Is Good Writing Officially DOA? Why Writing Remains More Important than Ever in Today’s “Twitter” Era
By Evan Weisel, Principal, Welz & Weisel Communications
If there was any doubt about the sad state of the written word today, look no further than the College Board, which is reporting the lowest reading scores for the SAT on record. Then there’s the state of Illinois, which is dramatically reducing its writing proficiency student testing, all in the interest of saving relative nickels and dimes on assessment costs.
Perhaps they’re not simply looking to save money here. Judging from an overall decline of respect for written-language fundamentals today, it could be that the educators who had to evaluate students’ work simply couldn’t take reading it anymore.
Unfortunately, this extends into today’s professional world.
Too many of us were encouraged (by our teachers no less) to abandon all traditional codes of discipline in our writing. “Don’t let the shackles of grammar, spelling and sound sentence structure stop you from putting down original thought on paper,” they’d tell us. On the positive side, this encouraged more young people to write. On the negative side, it encouraged more young people to write very badly.
And too many never grew out of these bad habits. It doesn’t help that the ubiquity of texting shortcuts glorifies the use of sloppy language. Which is why even intelligent, college-educated people stumble so badly when attempting to present ideas on-paper or via electronic forms.
Stunningly, this includes those who communicate for a living.
Is that too harsh? I don’t think so. Not when I see obvious lapses of syntax, word agreement and other mechanical “basics” in press releases, case studies, blogs and other PR-generated content. Not when I read trade pubs and blogs that seriously question whether being a good writer still matters in our industry these days – and whether it ever did.
Count me as a one communications practitioner who strongly believes it always did, and still does. Good writing is essential to nearly everything we do in PR – from media pitches to content generation to social-media outreach. Yes, a blog may read in a conversational, even casual manner. But the good ones require serious intellectual “sweat equity” into the often painful process of writing. In other words, it takes effort to make it for an effortless read.
So how does this debate even enter industry discussion? I have two thoughts ‑ although many in our business may not want to hear them:
Twitter Isn’t All That
We’ve convinced ourselves that campaigns now must be written exclusively for the Twitter age. Check out this statement written by a fellow PR practitioner: “And when was the last time you read a press release that was interesting? This is a real-time, 140-character society now. If you can’t fit your news into a tweet when it matters most, chances are it’s too much, too late.” OK, we get it. Social media is offering new ways of communicating, and many feel that press releases and other forms of communication are passé.
This, of course, is a crock. Don’t get us wrong. We love Twitter. We use it all the time because it’s a great message-building tool. But no one media outlet cancels out all others. Yes, Twitter is the rage now. But it doesn’t present an “either/or” case for itself. It’s simply one of a number of tools to use to get your message out.
That includes traditional media. Social media can drive sales, create awareness and build customer loyalty. But it’s only part of an effective campaign. With well-crafted releases, pitches, blogs, case studies, speeches and other forms of communications, the “whole” of a message campaign emerges as greater than the sum of its parts. Given the sheer number of these media formats and platforms today, I’d even argue that strong writing skills are more useful than ever. Each one involves different approaches with respect to substance and tone, and this means content in PR is more important than ever.
I also remain highly skeptical of any argument that contends that, because the Twitter age is all about communicating in short spurts, that you no longer have to write well. A Tweet – or at least a good one – actually demonstrates a darn good writing effort. “Short” writing doesn’t mean “easy,” as anyone who studied Hemingway in high school would know.
Laziness Lurks in PR
More and more PR people want to enjoy all the more glamorous aspects of our jobs without “earning it.” For them, it’s all about schmoozing at big events. Writing? That’s no fun, right? Get over it, because being a “people person” isn’t enough. You could charm the skin off a snake and look like George Clooney or Angelina Jolie. But you still have to write to add distinguished value to your skill set.
That goes for everyone in the food chain of PR: If you’re a junior-level agency professional who pitches 90 percent of the time, your command of the written word still matters. Media people are busier than ever, responsible for far more beat coverage than a decade ago. They have less and less time to evaluate pitches. So you need to “grab” them quickly. Which means you better be capable of writing a darn good subject header. When the reporter follows up with interest and inquiries, your responses must be sharp and on point to nail the media-placement opportunity. Writing disciplines you for all of this.
Then, if you’re a “big picture” exec at a large agency who can avoid press releases and pitches, you still can’t avoid facing a blank computer screen and producing written communications. In client relations, senior-level managers must articulate in-depth strategies that require more thought than a Facebook status update. You’re challenged to define tactics as well as the Return-on-Investment (ROI) that will be derived through your plan. That means it all has to – yes, I know this isn’t necessarily what you want to read – start with well-written words on a page.
But feel free to write them 140 characters at a time.
Evan Weisel (who tweets, incidentally, @evanweisel) is co-founder and principal at Welz & Weisel Communications.