Digital Marketing

How to write like a journalist

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An old mentor once said, “If writing is humankind’s search for truth, journalism is its search for the facts.”

This was back in my undergraduate days, when I gave as much thought to the true meaning of journalism as I did to the student loan debt I was wracking up. At the time, I was convinced the right words, in the right order, could change the world. But after years in the content creation business, I’ve developed a much more pragmatic view of how to write like a journalist.

Here’s the thing: The “truth” is almost always hidden in a labyrinth of subjectivity, making it difficult to form a consensus that will shape the hearts and minds of every reader.

Journalists act as boots-on-the-ground cartographers, mapping out winding passageways and dead ends in their search for what’s really happening in the world. They shine a spotlight on inequalities, ferret out corruption and craft stories that illustrate the diversity of the human condition.

Okay, maybe not so pragmatic after all…

What is the journalistic approach?

Thanks to the internet, content creation has become a decentralized affair, where virtually anyone can publish their thoughts online. While this has created new opportunities for independent writers and businesses, it’s also introduced a crisis of credibility.

Some bloggers and writers are a little too loose with the facts, allowing their own values and perspectives to color their reporting. This can not only damage their reputation with discerning readers, but it can also reflect poorly on the businesses that employ them.

The journalistic approach emphasizes objectivity, ethics and accuracy. Journalists strive to leave their biases at the door in favor of in-depth research, credible citations and a healthy dose of big-picture storytelling. By digging deeper into breaking news stories, events and hard data, journalists add valuable context to the articles they write.

This attention to detail and adherence to ethical standards is what differentiates journalism from other writing professions; it’s also what gives journalists an edge in the content marketing world.

Journalism’s place in content marketing

While most people associate journalists with hard news coverage, they actually work in a variety of professional arenas. Journalists craft well-researched content for businesses, nonprofits, government agencies and other organizations looking to form a connection with online and offline audiences.

But what, exactly, makes journalists well-suited to content marketing roles?

  1. First, journalists understand how to collect and organize information into a compelling story. Most have experience interviewing experts on a broad range of subjects, which helps them understand which questions to ask and when additional citations may be needed. This ensures every piece of content is relevant, timely and backed by credible sources.
  2. Journalism skills are also incredibly useful in the planning phase — over the course of their research, journalists can stumble upon new angles and ideas that can help differentiate their content from the competition. This is particularly impactful when writing for niche or crowded industries, where every topic has been covered ad nauseum.
  3. The most obvious advantage of bringing on a journalist is that their writing skills have been sharpened through years of content creation. Spelling, grammar and syntax mistakes are rare, especially if they have an editor to review their finished work. Additionally, while some employers worry that journalists may be too used to writing in a particular style (one void of personality and character quirks), this couldn’t be further from the truth.
  4. Journalists are, by nature, adaptable. Their writing style is often dictated by the project at hand, allowing them to switch between the casual voice of bloggers and the tight prose of news reporters. This range is essential to content marketers, as some assets may require a lighter, more approachable tone than others.

Armed with this versatility, journalists are able to craft compelling stories across mediums. They write for blogs, social media, email marketing, websites and much more. And while the journalistic style is best suited to longer-form content, it does have a place on Twitter and Facebook.

Take this tweet from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health as an example:

This short piece of content provides specific information backed by a credible source and is written in a very straight-forward style. Readers are also provided with a direct citation, allowing them to follow up on claims made within the tweet.

Now, let’s take a closer look at a tweet from Microsoft to see how the journalistic style can be used by for-profit businesses:

In this example, Microsoft has shared the results of its own internal research to help give context to its service offerings. Readers can follow the link to read more about remote workers and their struggles or head straight to Microsoft’s website for a solution. The writing style is markedly professional and lacks the tongue-in-cheek voice native to social media.

Both examples illustrate how journalistic writing can be adapted to different mediums and audiences, even when companies have something to sell. But learning how to write like a journalist is about more than just presentation.

Learning how to write like a journalist: Top skills and qualities

Whether you’re looking to build a career as a news reporter or break into the content marketing space, journalism skills can provide the foundation you need to create compelling stories. Although writing for blog posts, press releases and other genres is notably different, the creative process behind these projects tends to overlap.

Here are some of the most important skills and qualities needed to write like a journalist:

Fact-finding expertise

Conducting in-depth research is essential to both journalism and content marketing, as it helps writers understand the nuances hidden in the weeds. Journalists should know how to search for relevant information and data, where to look for credible citations and how to differentiate between primary and secondary sources.

For example, rather than linking out to a Forbes’ article that covers a new study or survey, journalists will hunt down the original source. This helps prevent other writers’ perceptions and styles from polluting the articles journalists are creating, leading to more authentic and original content.

Of course, knowing what data is relevant to a particular story is key.

Over time, journalists develop a keen eye for storytelling that makes it easier to locate relevant information and perspectives. Without this reflex, content marketers can end up producing content that isn’t actually useful to the intended audience.

Tech savviness

The internet may have introduced new complexities into journalistic writing, but it’s also helped make it easier to collect background information on a near-infinite number of topics. Today’s journalists understand how to leverage search engines, industry resources and content libraries to add substance to their blog posts. They also understand how to write in different mediums, whether they’re working in print or digital.

Search engine optimization also plays an essential role in online content creation. Without the right keywords and headlines, even the most compelling articles will be virtually invisible. Of course, journalists don’t write for search algorithms: They write for human beings.

