When you write, no matter what you write, make a point.
For “essential writing lessons,” it’s hard to top an on-point piece in CommPro.com, written by New York University’s Don Bates. In it he tells two anecdotes, one by the great essayist, humorist and filmmaker Nora Ephron; the other by a professor who helps academics write so the general public can understand.
First, the Ephron story pulled from her book, I Feel Bad About My Neck:
“The best teacher I ever had was named Charles Simms, and he taught journalism at Beverly Hills High School in 1956 and 1957. The first day of journalism class, Mr. Simms did what just about every journalism teacher does in the beginning—he began to teach us how to write a lead. The way this is normally done is that the teacher dictates a set of facts and the class attempts to write the first paragraph of a news story about them. Who, what, where, when, how and why. So, he read us a set of facts. It went something like this:
‘Kenneth L. Peters, principal of Beverly Hills High School, announced today that the faculty of the high school will travel to Sacramento on Thursday for a colloquium on new teaching methods. Speaking there will be anthropologist Margaret Mead, educator Robert Maynard Hutchins, and several others.’
“We all began typing, and after a few minutes we turned in our leads. All of them said approximately what Mr. Simms had dictated, but in the opposite order (“Margaret Mead and Robert Maynard Hutchins will address the faculty,” etc.). Mr. Simms rifled through what we had turned in, smiled, looked up and said: ‘The lead to the story is, ‘There will be no school Thursday’.”
“It was an electrifying moment. So that’s it, I realized. It’s about the point. The classic newspaper lead of who-what-where-when-how-and-why is utterly meaningless if you haven’t figured out the significance of the facts. What is the point? What does it mean? He planted those questions in my head.”
A second anecdote presented by Bates in his CommPro.com piece is a great lesson for the writer who needs to take what may be considered dry, academic material and make it sexy for the masses. The lesson here is one that I explain to my clients all the time. When trying to attract the attention of the media (which is, in turn, trying to attract the attention of its audience), follow these rules of engagement.
- Wow the reader. Write something that makes him/her say, “wow.”
- Make is sexy. Sex sells.
- Make it about money – making money, losing money, saving money.
- Make their stomachs churn. “If it bleeds, it leads” remains a newsroom mantra.
- Make it emotional – emotion sells.
Professor David Poulson, who according to Bates, “helps academics write smarter for the public,” recounts Poulson’s own lesson about a scientific paper and asks his audience, which article would you read?
Original title: “Grasshopper and Locust Farming as a Sustainable Source of Protein for Non-Ruminant Livestock and Humans in Kenya.”
Poulson’s title: “Eating Bugs.”
When you write, do the following…
- Write a headline (if the project warrants it) or intro that is short and clever and grabs the reader immediately.
- Make your point immediately and, whenever possible, succinctly.
- Make your subject matter relevant to your audience.
As Robert Wynne suggested in his Forbes piece, How To Write A Press Release, “think of Dale Carnegie and his book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. ‘First, arouse in the other person an eager want. He who can do this has the whole world with him. He who cannot walks a lonely way.’ The process is simple. Not easy, but simple.”
So back to the point: What is your point? Keep that question in mind when you write for your reader.