“When you’ve written your headline, you’ve spent 80 cents of your advertising dollar.”
Numerals in headlines quantify value, draw readers
Next time you hit the Safeway, take a look at the magazines displayed at the checkout counter. Chances are, you’ll find that they’re packed with numerals.
There’s a good reason for that: Headlines with numerals, like Top 10, promise quantifiable value. And that draws readers.
“Numbers sell,” writes Richard Riccelli, president of Post Rd, Inc.
If you’re writing a tipsheet or service story, add a numeral to the headline. That will increase your message’s chance of getting opened, read and shared — whether online or off.
Add numerals online.
Numerals are power tools for getting:
1. Shared in social media. Articles with numerals in their titles tend to be shared more on Facebook than stories without digits, according to research by viral marketing scientist Dan Zarrella.
2. Opened in email. EmailLabs ran a split test of these three subject lines:
- Using Link Click-Through Tracking to Segment Your List
- 3 Tips to Improve Your Newsletter’s ROI
- Build Your List Through “Piggy-Back Marketing”
The subject line promising “3 Tips” produced both higher open and click-through rates than the other two.
3. Attention on websites. Numerals are more scannable, according to usability expert Jakob Nielsen. And they deliver tangible facts, which is what Web visitors seek online.
Strength in numbers
To choose the best numerals for your headlines and coverlines:
1. Favor odd numbers. Oddly, odd numbers sell better than even ones, according to Folio:. So 7 Steps may be more effective than 10 Tips.
2. Choose specific numbers. “101 or 99 work better than 100,” Riccelli writes. “65 is better than 75.”
Better yet, make it 7. That number seems to appeal to readers. The number 13, on the other hand, does not.
3. Don’t overwhelm readers. “Saying ’35 best exercises’ is too many,” Zinczenko told The New York Times. “But ‘789 great new tips for summer’ is fine. That says value without saying work.”
4. But don’t underwhelm readers, either. Posts with headlines promoting seven or more items outperformed those with six or fewer, according to an internal study of HubSpot’s blog. While HubSpot still posts pieces with six or fewer items, writes Pamela Vaughan, HubSpot’s lead blog strategist, the inbound marketing experts don’t promote that quantity in the headline.
5. Avoid numbers for serious subjects. “14 ways to deal with breast cancer,” for instance, sounds flip.
6. Don’t overpromise or underdeliver. Family Circle famously touted “2000 Great Ideas” on its January 2000 cover. Woman’s Day editor Jane Chestnut sent out a staff memo spluttering:
“That issue does not contain 2,000 ideas. Counting the same way we count ideas in Woman’s Day (which is fairly liberal, as you might expect), we found around 900, and our counter felt it could be stretched — if you tried very hard — to 1,000. That’s a lot of ideas, but it’s still nowhere near 2,000. In fact, it’s almost physically impossible to put 2,000 ideas in an issue of that size.”
Let’s never, ever have to apologize for overpromising like that. Not once … not 101 times.
Sources: Katharine Q. Seelye, “Lurid Numbers on Glossy Pages! (Magazines Exploit What Sells),” The New York Times, Feb. 10, 2006
American Society of Magazine Editors
Sarah Gonser, “Revising the Cover Story,” Folio:, March 1, 2003
Richard Riccelli, “Learn From The Masters,” Folio:, March 1, 2003
Lift Your Ideas Off the Page or Screen
Sixty percent of your audience members aren’t reading your copy, according to estimates by professors at the University of Missouri. So how can you craft communications that reach nonreaders?
Use your display copy — headlines, decks and subheads, for instance — to pull readers into your copy, make your piece more inviting and even communicate to flippers and skimmers.
- Reach “readers” who spend only three minutes — or even just 30 seconds — with your piece
- Reach audience members with the piece of display copy that 95 percent of people read — but that many communicators drop
- Run a simple test on your copy to ensure that you lift your ideas off the page for flippers and skimmers
- Make your copy 47 percent more usable by adding a few simple elements
- Use a dollar bill to make your copy more reader friendly
- Increase reading for skimmers and those whose attention is beginning to wane
“We all know that many ‘readers’ can’t read. What we can’t believe is that our readers can’t read.”
