundreds of stories a day to newspapers, broadcasters and Internet sites.
Avoid Industry Jargon and Technical Terms
Your job is to convey your message to a wide audience so it’s important that you avoid industry-specific jargon and buzzwords that most people, including journalists, won’t understand. You want to communicate as simply and clearly as possible. Remember, if journalists can’t understand it, then they won’t read it and they especially won’t write about it.
The majority of news stories contain some sort of quote. Quotes can wake up dull, dry news releases by adding personality, authenticity and even humor. So in conducting interviews for your releases, be on the lookout for colorful quotes. Remember to include the full name and title of the person being quoted.
Finally, as a PR practitioner, you will need to write well as writing is the fundamental skill for success in public relations. If you learn these basic rules of news writing, you will create compelling messages that could potentially catch the eye of an editor or reporter looking for that next, great story.