Balancing SEO and compelling storytelling is one of the hardest writing skills to master, even for experienced professionals. But with practice and passion, writers can produce engaging content that is interesting, informative and easy to find.

Ethical standards

As mentioned previously, journalists adhere to a strict set of ethical standards that guide their reporting. While every organization has its own ethical guidelines, there are overarching rules that most writers follow. According to the Society of Professional Journalists, these standards include things like:

  • Taking responsibility for the accuracy of your work.
  • Verifying information prior to publication.
  • Providing context to not misrepresent or oversimplify a story.
  • Offering direct access to sources and citations.
  • Avoiding plagiarism and the distortion of facts.

Although some of the SPJ’s rules aren’t as relevant to content marketing, it’s crucial to strive for clarity and consistency whenever possible. Relying on ambiguity to smooth over inconsistencies can do more harm than good, especially when companies are trying to position themselves as thought leaders in their respective industries.

Versatile writing skills

When working in a content marketing role, journalists create all kinds of promotional materials that serve different purposes. To ensure these assets deliver on customer needs and expectations, content marketers must be able to adjust their writing styles on a whim.

For example, white papers are often technical in nature, requiring a lot of fact finding and expert interviews to create a truly effective asset. In contrast, blog posts tend to be more conversational, and generally don’t call for as much hard data or thought leadership. Social media is even more restrictive, with writers working within a set character limit.

A journalist’s ability to tailor their writing style to these mediums — and the audiences they appeal to — is essential to the success of any digital marketing resource.

In addition to the written word, many content marketing journalists craft promotional videos, radio scripts and other multi-media assets that call for a bit of stylistic flair. Journalists embrace these challenges, trusting in their writing skills and their ability to tackle complex topics under tight deadlines.

Time management

Much like news reporters, journalists in the content marketing industry must contend with strict deadlines and production cycles. To stay one step ahead, content marketers must efficiently organize their time and creative energy. Equal weight should be given to research and content creation, especially when a blog post or press release directly supports the launch of a new product or service.

Journalists rarely work in a vacuum. The content they create often fits into a wider marketing plan that must be coordinated with other departments and stakeholders. If a new product is ready to go, but supporting information isn’t ready, customers may not see the value in that offering.

Content marketers with journalism experience help keep everything on schedule, even when surprises and complexities pop up along the way.

Leveling up: Essential tips for writing like a journalist

Even with the above skills and characteristics, some writers still struggle to craft compelling stories that deliver tangible ROI. The issue is that both online and offline audiences have shifting preferences and wandering attention spans that can be difficult to capture.

Some content marketing journalists tackle this challenge by making their writing more approachable, while others prioritize the WIIFM (what’s in it for me?) perspective. While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to content creation, there are a few best practices and writing tips that can help bridge the gap.

Here are a few tips that can help content markers incorporate the journalistic writing style into their work:

1. Never clickbait your audience

Headlines serve a creative and practical function within online content, helping attract readers and summarize the blog posts they come across. While a catchy headline can pull customers to a company website, it’s important to deliver on readers’ expectations.

The practice of “clickbaiting,” a form of false advertising, seeks to game the system by using provocative headlines to generate buzz and readership. In many cases, these misleading headlines are used to get internet users from Google’s search results page to a specific end destination, often for the purpose of making a sale.

Over time, digital natives have become quite adept at spotting clickbait. Companies that rely on this deceptive marketing tactic can do irreparable damage to their public image and brand, which is why honesty is always the best policy.

2. Avoid burying the lede

Another common shortcoming of online content is the tendency to bury the lede , forcing readers to dig through content looking for specific information. The “lede” of a news article or blog post is the most important part of the story from a reader’s perspective.

Waiting too long to introduce the main topic or point can drive customers away. The more effort they have to exert searching for answers, the less likely they’ll be to continue browsing the website. Since the goal is to keep visitors engaged with the content, journalists strive for brevity and get straight to the point whenever possible.

3. Consider the needs of different readers

Every piece of content should serve a specific purpose, speak to a particular audience and provide full context for the topic at hand. Of course, every audience demographic has different priorities and interests, so it’s important to tailor content accordingly.

For example, consumers might read through an article on smart technology to understand how it all works or estimate the cost of a new gadget. Business leaders could come to the same article looking to improve the efficiency of their operations or find answers about pressing security risks.

Understanding these goals, and allowing them to influence the final product, is essential to forming actionable content that can help attract the right type of customers. This typically involves a lot of market research, customer profiling and style development, which is where a journalist can come in handy.

4. Understand standardized writing styles

Most journalists working as news reporters adhere to style guidelines outlined by The Associated Press Stylebook or The Chicago Manual of Style. These rules cover everything from punctuation usage to source attribution, and help set a gold standard for journalistic writing.

While content marketers aren’t necessarily bound by these style guidelines, it’s important to understand how they can influence the writing process. For example, AP style does not call for the Oxford comma, eschews the capitalization of common nouns and requires all numbers between one through nine to be spelled out. While the average reader might not be able to pick out these nuances, other writers surely will.

Depending on the situation, content marketers may be asked to produce blog posts in AP style. Having a strong understanding of these rules can streamline the content creation process and simplify quality assurance. When every blog post follows the same writing style, organizations can introduce a level of consistency that will help them stand out from the competition.

Much like journalism itself, finding the right content writer can feel like being trapped in a maze with infinite solutions. But don’t be discouraged, the perfect fit for your company could be waiting just around the corner.