January 9, 2020
For 25 years, Michael Dowding has pursued the twin passions of writing and education as a freelance writer and professor at Boston University’s College of Communication. In addition to thousands of content-writing projects and several ghostwritten books, his BU classes on media writing and popular workshops for the PR Club of New England have helped him devise and refine the writing principles that he loves to share. Following his guest lecture for Aria Marketing, we caught up with Michael to get his latest take on the current state of professional media writing.
Many of us were taught growing up that flowery, wordy language equaled good writing. Why is concise writing such an essential skill in our industry and so difficult to master?
That’s especially true in academic writing, isn’t it – like that sociology paper you had to stretch out to 10 pages? You learned to make sentences longer, use bigger words – and you were rewarded for it. But in media writing, it’s really the opposite – we want an emphasis on tight, concise sentences that deliver necessary information clearly. That’s because the more words you use, the greater the risk that you’ll create awkward, unclear sentences.
I think the guiding principles are that we want to convey the most information with the greatest clarity using the fewest words in the shortest amount of time. Of course, the paradox is that it generally requires more effort, time, and practice to write with fewer words. But if we succeed, we serve the reader far better, which, of course, is the goal.
In an era of advanced technology, why should I work so hard to hone my grammar skills when software like SpellCheck and Grammarly is at my fingertips?
Hey, you’ll find no bigger fan of Microsoft Word’s spell-check feature than me. It saves all of us writers a lot of time and prevents unacceptable mistakes. But, it’s only a writer’s tool. Spell-check doesn’t teach us how to spell, and it can’t create original prose. We should think of a spell-checker just like you would view a calculator for an accountant. She still needs to be able to perform all the correct calculations manually, if needed. And we writers still need to have native spelling ability.
How do you improve that ability? For many of us, it starts with a love of reading. Most of us are instinctive spellers – we may not know the dozens of spelling rules, but we can quickly identify misspelled words. That “ID spelling” skill gets refined over time by reading.
The grammar-checkers? I’m not impressed, at least not yet. They often tend to flag sentences that don’t contain any legitimate issues. So for a less-experienced writer, those puzzling flags create unnecessary confusion. Now, I do expect that, over time, these tools will get smarter and better, but right now, I’m not using them.
We know that you are a proponent of the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook. Why is that the preferred industry standard over Chicago Manual of Style? Why do you prefer it personally?
The AP Stylebook is the first source we all consult, the bible for media writers. Chicago is more comprehensive and perhaps more broadly applicable to different styles of documents. I guess I base my preference mostly on the fact that this is what our industry lives by.
Don’t get me wrong – I’d be the first to admit that sometimes the AP Stylebook can be maddeningly contradictory in its rules. For instance, it mandates that we use “email” and “e-commerce.” Why did they take away the hyphen from “email”? I’d love to sit in on some of those discussions and debate those choices. And I’d love to see the day when the AP supports the use of the serial comma, which would give clarity to the reader and consistency to the writer. #BucketList.
As PR professionals, much of our day-to-day is spent crafting pitches. What is one pitching mistake or cliché that drives you (or reporters in general) up a wall?
I think this is an issue that often transcends the actual writing process and really comes down to the inherent tension between PR and media pros, and there’s plenty of blame to go around. We’ve all seen bad work on both sides of the table. I’m not a fan of the public scorching of PR work that you sometimes find on Muck Rack or spinsucks.com. Yes, there’s far too much substandard pitching going on, but PR pros could also share myriad examples of shoddy journalism, too.
That said, the basic principles are evergreen: Focus on one distinctive story idea for one specific journalist that’s targeted to their audience. Use a straightforward subject line. Front-load your pitch with your story proposal, and then follow an inverted pyramid to flesh it out. As in all media writing – concision is paramount.
What is one writing reminder you wish every PR professional had on a post-it note on their desk?
Can I put up a bunch of post-it notes? I have so many tips. But I guess it eventually boils down to this: There are no shortcuts. Writing is like playing a musical instrument: You know, you can’t learn to play piano simply by watching Billy Joel. You have to get to the keyboard and practice the craft every day, and over time, you’ll slowly improve. It’s the same for writers. We want and need to practice the correct, AP-compliant writing principles and techniques every day and create and strengthen our “writing muscle memory” until they become second nature. When you are both fast and precise, you are a true writing pro.
Any other words of wisdom to share with our readers?
It’s worth the effort to pursue media-writing excellence, because the hard work we put into the writing – the effort we extend to tighten and clarify every word, sentence, and document – makes for easier reading, which should always be the goal.
At one level or another, our documents involve some element of persuasion. And when our readers have a document that is tight, clean, precise, and error-free, it increases their confidence in the document’s content and leaves them more willing to listen to our ideas and perspectives.
Michael Dowding is the president of Wordscape Communications, Inc. and a master lecturer at the Boston University College of Communication. You can follow him on Twitter at @MGDowding or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.