Writing is a fundamental part of our work in PR, and most of us spend countless hours every week behind the keyboard. Whether emails to clients, internal communications, or press releases, we’re always writing something, so any shortcuts or quality of life improvements can accumulate to make a significant difference.
I work as a copywriter for a London-based digital PR firm called TopLine Comms, and writing—press releases, social media posts, white papers, landing pages, video scripts, and pretty much any other form of prose—is all I do. I’ve accumulated a number of utility apps that help me streamline my work, and I believe they may be helpful to anybody who writes during the workday. Here are four recommendations, all available for free.
Cut, copy and paste, as with many modern computing conventions, emerged from Xerox Corporation’s Palo Alto Research Center in the 1970s—and it has barely changed since. Now, wielding digital scissors and glue is second nature to most of us, but anyone who has used a computer for long enough has encountered the frustration of accidentally copying over the contents of their clipboard. This is where a category of apps called ‘clipboard managers’ come in. They allow you to cut or copy multiple pieces of content to your clipboard and choose between them when pasting.
For example, if I’m writing a blog and need to reference a quote, the person it’s attributed to, and URL to link back to, I can copy all three items at once instead of making multiple trips between the document and the page. At work, I use a free utility called ‘Ditto’ for Windows, but there are plenty of free options available for every operating system. One word of caution, though, once you become used to using a clipboard manager, going back to single-item copy and paste becomes inconceivable.
Over the past few years, a new category of proofreading apps has emerged claiming to offer recommendations that are smarter than a standard word processer spellcheck. Grammarly, in large part due to extensive advertising, is the most prominent of this new crop of apps, but many others are available – but do they work? I use Grammarly every day, the company has a subscription, and it does indeed catch errors that standard spellcheck misses.
However, Grammarly and competing apps, in my experience are not without shortcomings. Many of the recommendations are wrong, and some are downright silly—it recently suggested changing ‘show girls pursuing a career in STEM’ to ‘showgirls…’. It’s definitely a step up from spellcheck, but I’ll continue to also send my writing to a human proof-reader for the foreseeable future.
If you do choose to try Grammarly—it’s free, after all—I recommend using the standalone app since the plugin makes Word noticeably slower in my experience. I also prefer to write uninterrupted and then edit after, since constant badgering to change the word ‘great’ to ‘significant’ quickly becomes more of a distraction than sage advice.
While many people’s knowledge of MS Word’s features stops just beyond changing font size, bold, italics, and underline, the word processer has some powerful automation capabilities for more adventurous users. Although the recent popularity of ‘automation’ as a buzzword may imply that the technology is new, basic automation was added to Word way back in 1989 in the form of ‘macros’, small programs made up of instructions.
You don’t need to be a programmer to create a macro—almost anything you can do by clicking on menus and buttons in Word can become a step in a macro simply by clicking it. To create a Macro, go to View, Macro, and select ‘Record Macro…’, then run through the steps.
There are also plenty of more advanced macros out there on the internet, including ones that switch text between British English and US English, identifying repeated phrases and overly long sentences, and applying complex formatting. If your job involves any kind of repetitive action in Word, it’s well worth taking a few minutes to determine whether a macro could do it for you.
Some PR writing, such as press releases, require very little in terms of creativity. Blogs, on the other hand, need to exude personality and reflect the writer’s ideas. If you’re running up against writer’s block when it comes to generating ideas to write about, I recommend tools like HubSpot’s Blog Idea Generator. You simply add some topics and it proposes blogging angles, and while you may opt not to use the somewhat trite pre-generated titles, they may provide you with a new perspective. The site seems to cycle between a small handful of preset phrasings, but if you’re willing to hand over an email address you can unlock more than 250 blog framings, which are also available as a spreadsheet.