“Use a sprat to catch a mackerel”

[Advice for writers from our highly respected editor on her final day. Thank you Christine Hudson and we hope you enjoy your well-earned retirement.]

What makes a good press release or news article?

You may think that writing or editing a press release or news article is easy. After all, it may only be two or three hundred words. But it can easily go wrong. Here is a simple structure to keep you right.

  1. To persuade people to read on, they must take the bait and become hooked. The sprat is the headline. Keep this concise and make it as interesting as possible.
  2. Then comes the hook. The first paragraph must contain the news in summary: the who, what and why. The where and when are less important to readers than they are to the client, so those can often be moved down. Keep the first paragraph short: two or three sentences. Make every word count, though you may be required to add a few obligatory company names. Remember that nobody is interested in background information at this point. You cannot let your readers slip off the hook; they must want to continue reading.
  3. Now you’ve hooked the readers, you need to entice them to find out more, so the next paragraph, or two or three, should elaborate on the news, for example, giving the customer benefits for new products or services. You should now have said everything important.
  4. Finally, can come background information, which could be in the form one or two quotes. Use quotes to sneak in useful information such as the client’s record in the sector, but keep them meaningful without too much bragging. Don’t start your paragraph with John Smith said. To keep people reading, start with a sentence or phrase and slip in the John Smith said. People are only interested in who said what retrospectively when there is something meaningful that bears repeating. Vary the speech words (said, noted, explained, continued, etc.) and the format if multiple people are quoted.

What makes a good case study?

A case study serves a similar purpose to a news story, so much of the above also applies. However, they have a slightly different format, which is along the lines of challenge (issue), solution, outcome and benefits, and can be longer, perhaps 800 words. Many more words and you probably have too much detail and need to cut back.

Readers must be tempted by the title and possibly a summary paragraph, feel the pain of the challenge and appreciate the benefits from the outcome so that they want to ask for help with their issues.

Avoid too much detail in the solution; you want readers to ask for more from your client, not to go elsewhere because they know what needs doing.

And remember, avoid passivity; keep text active.

Christine Hudson retired from RSK Creative at the end of March 2022 after 23 years of service. In recent years, among many other projects, she edited a quarterly technology journal for Shell, for which she received considerable praise from high levels within Shell. Christine has helped to establish a strong editorial team that is continuing her work.