8 Insidious Myths That Are Ruining Your Writing

“Believe you can and you’re halfway there.” Theodore Roosevelt on confidence.

An academic should be studying the relationship between confidence and writing. The link between confidence and clear communication became apparent during writing guru Jonathan Rick’s lively presentation today (Nov. 7, 2018) at PRNews’ Writing Boot Camp in NY City.

Myth 1: If you don’t understand something you’re reading, it’s your fault.

Confidence is critical. “You must believe you’re an intelligent person. If you’re having trouble understanding something, it’s not you, it’s bad writing,” Rick says.

Unfortunately, many of us want to sound smart when we write. So, we adopt habits of bad academic writing. We use 5 words when 3 will do.

A pretty decent writer named Ernest Hemingway was known crafting for short sentences. Look at the essays of Nora Ephron. They're a textbook in short, declarative sentences.

Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address runs fewer than 300 words. His brief remarks at Gettysburg, PA, in 1863 were not the main event that day. Lincoln spoke after the day's featured orator, Edward Everett, delivered some 13,000 words from memory. After hearing Lincoln's 3-minute oration, Everett knew the president's brevity would outlast his two-hour speech.

Another mistake many of us make is using online glossaries to insert fancy-sounding words.

People think their writing will sound smarter the more SAT words they use. But what's the good of fancy words when many readers won’t be able to understand them? It’s much better, Rick says, to be concise. Write copy that's “clear on the first reading…if the reader has to stop and re-read something, you’ve lost them.”

Myth 2: Writing something simply means I have to dumb it down.

Definitely untrue. Writing should be simple, not simplistic and definitely not boring, he says.

“Simple writing isn’t simple,” he says.

Or, as Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

A tip: Restrict yourself to a character count, as Twitter does. Rick lauds FDR’s “December 7th, 1941, a day that will live in infamy” speech. “It’s direct and easy to understand. Can you imagine how we’d overwrite that today?”

Myth 3: My subject is too long, dry or complex to be made engrossing.

“Your job as a PR professional is to un-bore things and make them engrossing,” Rick says. One way to get readers interested in something is to create a compelling headline. His example was excellent: a headline from The Washington Post that was the top headline on Facebook in 2013. It was “9 Questions About Syria You Were Too Embarrassed to Ask.” People love numbers, Rick says, “They’ll surely want to know what at least three of those questions are.”

Myth 4: My readers are too august to be addressed in the common tongue.

“Where do you think you are, in England?” Rick jokes as a slide with a picture of Queen Elizabeth is shown. “People [in America] appreciate a little humor and plain language.”

Myth 5: Contractions are unprofessional.

How many bosses have told you that? What about your high school English teacher? Rick says we should forget them.

This myth about contractions also derives from a confidence issue. For some reason, we think it doesn’t sound smart when we use contractions in writing. And, as you know, we want to sound smart, Rick says. His advice: use contractions.

“The best writing is conversational” and we use a lot of contractions when speaking.

Myth 6: My readers care only about the facts.

“Your job [as a PR pro] is to educate and entertain.” You can’t do that with the facts only, Rick says. “Facts tell, stories sell.” Rick admits that's a cliché, “but it's repeated often because it's true.”

Myth 7: How my writing sounds is unimportant.

For Rick, “How your writing sounds is as important as what it says. Crescendos are important…every joke in the world ends with a punch line.” Writing should flow and sound good.

Myth 8: A headline should never be cute.

Rick believes this might be the most destructive myth. “A headline,” he says, “is the closest thing writers have to a silver bullet” because it can lure readers to your work.

Several years ago Rick wrote a magazine article called “How to Sell Social Media.” When it was published, the magazine used a headline that began “15 Great Ways to Boost…” It’s the most-read content Rick has produced.

Jonathan Rick is president of Jonathan Rick Group. Follow him: @jrick

Seth Arenstein is editor of PR News.  Follow him: @skarenstein