The American novelist Elmore Leonard died on 20 August last year, at the grand old age of 87. He began his career as an advertising copywriter in the 1920s before moving into fiction, first writing a series of western novels and then finding his true calling – and his unique voice – in the crime genre.
One of the most prolific writers of modern times, Leonard published a staggering 45 novels, and almost as many short stories, screenplays and other works. He wrote and wrote and wrote, and continued writing up to the very end. Perhaps the most amazing thing was that the quality never wavered; not once in a career that spanned more than six decades.
What has one of the world's greatest crime novelists got to do with the PR industry? We tweeted last week that writing is everything in PR – and it’s true. Writing remains the core skill of the PR practitioner, and yet very few of us have the word ‘copywriting’ in our job descriptions. If you work in PR, it is simply expected that you can write well.
So if writing is not your forte, you have to learn on the hoof, pick up tips where you find them, improve your craft as best you can. And believe it or not, the novels of Elmore Leonard are a pretty good place to start. Here are three principles of good copywriting you’ll find in the great man’s work.
Keep it short, keep it simple
Every time you set about a piece of writing – from an email to an annual report – it’s worth pausing for a moment, and thinking about the people who will be reading your words. They are busy. They have calls to make, meetings to attend, notes to follow up. They have stuff piling up on their desk. They are just like you, in other words.
For busy people, there’s nothing that makes the heart sink faster than opening up an email or a document and being confronted with a big, dense block of text. Straight away it’s an ordeal. Given half the chance they’ll press delete, pretend it never happened, and carry on with their lives. And all your thinking, writing and editing will have been a big waste of time.
To avoid this, make sure your writing looks easy to read. Keep your sentences short. Keep your paragraphs likewise. Very long paragraphs are a sure sign that the writer is waffling; over-writing a point because he/she doesn’t know when to stop or simply wants to ‘pad out’ the piece.
As Elmore Leonard says in his celebrated ’10 Rules of Writing’: “Think of what you skip when you’re reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them”. If you find yourself writing a thick paragraph of prose, stop for a second and remember – nobody’s going to want to read it.
Get to the point, and fast
This relates to the last point, again thinking of those busy people whose attention you are trying to attract with your writing. When they – we – read something, we all want to know what’s in it for us. Is this relevant to me? Am I going to get something out of this? If this is about me in some way, I’ll read it. If not, I’m done, got other things to do.
There’s a simple check you can do that will tell you whether your copy is going to make the reader’s ears prick up. Look back over your first few paragraphs and see how many times the word “We” appears, versus the word “You”. If you’re using the word “We”, you’re talking about yourself – not interesting. If you’re using the word “You”, you’re talking about the reader – more interesting.
This doesn’t apply to every single type of written communication, of course, but it’s not a bad yardstick by which to measure how fast you are getting to the point.
Elmore Leonard puts it a slightly different way in his ’10 Rules’, which incidentally are essential reading for anyone who writes as part of their job. “Never open a book with weather” he says. “The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people.” For people, read ‘ the point’. And if you don’t get to it quickly enough, you’ve probably lost them.
If you wouldn’t say it, don’t write it
Now this does apply to every type of written communication, and it’s an absolutely golden rule. If you want your writing to sound natural, try saying it out loud. Say the words instead of just reading them back or mouthing them in front of your screen. If it sounds forced, or awkward, or confusing, or too long, or too vague, that’s probably what it is – time for a rewrite.
The problem with so much business content is that it’s been written by people who think they have to sound ‘official’ or ‘corporate’ or ‘important’. They get into a ‘writing’ frame of mind where big words are better, where 10 words are better than one, where nothing can possibly be left out and where corporate jargon makes everything better.
No! Write the way you speak; put things in writing the way you would put them if you were standing face to face with your audience; and always test your copy by saying it out loud.
Again, there is much we can learn from Elmore Leonard about writing as you speak. He is regarded as one of the finest ever writers of dialogue; just one of the reasons that an incredible 19 of his novels have been adapted as movies (Out of Sight, Jackie Brown, Get Shorty, Touch, to name a few). His dialogue sounds real because it is real.
Leonard’s most important rule of writing is one that sums up all 10 rules:
“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
Bear this in mind the next time you sit down to write that press release, that blog, that report, that presentation. We are people, communicating with other people, and anything that gets in the way of that simple process simply does not deserve to be on the page.
Finally, give someone an Elmore Leonard novel for Christmas. Chances are they’ll love it.