Leonard’s Tips on Quality Writing Go Viral

The great mystery writer Elmore Leonard passed away yesterday. The Internet lit up. And interestingly, it was as much about his tips for great writing as it was for his brilliant work.

The Onion’s take was terrific. Leonard was famous for writing short, staccato sentences. But the Onion’s obit included several run-on sentences and a 39-word headline.

But the parody had a larger point, and an important one for PR. It took Leonard’s famous 10 Rules for Writing and reversed everything, proving the value of those points as well as any mere listing.

Parodies aside, we opted to take a look at the most relevant rules for PR.

1. Never use a verb other than ''said'' to carry dialogue.  While it may be tempting to write that someone “brayed” or “suggested,” that doesn’t make it right. When writing dialogue, always use “said.” (And we advise always using “said” at the risk of violating Leonard’s own caveats, and Tom Wolfe’s tenet to “never say ‘never’ and never say ‘always.’”)

2. Keep your exclamation points under control. Let’s face it, this is something that many PR pros are guilty of: excessive use of exclamation points. As enamored as you may be of them, nine times out of ten exclamation points are unnecessary. Leonard even raises the bar. “You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.”

3. Don't go into great detail describing places and things. Do you think that a reporter, editor and/or other stakeholders associated with your brand really want vast details on all the partners who made your XYZ campaign happen? Do they want press releases overflowing with information on how grateful the CEO is to his family for standing by him through such a difficult transition? Nope. They just want the facts, along with an interesting story that’s relevant to the reader.

Matthew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1


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About Matthew Schwartz

Group Editor, PR News: Matthew Schwartz is group editor of PR News, the leading source of trends, how-to content and best practices for PR professionals. Matthew leads the editorial strategy for PR News’ premium content products—including its weekly newsletter—and for its digital presence. Matthew was editor of PR News from 2003-2005. Prior to returning to PR News, Matthew was a reporter for Crain’s BtoB and Media Business magazines, where he covered business marketers and media companies. He was also editor of BMA Buzz, a biweekly email newsletter covering B2B marketing, advertising and social media, and contributing writer to Advertising Age Custom. Matthew has helped to launch blogs on behalf of ZoomInfo and direct marketing agency The Kern Organization. He also spent a few years in cable-news precincts, working as a writer/producer at CNN and Fox News Channel.

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