By Jennigay Coetzer

A common failing of press releases and other articles is lack of interesting content – from the audience’s perspective. This is often due to the spokesperson who is being quoted or the person writing the article only having superficial knowledge of the topic, or the inability of the writer to ask the right questions during the interview process.

Lack of meaningful content leads to waffle and in the case of press releases screeds of marketing jargon. This is why 95% of press releases distributed to the media end up in the editor’s bin and why so many people complain about being flooded with information and starved of knowledge when surfing the web.

This is a common problem I focus on a lot in the article writing skills workshops I run.

The content of a news release should fulfill its promise of being newsworthy, with the essence of the story upfront, and should answer all the questions that are likely to come up in the minds of the readers as they go through it. For example, what is being announced? When is it happening? Who is involved? Why is it important? Where will it take place? Who it will affect? – and so on, with the information flowing in order of importance.

When press releases are distributed to the media, journalists and editors will want to find meaningful information in them upfront and expect them to be constructed so that they can be cut from the bottom. Sometimes press releases are cut right up to the first two or three sentences and published as a news brief.

Even if articles are just being posted on a website, the attention span of readers is limited and you will therefore need to grab their attention and keep it for as long as possible. This will require focusing on the value of the content from the reader’s perspective when gathering information for the article.

Good content is like a sculptor’s clay – it can be molded and massaged until it flows properly as you write and rewrite the article, as I always tell those attending my writing skills workshops.

When starting to write the article, don’t get hung up on “the intro paragraph” and get writers block. I always suggest to those attending my article writing skills workshops that they come up with a sentence or two that will provide an initial hook to hang their article on and focus on getting all the information down.

As you get into the swing of shaping and reshaping the article and pushing all the value to the top, you will probably rewrite the intro several times and may even end up discarding it altogether and using other content that was originally lower down in the article.

When I first became a journalist 25 years ago, I used to get serious writers block with the intro for my articles. In those days, we didn’t have PCs and word processing software with spell checkers, but typewriters and Tipp-ex.

As a result, you could often hear the “Rrrrip” sound of pages of A4 paper with a couple of lines of copy on them being yanked out of typewriter rollers and thrown in the bin by yours truly and other similarly afflicted journalists across our open plan editorial office.

Then one day my editor saw me fretting over the problem. He said to me: “Tell me the essence of the story you are trying to write?” so I told him and he said: “Well, that’s your intro!”

I discovered that verbalising what I wanted to say first, even just in my mind, before writing it down made it a lot easier. Over the years I have passed this tip on to those attending my writing skills workshops and in my book – A Perfect Press Release – or Not? and from the feedback I have had, it has helped them a lot.

More detailed article writing and media spokesperson tips can be found on my website: jennigay.co.za, which also contains details of the writing workshops and media workshops I run. My book, A Perfect Press Release – or Not?, a guide to writing press releases, is also available from my website.

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