Oldie but goodie

September 30, 2011

Every once in a while, someone stops me to comment on a past blog post that ran on Gregarious. Last week, a friend who once edited my work at Success magazine called and complimented a post written more than a year ago on writing well.

I didn’t even remember the post from last June, but then took time to look it up. Not bad, considering it conveys my deep-felt belief on what makes for effective writing. So I thought, what the heck? It still rings true. So let’s run it again, edited in parts, as a way to once again share the power and beauty of the written word.

How much would you pay for a ray gun that took over other people’s minds? Good writing, in PR and business, does just that.

Last June, I wrote a story about President Obama’s speech on the Gulf oil spill and reported how CNN.com quoted a language specialist who claimed the speech failed because it was written at a 9.8 grade level, the highest grade level of any of his speeches, which average a 7.4 grade level.

The analysis was based on the presumption that most written work, especially that done by the media, is written at a sixth-grade level. It’s an urban legend that I have also been guilty of repeating, at times suggesting that a news release or executive speech needs to be simplified to a “sixth-grade level.”

But the entire notion of grade level communications is a red herring that fails because it breaks down language into discrete parts and then analyzes it by length of sentence and number of letters in a word. So the shorter the sentence and smaller the word, the lower the grade level and the easier it is to understand. Or at least the theory goes.

The entire notion is flawed. If you performed the same analysis on the music of The Beatles, you would come to a similar conclusion. After all, Paul, John, Ringo, and George used only four chords — the same chords that any beginner learns in early lessons. Their lyrics? No greater words than you would expect from four boys from Liverpool.

The reality is that like The Beatles, great non-fiction writing doesn’t need to rely on an endless palette of multi-syllabic words. Rather, it’s the specificity of the words chosen and how they are arranged that give us our power as communicators.

The best lessons of all were shared with me by my book and magazine editors when I was a freelance writer early in my career. Their advice was to get out of the way. Become invisible to the reader. They urged me to take command of readers’ thoughts by hiding and never tipping my hand that I was manipulating their thoughts.

That meant subordinating my own early tendencies to want to sound smart to the higher calling of imparting the most possible information with ease and brevity. In short, knowing what notes not to play as well as which ones to hit.

Back in July 2010, I had just met with our firm’s incoming class of interns, 10 young people pulled from the best colleges in America. I asked them, “How much would you pay if I could give you a ray gun that could control other people’s thoughts?” They all laughed, thought I was crazy.

I corrected them, and explained that when you write well, you are taking control of the reader’s thoughts. In essence, a well-written news story, blog post, or news release hijacks another’s awareness in favor of the ideas, concepts, and thoughts you prefer them to consider. Pretty powerful stuff. And certainly not the stuff of sixth-grade writers.

The value of good writing can’t be calculated by simple word and letter counts. Here’s the real way a skilled writer controls the thoughts of a reader:

1. Disguises bias. Great business and PR writing is opaque in that you can’t readily identify the bias. It appears open and balanced, news-like in its presentation. It shows, not tells, and paints pictures in the mind to win over another’s mind, without leaving the fingerprints of persuasion.

2. Appears in a style close to how a journalist might write it. Consider the typical news release with the obligatory corporate descriptors and disclaimers. Would it ever appear in the media in a similar format or style? Never. Whoever wrote the rule that news releases have to start with the company or product name, followed immediately by a tagline or description of the product or company, was a bad writer. Find him. Shoot him. Such notions have failed us in public relations, which should champion the easy conveyance of a client’s sentiment or worldview.

3. Succeeds despite optimization. We now have a new restraint of good writing. The need to optimize news releases and blog posts for almighty Google. It’s a necessary evil. But it shouldn’t disrupt the normal flow of language.

4. Uses verbs and facts. Not adjectives. An editor of mine used to demand four facts in every sentence and a fine pruning of all adjectives. He demanded that writing be salted with power verbs (not unlike the word salted). Verbs, not adjectives, propel language. Two sentences can often be reduced to one by combining the facts of each into a single thought.

5. Plays well lyrically. Good writing runs at a rhythm of its own. Easy to hear and clear to the ear. Seemingly dispensable in the moment while lasting a lifetime in intention and meaning.

6. Speaks to the reader. The #1 rule of writing has always been, and will always be, know your audience. Perhaps more than any other principle, this one strikes at the heart of the grade level writing test. A good PR writer knows when to assume the voice of the CEO or switch to a chatty, more personal style for posts and blogs. It might not be The Beatles, but it’s certainly not for a sixth-grader.

So I would hasten CNN not to give much credence to judging speeches according to the grade level of the language. As Paul and John once penned in seven simple letters, Let it Be.

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Frank Freudberg
7 years 7 months ago

Hello Greg. What a great post. A fantastic primer for newbies and a wonderful back-to-basics review for experienced writers. No writer, no matter how great, is immune from the occasional regress to lousier writing. I would have, however, liked to see something included about headlines or subject lines. Maybe that can be the subject of a future blog post. Thanks again.