What's more, Leonard also worked as a copywriter for more than a decade so I found myself wondering if some of his rules might also be applied to the more prosaic art of news release writing.
1. Never open a book with weather
Leonard’s 2001 article in the New York Times begins with this deceptively specific rule. However, he goes on to say that “If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a character's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long.” So it seems Leonard’s underlying advice is simply to cut to the chase. For a news release, that means begin right away with the what, where, when, who and why of your story. Everything else is “weather”.
2. Avoid prologues
Leonard’s second rule is related to his first. “A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want”. Applied to news releases, this is a reminder not to start with context and background but weave them into the text later on; preferably in an inverted pyramid structure.
3. Never use a verb other than ''said'' to carry dialogue
Leonard argues that, “the line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in.” It’s perhaps a slightly restrictive rule but certainly, ending a news release quote from your chief executive with “admonished”, “stressed” or “cautioned” instead of just plain “said”, will not make a journalist any more likely to use it.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ''said''
“The Chief Executive said gravely” is obviously not an improvement.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control
Leonard recommends no more than two or three exclamation points per 100,000 words of prose. So basically that means none in a news release and definitely not in the headline.
6. Never use the words ''suddenly'' or ''all hell broke loose''
The use of “suddenly” is perhaps a lazy narrative device and “all hell broke loose” is definitely a cliché. An obvious implication for news release writers is that any superfluous words or empty expressions should be cut. “A learning organisation that is passionately committed to delivering on its priorities and facilitating an overarching dialogue with its key stakeholders” does not sound like it is doing anything of the sort.
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly
Admittedly, regional dialects and patois do not usually feature in news releases but jargon, unfamiliar acronyms and technical language often do, and they are just as indecipherable. If your doctor reported “an abnormal BP symptomatic of an agonal condition” you might not realise it was life-threatening.
8. & 9. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters / Don't go into great detail describing places and things
I have combined these two rules because as far as news releases are concerned they simply imply avoiding extraneous information. As Leonard puts it, “you don't want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill”. For news releases, that means keep an eye out for any passage that gets in the way of the point you are trying to make.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip
This is particularly true for news releases because of their intended audience. Squeezed between tight deadlines and crammed email inboxes, journalists tend to skip more than most readers. Bear in mind that if they want more information they will ask for it. It’s their job.
Elmore Leonard ends his article with a single rule to sums up the ten: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it”. You may not agree with the author’s assertion that “, if proper (language) usage gets in the way, it may have to go” but his point about sound is important. News releases certainly read better in conversational English than the Latinate vocabulary and sub clauses of formal writing.
As Leonard recalls Joseph Conrad saying: “don’t let words get in the way of what you want to say”.