Wednesday, June 07, 2006


Writing Press Releases the DWM Way

Many readers will have written press releases at some time or another, and seen all the usual advice; identify the where, what, who and when, keep it to one page, put your quotes in separate paragraphs and so on. I’ve written quite a lot myself, when a candidate or helping out others, with a patchy record of success. They were all a few years back, but since then I’ve had rather more success with getting quotes into somewhere else, and it’s experience I’ll use if I ever get back into trying to get my Lib Demmery into the local paper. Yes, following on from my handy election tips on attracting the Green vote, it’s time to apply to press releases and newspaper letters the skills you need to get into Doctor Who Magazine.

Amongst DWM’s regular features is one called The Time Team, in which a group of four people are watching the whole of Doctor Who, month by month, a story or two at a time. They’ve been doing this for seven or eight years so far, progressing from 1963 to 1981. It’s always very readable, and from quite early on, there’s also been a column at the side with readers’ thoughts about the stories under review. For a few years now, I’ve been one of the two or three people who’ve had their comments printed the most often (though sadly they stopped using the acerbic remarks of one Rob Shearman after he became a Doctor Who writer; you might remember his episode Dalek last year).

I didn’t know any of the people at Doctor Who Magazine before I started sending in comments, though I’ve since introduced myself to one or two of them and had a couple of tips about why I get printed (so talking to your local journos works, too).

To start with, know your stuff, and don’t just say something utterly bland. In a press release, it’s useful to sound mildly intelligent, or at least not be totally misinformed. Most things that most papers get coming into them are likely to be pretty daft or pretty obvious. If you get a reputation as someone who’s reliable and intelligent, they’re more likely to read what you have to say.

It’s also useful to come up with something no-one else has said. This is often tricky if it’s a very well-known subject, so here comes the next bit.

Do a bit of reading. Not a great mass, perhaps, but inform yourself enough about a topic that you can brainstorm a bit and come up with lots of different ideas from lots of different angles. Read other people’s opinions and, if you can find something you disagree with, pick a fight with them. Finding something every other review of a story thinks is ‘true’ and realising it isn’t has been a real spur to writing comments.

If you’re worried about coming across as too arrogant on something, instead of making an assertion, phrase it as a question, while a sense of humour can work wonders (up to a point). And, if you’re aiming to get your name about a lot, don’t just stick to ‘political’ issues.

Send in lots of different things, because you never know what might appeal to an editor, or what someone else may already have said that’s beaten you to it. I used to come up with dozens of comments, then just send in what I thought were the best six or so. Meeting a DWM guy, he told me to send in the bundle instead; and it’s true. Frequently someone will have come up with almost exactly the same idea as one of mine and get it printed instead, while when I do get a comment printed, it’s almost never the one I’d have chosen.

Keep your letters and releases short.

I know, I know, my motto is ‘never use a soundbite where a 3,000-word essay will do’, but I can do them if I’m really pushed (incidentally, because Lib Dem Blogs Aggregated usually picks up my first 100 words, I tend to treat those as a ‘trailer’ for the main article and try to make them self-contained if I can, without trailing off in the middle of a sentence. So there’s even a little bit of sound-bitery on here).

For DWM, they have very limited space, so I try – often fail, but try – to keep my comments to two lines or less. If you write an essay for a letters page it won’t get printed, or they’ll only print the bits you’d rather not have had taken out of context. The shorter the letter, the more likely it is there’ll be space for it.

Going back to ‘know what you’re talking about’; it’s handy if you can answer further questions in case they follow up on you, so don’t send something too wild and wacky without giving it a little thought.

For DWM, I know I’ll be lucky if I get one comment a month – and there are plenty of times they miss me out – so I try not to make an observation too close to one I’ve already had printed in case I just sound repetitive. In politics, it’s pretty much the other way round. You probably do want to repeat yourself to get the key messages you’ve decided on across. Just don’t PUT A ‘GREEN ACTION’ FLASH ON EVERY FOCUS YOU EVER WRITE shoe-horn them into every single thing you ever say, or you’ll sound like a bore with a book of slogans for a brain.

Read everything through at least once before you send it. It’s remarkable how embarrassing certain typos can be.

If you’re sending in a whole batch of different comments and ideas in your newly inspired role as the local Lib Dem rentamouth, read each one individually before you send them. There might be one that seems fine as part of a mass, but always think to yourself, “If that was the only thing they published from me this time, would I look an idiot?” Then drop it, because it’s bound to be the only one they choose.

Lastly, I tend to be a bit of a perfectionist when I’m writing, which is one of the reasons why I always take a long time to write anything, and often end up missing the deadline (or, in the case of this blog, the topicality). Even if it’s not utterly perfect in every way, send it before it’s too late. If you don’t make the deadline, it doesn’t matter if you have seventeen pages of incisive comment parked on your PC. Be on time.

Good luck!

On the other hand, I can’t get DWM to print one of my letters to save my life…

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I often miss the deadline for Guardian letters when responding to a previous letter because by the time I've read the letters page - usually on the train home from work - it's really too late to be angling for the next day's edition.
Ah, I get the same, Will. I suppose if you really want to make it to a letters page, you just have to skim-read them early.

Mr Martin Tod has just come up with a similar set of suggestions, Lunching with journalists. It’s rather good, and I’d encourage you to take a look (his second point in particular is one I’ve made forcefully here, along with his extra one about ‘piggybacking’ onto other stories).

On the one hand, Martin’s excellent suggestions are probably more helpful, easier to circulate and much better-laid out than my own idiosyncratic set… Though, Martin – seven points to remember? Tsk ;-)

On the other, I can’t help feeling that his title reminds me of ‘Dining with panthers’…
I'd agree that 7 isn't particularly ideal. :-)

What do you reckon - three, five or ten?
Lots of very good points, Mr Alex. Shall pilfer them at the earliest opportunity.

"my motto is ‘never use a soundbite where a 3,000-word essay will do’..."

Writing concisely is harder to do, so it's no surprise if you ramble in your freetime.

At least that's my excuse.
Sorry, Martin, I couldn’t resist it!

Although for speeches I’d always recommend three points or people won’t remember them (that is, if you’re going to announce a number as you speak), for a written list there are several numbers that, for whatever reason, seem culturally ‘natural’, while others make the reader frown for a moment. But you know that, as none of those you mention jar. If mixing them, I’d probably go for six and twelve, or five and ten, so you’re consistently imperial or metric ;-)

Thanks, too, Simon. Does this mean you’ll be competing for Time Team soon? And I reckon with so much that’s ‘snack-sized’ in the blogosphere, there’s always room for something a bit more filling. As, ahem, your blog may also have had inflicted upon it.
"Does this mean you’ll be competing for Time Team soon?"

It's unlikely. Too busy with paid work to keep things brief enough. And I'm still trying to get features in the mag that pay munny.

"... inflicted ..."

I'll have you know they are charitably donated.
Gosh, paid things. One can dream ;-)

And I was thinking of the, ah, charitable donations I’ve made to your blog, rather than your own...
After watching Dr Who at the weekend, it seems that Russell T Davies has started writing episodes which are as well rounded and sensible as a politician's press release, so there's a nice symmetry to the whole thing!
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