Ann Wylie, president, Wylie Communications
Only 7 countries studied achieve basic literacy rates
On average, adults tested in the latest worldwide literacy study can read a few paragraphs and locate a single piece of information in them. But they struggle to find information that requires drawing even low-level conclusions from what they’ve read.Or so says the 2013 Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, or PIAAC.
About the study
PIAAC is a large, every-10-years study of adult literacy. It was developed and organized by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
- Sentence comprehension
- Basic passage comprehension
From 2011 to 2012, the PIAAC studied the skills of 150,000 adults, ages 16 to 65, in 23 countries.
World literacy 2013
14% of adults globally read at below-basic levels.
|Literacy level/score||Percentage of worldwide adults 16+||Skills||Sample task|
|Below level 1 (Nonliterate)|
|3%||Locate a single piece of information in familiar texts.||Review a simple table identifying three candidates and the number of votes they received to identify which candidate earned the fewest votes.|
|Level 1 (Below basic)|
|12%||Read relatively short digital, print or mixed copy to locate a single piece of information.||Review two paragraphs and a chart of generic medicine usage in 15 countries to count the number of countries in which the generic drug market accounts for 10% or more of drug sales.|
|Level 2 (Basic)|
|34%||Find information that may require low-level paraphrasing and drawing low-level conclusions.||Review a website with several links, including “contact us” and “FAQ” and identify the link leading to the organization’s phone number.|
|Level 3 (Intermediate)|
|39%||Identify, interpret or evaluate one or more pieces of information that require conclusions.||Click to the second page of search results from a library website to identify the author of a book called Ecomyth.|
|Level 4/5 (Proficient)|
|12%||4: Perform multiple-step operations to integrate, interpret or synthesize information from complex texts, which may require complex conclusions.|
5: Integrate information across multiple dense texts; construct syntheses, ideas or points of view; or evaluate evidence-based arguments.
|Review search results from a library website to identify a book suggesting that the claims made both for and against genetically modified foods are unreliable.|
How low can you go?
The results? Worldwide, adults weighed in at an average literacy rate of 273 out of 500 points. That puts them at level 2, or below basic, literacy skills.
On bottom of the world
Only seven countries, led by Japan,
achieve even basic average literacy rates
That means that, on average, these adults can look at a chart of generic drug use in 15 countries and count the number of countries in which the generic drug market accounts for 10% or more of drug sales.
But they struggle to review an organization’s website with several links, including “contact us,” and identify which link will lead to the organization’s phone number.
How can you reach readers in this environment?
Cut Through the Clutter
Is your copy easy to read? According to communication experts, that’s one of the two key questions people ask to determine whether to read a piece — or toss it.
Fortunately, academics have tested and quantified what makes copy easy to read. Unfortunately, that research virtually never makes it out of the ivory tower and into the hands of writers who could actually apply it.
- How long is too long: for paragraphs? Sentences? Words?
- Three ways to shorten your copy — and which is the most effective way
- How to get readers to read your paragraphs (They may be skipping them!)
- A tool you can use (you probably already have it, but you might not know it) to quantifiably improve your copy’s readability
- A seven-step system for making your copy clearer and more concise
“Are you smart enough to write for a fourth-grader?”
Ann Wylie, president, Wylie Communications
How to reach readers in the face of global illiteracy
How can you write for adults who can barely read? That’s what two Chicago academics — William S. Gray and Bernice Leary — set out to learn in 1935.
To discover what makes prose readable for adults with low literacy rates, the University of Chicago’s Gray and St. Xavier College’s Leary studied 48 passages of about 100 words each, taken from books, magazines and newspapers most widely read by adults.
To establish the difficulty of these passages, the researchers gave 800 adults a reading comprehension test. These adults read the passages, then answered questions that tested their ability to understand the main idea of the passage.
The results: a landmark book in reading research, What Makes a Book Readable, published in 1935.
