Perfect Your Prose: Learn to Write Well. But Why?

February 1, 2016


The admonition to “write well” is the wallpaper of counsel to young PR professionals — ubiquitous, but unnoticed.

Missing from a lot of the figurative flogging is a reason (beyond the obvious) to lean in to the task of improving your prose.

So here are some observations, gleaned from a 30-year agency career, on why good writing remains the ticket to PR success and why, regardless of your maturity in the profession, you should be so intent on continuously improving that you actually do something about it — such as read a book, attend a workshop, expand your vocabulary and (gasp!) study:

If it ain’t on the page, then it ain’t on the stage.

Nothing happens — not a special event, not a speech, not a website, not a viral video, not a brilliant media strategy, not an op-ed, not an award-winning program, not even an effective Facebook post — without someone, somewhere, committing words to paper. (Well, OK, pixels.)

Haven’t we all been in a brainstorm where someone blurts out a great idea that everyone agrees would rock the world, and then when it shows up in the plan it suddenly looks as mundane as a press release? Good writers lose less in translation. Intellectual sparkle can move medium to medium, but only a skilled writer can manage the transfer.

Complex ideas (i.e., most ideas) cannot be expressed in a tweet.

A thoughtful, well-reasoned argument — the backbone of strategic communications counsel — requires the “long form.”

Essayists, speechwriters, marketers and policy advocates require a certain word girth to simply make themselves credible. “Lower Taxes” is a nice bumper sticker, but the Republican Party platform runs 50 pages because it requires the proffering of rationale, the citing of precedent and the forecasting of implications.

Professional writers (i.e., journalists) appreciate good writing.

I once had a client who opened every desk-side journalist briefing by noting that she had been with the AP before becoming a PR person; she believed she was being charming and establishing a professional connection.

But as the chap charged with maintaining those relationships after the initial meeting, I believe she mostly just ticked people off. She thought she was saying “I’m just like you.” They heard her saying, “I used to do your job, but then I grew out of it.”

How much better would it be to establish this cherished common ground via actual product? Why not just share pitches, comments and background with media contacts that are thoughtful, well-organized, succinct and clever? Can’t we communicate to journalists that we are “just like them” by crafting copy they would not hesitate to publish? It’s Chapter One in every book on writing: “Show, don’t tell.”

Poetry compels.

Thomas Paine was a soldier in Gen. George Washington’s beleaguered army that crossed the Delaware and won the Battle of Trenton — the first major victory of the Colonial rebels, and a coup that saved the American Revolution from early demise. Paine’s pamphlet, “American Crisis,” was considered so inspiring that it was read aloud to barefoot and starving troops, as they boarded a midnight flotilla across an icy river to take the enemy by surprise.

Did Paine lead with “OMG. This sucks”? No. He opened with his famous line, “These are the times that try men’s souls…” which valiant, but often barely literate, soldiers eagerly devoured before the subsequent 5,000 words. Hearts were won. History was made. A nation was born.

Good writing is a marker for good thinking.

Top-tier writing requires expert storytellers who read constantly and capture, analyze and synthesize information quickly. In other words, they possess the skills clients look for when seeking counsel on a host of strategic communications questions.

It follows that the same team that produces excellent writing is intellectually equipped to advise clients on matters of internal communications, public affairs, community relations, issues management, financial communications and marketing communications.

As Thomas Paine might say, that’s just common sense.


Michael Ares says:

Well put, succinct advice -- as always.

Feb. 4, 2016

Rachael Headley says:

This is perfection.

Feb. 10, 2016

Ashlee J. Sherrill says:

Writing to aspire to! Being in a small communications shop, it's easy to drone through the work day. Your piece, Mr. Dusseault, was a refreshing reminder to keep working to improve. Thank you.

Feb. 10, 2016

Lindy Neubauer says:

I love this. Excellent read.

Feb. 10, 2016

Marci R. Schneider says:

Delighted to read this piece. With the new world focused on "150 or so characters", I wondered if being able to synthesize economic and legal documents was a valued skill. The issuance of this article and citation of financial communications within it answered by question. Having taught undergraduate and graduate PR writing classes following 20 years in OPA at the Federal Reserve Board, I began to assume reading/analyzing /writing were lost arts. Thanks for quelling my concerns.

Feb. 11, 2016

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