A reader — Tom Lowderbaugh — e-mailed to support what I’d said about the Caramoor press release. His marvelous e-mail put it all better than I knew how to.
Here, with his permission, is what he wrote:
Your comments on the Caramoor release are entirely on target. Why – in God’s name – would any reporter or editor reading that release want to learn more? Or feel a need to read more? This release contains exactly the kind of useless language that George Orwell condemned more than half a century ago. (Granted, Orwell was examining political discourse, but his comments are equally valid for discourse about arts.)
Nothing bolded in the Caramoor release will mean anything to a reporter or editor. Nothing in the release – bolded or unbolded – means anything to me either. This kind of empty language confirms the idea that the music to be performed is irrelevant to anyone’s real life. Why, then, should a reporter or editor want to devote time or space to an irrelevant subject? The release asks us to join in a Caramoor celebration without ever telling us what we should all celebrate together.
As you well know, to say something real appears even more dangerous to the folks publishing the release than saying nothing. Do the festival executives want us to know really why the Rosens created Caramoor? Or why Mr. Oundjian decided to program the Ninth and the Fidelio Overture together? (Could the Rosens have created Caramoor because they couldn’t have children? Or because after many years of marriage music was the only topic left that they agreed on? Or that they had made a religious vow to give up Caramoor if their son returned safe from the Second World War? Or that Mr. Oundjian had promised himself that if he ever became a conductor that he wanted to conduct the Ninth because a performance of that work twenty years ago gave him the courage to propose marriage to his wife? I have no idea, but telling me why music mattered so much to the Rosens or why these works matter so much to Mr. Oundjian might make me think that the concert might connect to my life.)
In my work teaching a technical writing course at the University of Maryland, I stress for students the basic principle of exigence: the writer must create for readers a need to read the writers’ texts. The problem with too much arts talk and writing is that the writer (whether it be a PR flak, a reporter or an editor) just assumes that the reader, of course, wants to read the text. This kind of writing seems to imagine the ideal reader as someone who has too much free time and is eager for any text to read. Worst of all, the writer has failed to imagine the reader, has failed to care about the potential reader and as a results ends up insulting anyone who actually takes the time to read the text the way that you and I have read the Caramoor release.
I’m going to follow up with some extensive examples of things that could be written in press releases. The basic principle couldn’t be easier — if you’re writing a press release for a classical music institution, ask the artistic staff (the people who planned the program) what they had in mind. And then ask the musicians what they think about the music, what they’re trying to do when they play it.
And then put all that in the press release. (If it’s a small institution or a chamber ensemble, the musicians and the artistic staff will of course be the same people.)
I most likely won’t get to this today. Look for it over the weekend, or next week.