Four components of readability
In the book, Gray and Leary first identified 228 elements that affect readability and grouped them under these four headings:
- Content — arguments, structure, coherence
- Style — semantic (words) and syntactic (sentences)
- Design — typography, layout, illustrations
- Organization — chapters, navigation, headings
17 ways to increase readability
Then Gray and Leary listed elements of readability with correlations of 35% or higher in hierarchical order. Here’s how you can use their list to improve readability of your copy:
- Reduce average number of words per sentence. Average sentence length had a -52% correlation in Gray and Leary’s study. This negative correlation means that the longer the sentence, the more difficult it is to read.
How short? To achieve 90% comprehension, aim for sentences of 9 to 14 words, on average.
- Choose easy words. The percentage of easy words had a 52% correlation with ease of reading, Gray and Leary found. That means that the more easy words you use, the easier your message becomes to read.
The words we use most often are the easiest to understand, discovered researcher Edward L. Thorndike of Columbia University in 1921. Find the 86,800 most frequently used words in the English language.
- Seriously, choose easy words. The number of easy words scored a 51% correlation with ease of reading.
- Choose familiar words. The number of words not known to 90% of sixth-grade students had a -51% correlation with ease of reading. That means the fewer of these you use, the better.
- Did we say, “Choose easy words”? The number of different hard words had a -50% correlation with ease of reading. That is, the more different hard words you use, the harder your message is to read.
- Reduce the “minimum syllabic sentence length.” Neither I nor my best friend and research assistant, Google, can tell you what this means. But it had a -49% correlation with reading ease, which means that less is better.
- Write explicit sentences. The number of explicit sentences had a 48% correlation with ease of reading. That means the more explicit sentences, the easier your message is to read.
[Explicit] “Students enjoyed taking the course” is an explicit sentence because it has a precise subject: students.
[Inexplicit] “Taking the course was a great idea” is inexplicit, because “Taking the course” is the subject, and we don’t know who did it.
- Use more personal pronouns. The number of personal pronouns had 48% correlation with reading ease. That means the more personal pronouns, the better. So use more:
- First-person pronouns (I, me, us, we)
- Second-person pronouns (you)
- Third-person pronouns (she, her, he, etc.)
Note that this isn’t an invitation to use more pronouns in general. So don’t increase your use of:
- Relative pronouns (that, which, whom, etc.)
- Demonstrative pronouns (this, these, that, etc.)
- Indefinite pronouns (anybody, anyone, anything, etc.)
- Reflexive pronouns (myself, yourself, herself, etc.)
- Interrogative pronouns (what, who, which, etc.)
- Possessive pronouns (mine, yours, his, etc.)
- Subject and object pronouns (me, you, her, etc.)
- Reduce the “maximum syllabic sentence length.” I don’t know what it is, but I’m going to try to do less of it: This had a -47% correlation with reading ease, which means less is better.
- Reduce the number of syllables per sentence. “Average sentence length in syllables” saw a -47% correlation in the Gray and Leary study. That means fewer syllables per sentence is better. And that’s another argument for shorter words and shorter sentences.
- Increase the percentage of one-syllable words. Percentage of monosyllables had a 43% correlation with reading ease in the study. That means the more one-syllable words you use, the better.
- Write short paragraphs. The number of sentences per paragraph had a 43% correlation with reading ease in the Gray and Leary study. How short? Five lines or less on the page, suggests the Medill School of Journalism’s Jon Ziomek.
- Did we say, “Reduce unfamiliar words?” Because we really, really mean it. Percentage of different words not known to 90% of sixth-grade students had a -40% correlation with reading ease.
- Write subject-verb-object. The number of simple sentences had a 39% correlation with reading ease in the study. So structure your sentences for clarity.
- Reduce the number of different words. Percentage of different words had a -38% correlation with ease of reading. That is, the fewer different words, the better.
- Reduce the number of two- or more-syllable words. Percentage of polysyllables had a -38% correlation with reading ease. Which means that fewer are better.
- Reduce the number of prepositional phrases. This measure had a -35% correlation with ease of readership. Which means that the fewer phrases that begin with prepositions like at, by, on and up, the better.
Finally, Gray and Leary developed a readability formula around elements 1, 5, 8, 15 & 17.
