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Mastering narrative and style: What Hemingway said PR writers should heed


January 29, 2013

Writing well is a challenge for all PR practitioners. 

There are many reasons why. And there are many rules. One of the most important ones is: Eliminate hyperbolic adjectives, words that too many practitioners believe make their writing more interesting, but actually make it worse.

Reporters, editors and veteran PR writers revere the crystal-clear writing style of journalist and novelist Ernest Hemingway, who won the 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature for “his mastery of the art of narrative” and “the influence that he has exerted on contemporary style.”

Here are 25 suspect adjectives to avoid, along with reasons why, including sage advice from Hemingway.

  • authoritative
  • best-of-brand
  • best-in-category
  • breakthrough
  • cutting-edge
  • earth-shaking
  • end-to-end
  • fantastic
  • high-performance
  • groundbreaking
  • innovative
  • leading
  • leading-edge
  • next-generation
  • one-of-a-kind
  • one-stop
  • revolutionary
  • seamless
  • solution-driven
  • state-of-the-art
  • unequalled
  • unique
  • unmatched
  • world-renowned
  • world-class

Problems and how to handle them

Above all, these commonplace descriptors convey clichéd, imprecise meanings for whatever they refer to — products, services, issues, ideas, events, publications or personalities.  They exaggerate rather than enlighten, and mask rather than reveal. There are two ways to eliminate them or minimize their impact.

First, don’t use them at all. Instead of describing something as “cutting edge” or “revolutionary” or another of these inflated terms, write something more exacting and concrete. As accomplished writers commonly advise apprentice writers:  “Show, don’t tell.”

For example, “X is faster and less expensive than the three best-selling computers in the world,” or  “Y is the first North American border security system to use drone technology.” Rather than sketch a fuzzy image with exaggerated language, paint a clear, credible picture with words that portray what makes the subject truly distinctive.

Second, if you must use hyperbolic adjectives (e.g., because your boss or client likes or requires them), then substantiate your intent with a twist on the first suggestion.

For example, immediately after describing scholastic-aptitude-testing software as “groundbreaking” or “next-generation,” follow with a clarifying statement such as, “The software allows students to finish their SATs in half the time that it takes with No. 2 pencils and fill-in forms.” In this instance, more words are better than fewer words.

Reasons for exaggeration

Regrettably, the use of hyperbolic adjectives will persist in professional public relations as long as writers in the field, especially the new and inexperienced, succumb to prevailing habits that undermine good writing.

Here are four of the most obvious, along with advice on how to minimize their impact:

  • Employers or clients having an exaggerated sense of their products, services, ideas and actions: They mean well, of course (who doesn’t like to think who they are and what they do is great?), but their zeal undermines their appeal.

    Find ways to discuss diplomatically why hyperbolic expression weakens rather than strengthens their messages.

    Most important, tell them how you’ll communicate more effectively on their behalf by writing more precisely. Or maybe just start eliminating hyperbole without explaining why. Often, they won’t notice the change.
     
  • Inability to control your own writing because of interference from others who aren’t great writers or editors themselves: There isn’t anything wrong with others giving you their advice — your paymasters in particular — but they shouldn’t have absolute control over your final product. If they do, then you’ll get stuck writing their way, which will force you to do whatever they want and let it go at that.

    As a result, your efforts will become half-hearted, which isn’t good for you or your employers or clients. Instead, take charge of how you write. You’re the expert (or should be), so do everything to make this obvious to them without being arrogant, rigid or uncooperative.

    If the change doesn’t occur naturally, then sit down with them to discuss what they want, what you want and how to arrive at a position that favors productive writing, not contrarian whimsy.
     
  • Supercilious notions about what passes muster with your audiences: Rather than assuming or guessing what your audiences will accept, learn as much as you can about what they need and want before you write. This is certainly true if you work with the media. The knowledge that you gain from your inquiry will inform your thinking and strengthen your language and content. 
     
  •  Failure to use standard reference tools to find more accurate and credible descriptive terms: Be a student of writing. Have a thesaurus,  AP Stylebook, dictionary, and other writing/editing tools at hand or on screen as you write — and use them habitually. Your knowledge of synonyms, antonyms, spelling preferences and essential aspects of punctuation will grow exponentially within months, and your vocabulary style will follow suit.

    For example, you’ll be able to quickly distinguish the difference between “said” and related terms such as “explained,”  “clarified,”  “noted,”  “remarked,”  “claimed,”  “reported” or “declared.” Most important, you’ll be able to find more accurate adjectives.

Common-sense wisdom

In their famous mini-writing guide, “The Elements of Style,” authors Strunk and  White said, “When you overwrite, readers will be instantly on guard, and everything that has preceded your overstatement as well as everything that follows it will be suspect in their minds because they have lost confidence in your judgment or your poise. A single overstatement, wherever or however it occurs, diminishes the whole, and a single carefree superlative has the power to destroy, for readers, the object of your enthusiasm.” 

Hemingway’s last word 

When George Plimpton interviewed him in the Spring 1958 Paris Review, he said:  “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.” Because of what we do and are supposed to do as PR writers, we have a particular obligation to heed his words.

At its core, hyperbolic writing is a form of BS, intentionally or not. If you want to write simple, direct, believable communications, then start by eliminating fatuous adjectives.

 

Don Bates, APR, Fellow PRSA Don Bates, APR, Fellow PRSA, is a writing instructor at New York University and founding director of the master’s degree program in strategic public relations at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University.
Email: db155 at nyu.edu



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