Monday, August 29, 2011
How to Write a News Release
A few years ago, I edited a small science fiction magazine. I got lots of news releases, and I loved it. Any editor who tells you they don’t need PR “flacks” is just posturing for his or her colleagues. News releases give us leads for stories, basic information, and, when they are well written, the stories themselves. Editors will love you if you can give them those sorts of stories.
When I was doing PR for a college, I could just about guarantee my press releases would be published as-is, and editors would contact me for news leads. However, to develop that type of relationship with editors, you have to write news releases from the editor’s point of view. So, what makes the irresistible press release?
Journalistic Style. A news release is first and foremost a news story. That means it must have news value and be written in journalistic style. The story needs to be an objective reporting of what is happening and not an advertisement for your book or event. The editor isn’t invested in helping you promote yourself or your product. Her job is to inform her readers about things she believes will be useful to them.
Too many releases I get are nothing less than sales pitches for the book. In fact, the cover letters also say how they want to promote THEIR book or THEIR event. It is assumed that my publication exists solely for the purpose of promoting them.
Go through your release and cut out all qualitative adjectives like “great,” “wonderful,” “valuable,” “fast paced,” “exciting,” etc. Also cut out phases which belong in a book review rather than a news story like “a good read” or “a big thumbs up.” Editors don’t want to be told what to think about the book or event. They want the facts. And, in case you don’t know it, “a good read” is not a fact, it’s an opinion.
Remember the 5 W’s and H of journalism when writing your release: Who, what, when, where, why, and how. Answer those questions for the reader.
Journalistic style also follows the “inverted pyramid” format. While many newspapers and online publications have modified this style, it is still a useful one. The inverted pyramid begins with the most important information and ends with the least important. The fact that Jennifer Author will be speaking to the Madison book club on February 15 at 7 p.m. is important and belongs at the top of the release. The fact that she lives in Fresno with her husband, two kids and a dog is not so important and should appear later in the story. Many people only read the first few paragraphs of a news story, so get out the important information in those paragraphs and provide additional information at the bottom.
Quote Yourself. Quotes add flavor to the story. Let many of the facts come through in quoted material. But be careful that you don’t do the “hard sell” just because it’s contained in quotation marks. Use quotes to tell about your motivations for writing the book, some details of what you will be discussing at the lecture, or your experience with the topic.
Avoid “Insider” Language. Since mine was a science fiction e-zine, I got a lot of releases referring to “spec-fic.” As an editor, if I’m not familiar with the genre, I’m left scratching my head saying, “What is ‘spec-fic’? Fiction sold on speculation? What does that have to do with anything?” Even colloquialisms that are probably understood like “sci-fi” are better spelled out. It’s just a little too casual and sounds more like a blog post than a news release.
Check the mechanics. I have to admit this is one of my failings, but I’m getting better since I have to do this now. If you make an editor work to hard fixing your spelling, punctuation and grammar, then he or she is likely to say, “That’s too much work,” and file it in the refuse bin.
Get to the point. Fiction writers especially seem to take forever to get to the point in their news releases. They set a scene or give a character sketch at the beginning of the article. As an editor, I’m wondering, “What’s the point?” I don’t care that the author’s room is decorated with Garfield memorabilia. I want to know what’s happening or going to happen. You should get to the point in the first 25 words or less: “Jonathan Writer, author of She Lost Her Way, will be the featured speaker during the 11 a.m. service, May 14 at First Community Church.” This isn’t easy. It took me about 10 minutes to write that sentence and get it under 25 words. But in that one sentence, I have everything I need to know about what it going to happen.
Condense, Condense, Condense. Remember, book authors, you don’t have 100,000 words to tell your story in a news release. You have 200-300 words. Make them count. Cut out almost all adjectives and adverbs, Cut out every glowing praise for the book. Cut out phrases when a single word will do. Cut out everything which is not relevant to the event.
One place most writers can cut is in their personal biographies. Unless it is relevant to the book or lecture, leave out family information. The fact that Mary Physicist is married to Jacob and has two sons Fredrick and Jason is irrelevant to the story about the release of her first Science Fiction novel dealing with time travel through black holes.
These are just a few tips to help you write a better news release and increase your chances of actually getting it published. Basically, it just comes down to one tip: Think like an editor with a readership to serve and not a writer with a book to sell.