Top 2 measures of readability
Notice how many of these top elements of readability boil down to:
- Word length and familiarity (9 measures: Nos. 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 11, 13, 15 and 16)
- Sentence length and structure (6 measures: Nos. 1, 6, 7, 9, 10 and 14)
That leaves just two measures — paragraph length and prepositional phrases — that don’t address sentences and words. (And you could argue that reducing the number of prepositional phrases will also reduce the sentence length.)
Word length and sentence length continue to be, after all of these years, the top two indicators of ease of reading. So manage your sentence and word length, and you’re far more than halfway down the road to readability.
Source: William H. DuBay, “Unlocking Language: The Classic Readability Studies” (PDF), Impact Information (Costa Mesa), 2006
Measurably improve readability
Want to make every piece you write easier to read and understand?
- Get it off your desk: Invite Ann’s team in to handle a special writing or editing project.
- Polish staff skills: Bring Ann to your organization for a Cut Through the Clutter workshop.
- Boost your own abilities: Work with Ann to cut the clutter in your own copy in one-on-one writing coaching. Or find out about Ann’s next Cut Through the Clutter webinar.
- Learn more: Read Ann’s Cut Through the Clutter manual. And get free writing tips every month when you subscribe to our e-zine.
- Join the club: Get the whole story in the latest issue of Rev Up Readership. And find dozens of Cut Through the Clutter tipsheets on RevUpReadership.com.
“A sentence, Matthew’s teacher back in Virginia had tried to drum into his thick Kinsey head, could live without a subject, but it could not live without a verb.”
Edward P. Jones, author, in The Known World
How to build plot, scene and character with verbs
Verbs, in this equation, are the predicament — aka, the muddle our subject finds herself in. And that’s also known as the obstacle, or the inciting moment of a story.
“You can think on a really big level, like, I’m writing this magazine story and I need characters and scenes,” Hale says. “Well, that’s true in the story writ large. But the story writ small is at the sentence level. You need character, scene and plot at the sentence level, too. That’s precision. You can’t apply it to every sentence, but it’s basically what we’re doing.”
Take this passage from Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Ken Kesey — high, paranoid and alone in a house in Puerto Vallarta — fears that each passing car contains Mexican police coming to arrest him.
This is no job for adjectives! Wolfe imagines Kesey’s interior monologue in the imperative voice:
“Haul ass, Kesey. Move. Scram. Split flee hide vanish disintegrate. Like run.”
How can you choose verbs that drive the action of your story?
Verbs set the scene.
Verbs can help you set the scene for storytelling. In Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, Hale compares two paragraphs by Jo Ann Beard.
The first paragraph is quiet. The subjects are sitting in a boat, waiting for something to happen. Like the moment, most of the verbs are static:
“Here is a scene. Two sisters are fishing together in a flat-bottomed boat on an olive green lake. They sit slumped like men, facing in opposite directions, drinking coffee out of a metal-sided thermos, smoking intently. Without their lipstick they look strangely weary, and passive, like pale replicas of their real selves. They both have a touch of morning sickness but neither is admitting it. Instead, they watch their bobbers and argue about worms versus minnows.”
In the second paragraph, though, day starts to break — and so do the verbs:
“It is five a.m. A duck stands up, shakes out its feathers, and peers above the still grass at the edge of the water. The skin of the lake twitches suddenly and a fish springs loose into the air, drops back down with a flat splash. Ripples move across the surface like radio waves. The sun hoists itself up and gets busy, laying a sparkling rug across the water, burning the beads of dew off the reeds, baking the tops of our mothers’ heads. One puts on sunglasses and the other a plaid fishing cap with a wide brim.”
How can you choose verbs that set the scene in your copy?
Verbs build character.
Too often, we build people out of adjectives and nouns: green eyes, white hair, thicker around the middle at 55 than she was at 50.
Instead, Hale suggests, build character with verbs.
“By taking a moment and watching your subject,” Hale says. “Watch the way the subject moves. Watch the way a subject does a mundane thing. Notice the ways the subject’s words tumble out — or don’t. … That can be a very powerful way to convey character in few words.”
Donald M. Murray, writing coach and author of Writing to Deadline: The Journalist at Work, agrees.
“A character’s action is a very efficient form of description,” he writes. “He sits down and the chair breaks; the reader discovers the character is portly as a writing coach.”
