- Carolyne Zinko
Mastering the Write Stuff: How to Whip Up Engaging Content in a Flash
When it comes to writing fast and well, journalists are pros. We learn how to skim through a 300-page report or attend a city government meeting and write up a story within minutes or a few hours. We give you the key points and newest information — devoid of jargon, with context, in easy-to-understand English and as accurately as possible in the time we have before deadline.
In the era of AI, it’s tempting to assume we can have Chat GPT do all our writing for us. Not so fast! Writing isn’t easy — but writing fast and writing better are skills that can be learned, and that’s important because writing trains us to think critically, and that makes us smarter. Bots can give us a jumpstart. AI tools like Alphy’s Reflect can help polish it off with a quick check for topic, tone, “isms,” confidence, mindset and appropriateness.
Here’s what I have in my tool kit from my decades as a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle that can help you communicate more clearly and effectively — no matter what you’re writing about.
Be interesting. Readers are pressed for time. Tell them upfront why they should care and why they should care now about what you have to say. If your organization’s researchers have developed a cure for cancer, don’t start out with the history of the medical center. If a man robbed a bank while holding a monkey, don’t lead with the amount stolen.
Gather more information than you need. If you’re having trouble writing a report, you may not have gathered enough facts, statistics, background, context or quotes to tell your story. If you’re creating a video, make sure you shoot extra b-roll. You always can cut extra material, but you can’t stitch a gown without enough fabric to begin with.
Organize your thoughts. Whatever you write is not going to come out of your brain in perfect order through your fingertips and onto your screen. Make an outline of key points (just like you learned in 7th grade). Also include who, what, when, where, why and how. Your audience needs context for your story to be meaningful.
Model your story after something you want to emulate. If you like the way another person’s or company’s report was structured, analyze its components and follow that model. If you like the way a press release explained a new product or the way a company publicly apologized for a product defect, follow that model. What came first? What was next? How did they tell the story? How did they quote experts? What kinds of experts did they quote? Blueprints are useful for structure.
Plunge into it. Jim Ylisela, writing for PR Daily, recommends the CRAP method — “craft really awful prose.” It’s a humorous approach to giving yourself permission to just type it all out without worrying about being perfect. Once you’re finished, you can hone and polish. As an editor once told me, “If it’s good, it’s good enough.”
Avoid jargon, cliches, corporate lingo. Speak plainly. Avoid terms like “mission critical,” “leverage,” and “full transparency.” Use “essential,” “works with,” and “candidly” instead. Ditto for “think outside the box” when what you mean is “be original,” and “paradigm shift” when you mean “big change.”
Re-interview people. If you don’t understand what your industry expert, your medical researcher, your elected official has told you, then your readers won’t, either. It might take a little courage on your part, but go back and ask them to explain it again. Journalists often ask experts to explain what they mean in sixth-grade English (not kidding). Experts are often happy to clarify.
Double-check your facts. Check your statistics, your math, your spelling. If your story contains the name of people or organizations, look them up on the internet. Go to the organization’s website to see how the company lists itself online. Check an individual’s name and title on their LinkedIn page and/or their Twitter account. Details matter.
Bring your story to life. If what you’ve written is putting you to sleep, it’ll bore your readers, too. Use vivid detail. “The purple highrise” isn’t the same as “the violet--hued tower.” Quotes should be punchy. If you hear a baseball player saying, “We played the game we had to play,” what did you learn from that? Zero. Press your subject for something more profound, like this from Sammy Sosa, who once said, “If you have a bad day in baseball, and start thinking about it, you will have 10 more.” That’s memorable. This goes for your CEO, your top engineers, your university department heads, your researchers — whoever needs to be quoted in what you’re writing.
Get a second pair of eyes to edit your writing. Be open to feedback. If it doesn’t make sense to your colleague, it won’t make sense to others. It’s easy to lose sight of inconsistencies. In the newsroom, stories go through multiple edits and rewrites. When a reader understands everything from start to finish without pausing to re-read, you’ve done your job.
Prepare to learn. The process of writing shows how much — or little — you know about what you’re writing about. It forces you to confront that, to gather information, to bolster your contentions, to flesh out what you are trying to say. Yes, bots are really great for brief emails. “But,” writes Jessica Stillman in Inc. magazine, “no bot is going to figure out how complex ideas fit together and apply that to your specific situation any time soon.”
Carolyne Zinko is the editorial director of Alphy.
Reflect AI by Alphy is a SaaS platform that flags harmful language, including topic, tone, “isms,” confidence, mindset and appropriateness. Our AI language classifier detects risks in emails prior to send, flags conversational missteps (and successes) in video meetings in real-time, and upskills individual communication with targeted and personalized microlearning.