On Writing Well–an appreciation

Matt Fueston is an Account Manager for Ellenbecker Communications, is responsible for new business development, and contributes as a staff writer.

I recently finished reading the latest edition—the 30th anniversary edition—of “On Writing Well,” by William Zinsser. After Strunk & White’s “Elements of Style” it is perhaps the most influential book on writing non-fiction of the 20th century. And it is the book that made me think that maybe, just maybe, writing non-fiction could be as interesting as writing fiction.

I’ve tried to re-read Zinsser’s book every five to 10 years, and each time I do I feel like the boy who cleaned Michelangelo’s brushes. I may be using the master’s tools, but I’m nowhere near the master’s level—nor ever will be.

But Zinsser’s advice is so apt for the kind of writing that we do for our clients. Zinsser is one of the great proponents of the minimalist writing school. He famously said, “Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there.”

Here at Ellcom, we live by that advice every day. We know that too many words will obscure our client’s message, not clarify it. Unnecessary detail will drive the reader away, while a compact, contextual narrative will draw the reader in to our client’s story and leave a positive impression.

It is much more difficult to be concise than to be wordy. And we don’t make things easy on ourselves.

Zinnser, who has been writing since 1946 and to this day practices and teaches his craft, also recognizes the difficulty of wrangling a herd of words until you get them to say what you want them to say.

My favorite quote from the latest edition of “On Writing Well” is his comment on the fact that, unlike fiction writers, non-fiction writers are beholden to the literal truth. He says, “Non-fiction writers…are infinitely accountable: to the facts, to the people they interviewed, to the locale of their story and to the events that happened there. They are also accountable to their craft and all its perils of excess and disorder: losing the reader, confusing the reader, not keeping the reader engaged from beginning to end.”

This is a responsibility that the staff writers at Ellcom take very seriously. And if you’d like to learn more about the craft of writing, I can recommend no other book so unreservedly as “On Writing Well.”

The Call of the Wild

Joe Bradfield is senior writer for Ellenbecker Communications.

Working a silver mine story near Juneau, Alaska, I was overwhelmed by how routine man’s co-existence with nature was there. Eden has not been lost after all. Here the human footprint has not squished aside nature like mud around a boot. The mine itself was on an island hosting the world’s densest concentration of brown bears. Deer lined up along the road to watch our bus come back down to the ferry. I saw glaciers, seals, whales, eagles, and spawning salmon. But most impressed upon my memory are the trees.

Juneau is surrounded by the United States’ largest protected woodland, the Tongass National Forest. I had known, of course, spruce grew that tall. But it was secondhand, cognitive fact. To be standing at the base of one of those evergreens looking up to the clouds through its limbs, nearly falling over backward to look for its top, is so much more than fact. And the density of that forest! Mendenhall Valley residents do not have yards: they insert a cabin or house beneath the trees that remains hidden until you are abreast its driveway.

In Juneau, skyscraper spruce look down upon lowly buildings six and seven stories tall. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder as mothers in a nursery, they protect its infants from low and heavy clouds bulging round them, monstrous gray caricatures crowding close, taunted by humanity’s bumptious intrusion. Moving colors and unsettled sounds lay in sacrilegious contrast to the pre-historic backdrop of moss-laden, ragged branches hanging tired against dark green eternity. And the clouds of Juneau demand silent reverence.

Reluctantly, I left Juneau as I found it, beneath its moist grey veil, promising a glimpse inside the treasure chest to any who’ll wait for the sun.

How much PR will you send out this month?

Matt Fueston is an Account Manager for Ellenbecker Communications, and is responsible for new business development.

Clients often want to know how many press releases and other types of PR their agency will be sending out each month. The answer is, “As much as possible.” There are two constraints on the quantity of PR one can send out. One is client communication and the other is relevance to the media.

Stated simply, the client must communicate all potential news leads to their agency in a timely manner, or provide access to those who may have the stories and don’t recognize that they have a story to tell. Also, the story must be relevant to the media—a reputable agency will not send a story to a publication that is not appropriate for their audience, or that is merely a marketing message. It must be of interest to their readers.

And when it comes to scheduling, the simple rule is that all press want the story as soon as they can get it. Manipulation of the news flow—by “holding” a story so that an artificial quota of stories goes out each month, for example, serves no purpose but to irritate the media. The only appropriate reason to hold a story is if the story is not time-sensitive and the agency is trying to keep from overwhelming the publication with more stories than they can use in their current issue.

At its best, PR is just another source for real news. If the story has value to the reader and is pitched at the right time, it will get ink.

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