In the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tinkers, Paul Harding uses this technique to introduce readers to the main character’s wife:
“He married a woman named Megan Finn who talked without pause from the moment she woke — Well the good lord has given me another day! shall I cook eggs and ham or flapjacks and bacon? I have some blueberries left but those eggs will go bad if I don’t use them and I can put the blueberries in a cobbler for dessert tonight because I know how much you love cobbler and how the sugar crust soothes you to sleep like warm milk does a crabby baby although I don’t know why because I saw somewhere that sugar winds a person up but I’m not going to argue with what works — until she went to sleep: Oh! Another day tucked away and here we are tired and honest and in love and happy as two peas in a pod, two peas in a pod! isn’t that silly? peas don’t come in pairs! if they did it wouldn’t be worth it snapping them open, it’d take too long to even get a spoonful never mind enough to fill from nine o’clock to twelve o’clock, that’s how the blind know where the food is on their plates, like a clock, ham at six-thirty! biscuit at four! just like that, that’s how Helen Keller did it, I bet, just like that, potatoes at high noon! goodnight my love.“
How can you build character through verbs?
Uncover just the right verb.
So how do you find the best word? Hale offers this advice:
“Sometimes we don’t do the fourth or fifth or sixth step, which is to go back and look at our sentences and look at every single noun. … I mean, how many times have you written the word house without even thinking about it? The possibilities are endless: bungalow, cabin, crashpad, condo, Tudor, Victorian. There are so many possibilities there that make the noun more precise and more visual and help your reader see the thing.
“The same thing is true with verbs. For most of us, the grand default verb is is. We talk in ‘ises’ and ‘ares’ and ‘weres,’ and we often express our ideas with that verb. But that’s the ultimate boring verb. By choosing — I call them static verbs — you’re missing the opportunity to tell a little drama… When you use static verbs you’re depriving your sentences of that.”
Sources: Paige Williams, “Building better sentences: Connie Hale on verbs, nouns, Vikings, scenes, geek speak, grammar wars and rewiring bad lines,” Nieman Storyboard, Nov. 9, 2012
Constance Hale, “Make-or-break verbs,” The New York Times, April 16, 2012
Paige Williams, “Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: All Hale verbs,” Nieman Storyboard, Nov. 8, 2012
Make Your Copy More Creative
It’s not fluff. Creative material communicates more clearly, builds reader loyalty, creates a “buzz” for your topic — even enhances credibility.
- Where to find online tools that virtually twist phrases for you
- How to help subject matter experts recall a story with one easy question
- A simple structure to use for crafting an effective anecdote
- How to come up with a creative metaphor using a four-step process for coming
- A fill-in-the-blanks template you can use to write your next metaphor
“I learned more in this two-day class than I did in my two-year Masters Program.”
Rochelle Juette, Communications Specialist, Washington Closure Hanford
Meet me in the Big Apple, Oct. 28-29
Would you like to learn to write copy that moves people to act? Master a structure that’s proven in the lab to work better than the inverted pyramid? Make every piece you write measurably easier to read and understand?
Fill your toolbox with tricks.
In two days, you’ll have time to cram your writer’s tool bag with tricks — hard-to-find but easy-to-implement techniques that will help you:
- Think Like a Reader: Learn to move people to act
- Go Beyond the Inverted Pyramid: Master a structure that’s been proven in the lab to reach more readers
- Make Your Copy More Creative: Engage your readers with storytelling, analogy and wordplay
- Get the Word Out On the Web: Overcome the obstacles of reading on the screen
- Reach Readers via Social Media: Write copy that gets clicked, read, shared and liked
- Cut Through the Clutter: Make every piece you write measurably easier to read and understand
- Lift Your Ideas Off the Page Or Screen: Reach flippers and skimmers, increase readership
If you’re a good writer, this Master Class will quickly equip you with a bigger, better bag of writing tricks. If you’re struggling, the program can give you the tools you need to get up to speed almost immediately.
Wherever you are in your writing journey, in this workshop, you will:
- Learn the latest, proven-in-the-lab approaches for getting readers to pay attention to your message, understand it, remember it and act on it.
- Find out how to ditch outdated writing practices that actually annoy, rather than attract, readers.
