You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

Don't step on your own feet when you try to get the word out

The Baltimore Sun

When people write, they forget how they read.

Yesterday, in irritation, I tweeted, “At The Sun we get email with the subject line ‘Press Release’ or ‘For Immediate Release.’ Might as well say ‘Delete unread.’ ”

Someone replied to it, asking, “Tell my students what you’d rather see,” and I answered, “A headline that says what the damned thing is about. Six, eight, ten intelligible words.” (She said she’d share that with her students on Monday.)

Let me explain. Someone, no friend of mine, included me as a recipient of The Sun’s tip line, and I get it all: announcements from public agencies and business, crackpot conspiracy theories, fast-money offers from Nigeria, screeds quoting Scripture, the lot. Each week I delete hundreds of messages that have nothing to do with my work. It leaves me testy.

What irritates about the “Press Release” subject line is that the writer, who thinks that there is something important to say, does not think like a reader. What reader, the writer included, would eagerly open a message with a subject line that says only “For Immediate Release”?

My work email has a reading pane, so I can see the first couple of paragraphs of the text and gauge whether it’s worth looking at. A glance usually suffices. If the first few sentences don’t attract my interest, the DELETE key is always handy.

So, for those of you who may be trying to get the word out, some gratuitous advice about the basics.

Your subject line is a headline.

Use it to say the one main thing your text is about, and boil that down to a handful of words.

Say what is in it for the reader.

Don’t write about what is important to the organization; say what the reader is going to find most important.

Say it up front.

You have two or three sentences to engage the reader’s attention. If you can’t do that, you might as well not bother.

There is a lot of text churning about out there, and we are all making snap decisions. Don’t give your potential reader an easy reason to ignore you.

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