If you have ever bought or received a diamond engagement ring, you have undoubtedly learned about the Four Cs. These are the four factors that determine the value of a gem. For the uninitiated and/or the unlucky, here are the Four Cs: Clarity, Color, Cut and Carat. And just because I’ve never met a metaphor I didn’t like, I am going to contort these terms into a few observations about the written word, a distillation of 30+ years of two-fingered keyboard slamming in the service of my clients and employers.
It goes without saying that clarity in writing is essential, but so is clarity of purpose. For whom is the written work intended? What is the audience’s relative degree of sophistication? These can be rocky shoals to navigate when the client is so steeped in his or her company’s technology that anything a layperson can understand is “too basic.” And yet, we so often need to convey technical material in terms that people who have a degree in journalism – not engineering – can understand.
I knew a guy who wrote a book called, ironically, Information Overload. It contained the following passage: “First, the linear view of the life-cycle can be mis-leading. Systems developed in a linear fashion were built on the premise that successive deductions would be made during the development process, each such deductive step supplying a more detailed specification to the next one. As no recursive action was allowed, the misconceptions, errors and omissions left by an earlier step would result in an ever increasing number of errors and faults being built into the final system.”
I asked him what it meant and he said, “Well…you know…garbage in, garbage out.”
Here’s a piece of wisdom I got from my first boss: “Verbs are the bullets in the writer’s gun.” Why “attract” media attention when we can “seize” it? Exciting verbs demonstrate our passion and enthusiasm for a new initiative, and give a program a sense of urgency and action.
It’s often okay and even desirable to use a conversational tone in a lot of the writing we do, particularly in client correspondence. In a business built on relationships, the tone of an e-mail or memo can reinforce your personality (which, presumably, your client enjoys!) It always stumps me when a person tells me an interesting or funny anecdote about something that happened the other day and then turns around and writes a memo that begins: “Pursuant to the above-referenced meeting…”
More advice from my first boss: “Six words are better than seven — way better than ten.” Trust me, less really is more. I can remember my boss not only counting words but also the number of letters in certain words in order to say the most with the least. Okay, he did have many of the telltale signs of clinical depression. Nonetheless, it was a lesson that has stayed with me over the years. Daniel Webster, one of America’s most eloquent orators, said that the better he got at writing, the more “scratch outs” he did. This is much easier to do today than it was when I first started, since way back then a significant copy change meant ripping the sheet from the platen and starting all over again. (“Platen?” you ask. Look it up. Look up “carbon paper” while you’re at it.)
I’ll bet you were wondering how I was going to make this one work. Well, I’m not referring to the weight of a stone. I’m thinking about the caret that is used in editing. It is sometimes called the “insert” mark and it looks like this: ^
The subtitle for this section might be, “Be a Kind Editor.” Be ruthless about rooting out typos and grammatical errors, but don’t edit the fun out of a piece of writing. I once wrote a press release about an insurance policy that protected Broadway theaters in case they were unable to go on with the show. Here was my lead:
“Long before the hit show Dreamgirls goes on the road, it may find itself on the street, thanks to the demolition of the theater next door.” Catchy, huh? I submitted it to my boss, an account supervisor. It came back this way:
“Long before the hit show Dreamgirls goes on the road, it may find itself without a theater.” This led to the first of many, many slow burns I have experienced, and probably accounts for more than a few of my gray hairs.
I hope you find these random thoughts helpful as you ply your trade. Writing is at the heart of what we do, and it ought to be fun – to do and to read.
Categories: Random PR Thoughts
I guess it might take another post – or maybe you were focused on following the Rule of Clarity – but shouldn’t every post on writing include something about “Death to Adverbs” (and put Adjectives on a Diet)?
As always, excellent post. My son, bless him for his four years in the Marines, now aspires to a career in PR/PA (leaning more toward PA than PR, given his father’s and grandfather’s careers). I’ve hooked him on “Random PR Thoughts” for its sanity and clarity.
Deca Communications, Inc.
Ah…adverbs and adjectives. Bill Safire told me that when he was a green pea reporter, his editor instructed him to replace every usage of “very” with “damn” and then submit it for copy editing.
Liked this very much. Sound counsel indeed. Hope all’s well with you.
All the Best,
Thanks, Mike. High praise coming from you.
Yes, I had a “boss” like that too! I quit my job 🙂