- Get the information you need to have a successful conversation with management about what works in writing and why.
- Leave with fresh techniques based on relevant research that you can use to reach and sway your audiences.
Save $100 or more, earn a bonus.
I have no doubt that the Master Class will be the best money you invest this year on your professional development. But here’s how to save money or boost your return on investment:
- Save $100 when you register by
Aug. 31with our early bird discount. Early bird discount extended to Sept. 15!
- Save more when you bring a friend with our group discounts. Get $50 off both tickets when you bring one friend. Save $100 each when you bring two or more friends.
- Get a free, three-month subscription to Rev Up Readership — a $97 value — if you’re one of the first 20 to register. (Already a member? If you’re among the first 20, you’ll get a free, three-month extension to your membership.)
- Can’t make it to the workshop yourself? Get a free, three-month subscription to Rev Up Readership — a $97 value — when you refer your friends to the workshop. When your friends register, have them choose “Friend/colleague” from the “How did you hear about us?” drop-down menu, then put your name in the box below. That’s it! Your free membership will begin the day after the workshop.
You’ll find out why Carie Behounek, marketing communications coordinator for COPIC Companies, called Ann’s Master Class: “Absolutely the best money I’ve ever spent. I learned more about writing for my audience from Ann in one day than I have in any other seminar.”
I look forward to seeing you there!
“I’d about given up reading tips on writing … but every time I read your [tips], I find a new nugget of knowledge and come away re-inspired. Thank you for doing them!”
Lisa Ricciotti, editor, Westworld Alberta
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“My toolbox is full. The best part: I know how and why to use each tool to write better, creative copy that engages my readers.”
Tove Tupper, web & social media content manager, Highline Public Schools
Polish your skills at one of these events
Alas, I can’t invite you to the in-house seminars I present for private organizations.
But everyone’s invited to these upcoming public seminars in:
- Lincoln on May 16: Make Your Copy More Creative, a full-day workshop for PRSA Nebraska
- New York City on Oct. 28-29: Catch Your Readers, a two-day Master Class open to the public
- New York City on Dec. 8: Catch Your Readers, a one-day workshop for PRSA
- Washington, D.C., on Oct. 12: Catch Your Readers, a half-day pre-conference session at the PRSA 2014 International Conference.
- Washington, D.C., on Oct. 13: Lift Your ideas Off the Screen, a breakout session at the PRSA 2014 International Conference
- Washington, D.C., on Oct. 13: Meet Ann and get more writing tips at Expert Express, a 20-minute learning session in the exhibit hall at the PRSA 2014 International Conference
- Your own home or office on Sept. 23: Anatomy of a News Release, a one-hour webinar for PRSA
Would you like to attend? Please contact meeting planners directly for details.
Can’t make these events? If you’d like to bring me in for a workshop at your organization, contact me.
Cut your training costs when you piggyback your program
Save money when you piggyback your workshop by scheduling it when I’m already “in the neighborhood.” Book your program the day before or after another organization’s and split my airfare and ground transportation with the other group.
Ask about piggybacking on my upcoming engagements in:
- Dallas: Nov. 19-20
- Kansas City: Oct. 1 & Nov. 11
- Lincoln: May 16
- New York City: Oct. 28-29 & Dec. 8
- Portland: Nov. 5
- San Francisco: Dec. 2
- Washington, D.C.: Oct 12-13
Save even more: Ask about my communication-association discounts and second-day fee reductions.
Contact me to discuss piggybacking.
“Your feedback is head and shoulders above any other editing work we’ve received, in-house or professional. I will use this piece, with your great comments and suggestions, as a reference for myself and others. Hooray!”
Julia Thompson, communications manager, City of Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability
The folks at Wylie Communications have been enjoying:
- Presenting writing workshops for PRSA Alaska and PRSA Puget Sound
- Presenting webinars for Edelman, State Fund and PRSA
- Developing writing guidelines and message points for Baylor Scott & White Health
- Editing executive summaries for The City of Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability
Find out when I’m coming to your neighborhood, learn when you can sign up for one of my programs and otherwise keep up with my calendar.
Keep in touch via:
- ComPRehension, PRSA’s blog of public relations strategies and tactics
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