When I entered the public relations field 10 years later, I brought along the lessons I learned in the newsroom, including interviewing skills, knowledge of Associated Press style and a careful eye for proofreading. It surprises me how few young PR pros possess, hone or treasure these skills.
You may argue that many of the tools of the PR trade have changed. Though still widely used, news releases are old-fashioned; research that required reporters to spend hours in the public library is ready today at the touch of a few keystrokes. Still, the backbone of good public relations remains even more critical today: Succinct, stimulating writing with careful attention to grammar and punctuation will never go out of style.
Writing, With Style
Journalists quickly learn to consult the AP Stylebook for answers to all kinds of style questions. They know to spell out numbers one through nine while using figures for higher numbers. They write out the full names of states, not the postal abbreviations.
Zachary Reed, writing on LinkedIn, adds that a major mistake that 99 percent of PR writers still make involves casual speaking habits that creep into professional writing. Did you know you cannot perform a given task “on” a day? No, Reed advises, you did not go to the store “on Saturday.” You went to the store Saturday.
Select the Right Words
Steve Pinker, a linguist and cognitive scientist at Harvard University, compiled a list of the 58 most commonly misused words. Here are just a few that I’ve seen even the best writers use incorrectly.
- Adverse: Unfavorable or harmful; commonly confused with “averse,” which means disinclined.
- Appraise: To evaluate the value of something; commonly confused with “apprise,” which means to inform.
- As far as: The same; commonly confused with the phrase “as for,” which means with regard to.
- Begs the question: Implies a conclusion that isn't supported by evidence; commonly confused with “raises the question.”
- Bemused: Bewildered; commonly confused with “amused,” which means entertained.
- Cliché: A noun; commonly misused as an adjective.
- Credible: Believable; commonly confused with “gullible.”
- Criteria: A plural word; commonly misused as a singular word. The singular is “criterion.”
Habits to Acquire, Others to Break
A recent PR Tactics article by Joseph Priest offers some additional pointers for PR writers.
- Don’t use an ampersand unless it’s part of an official name (e.g., Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble). Many PR pros use this symbol as a shortcut whenever “and” comes between two related terms (e.g., research & development, sales & marketing). Don’t do it.
- “Comprise” means “to contain or embrace,” so nothing is ever “comprised of” something. People usually mean to say “composed of.” The whole comprises the parts; the parts compose the whole; or the whole is composed of the parts (e. g., “The jury comprises 12 members. The zoo is composed of 42 animal exhibits.”) If “composed of” sounds stilted, then “consists of” and “made up of” are options.
- The corporate identifier “Inc.” is not separated by commas in a company name.
- Be careful to maintain parallel structure in bulleted lists. If the first item is a noun, then the following items should be too. If the first item starts with a verb, then the following items should as well. If the first item is a complete sentence, then the following items should be too.
- According to AP style, a title shouldn’t be capitalized unless it’s used directly before a name or, more important, when it’s a formal title. This is a title indicating a scope of authority or professional activity, such as president, queen, doctor, colonel, bishop or professor. It’s different from a job description, such as waiter, reporter or sales representative, which would not be capitalized, even directly before a name.
Get it Right in Writing
Everybody needs an editor. Yet sometimes you’re on deadline and don’t have anyone else to copy edit your work. Vicki Krueger of the Poynter Institute offers some tricks to help get it right.
- Sweat the small stuff. Articles are often misused or mis-typed when you’re writing quickly. And it’s easy to overlook “or” when you mean “of” or “it” when you mean “if” or “is.”
- Print out your story with different margins, fonts or colors to trick your brain into thinking it’s seeing something new. You may find mistakes you otherwise would have missed. Another trick: Read your text backwards.
- Know what you don’t know. Whether you have trouble with spelling, subject-verb agreement or tense shifts, know to always double-check yourself
You will be selected first by clients who want their messages to be expressed in accurate, well-written materials. So, write on. And make sure it’s right.