Write Like a Journalist Tips for Content Marketers

Write Like a Journalist: Tips for Content Marketers

7 minute read
Michael Coren avatar

Write Like a Journalist: Tips for Content Marketers
Marketing language is sometimes designed to "make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” George Orwell, the author of dystopian novel 1984, was talking about political speech when he wrote those words in 1946. Yet his words are just as apt when it comes to what can go wrong with content marketing: jargon or poorly crafted prose, cliches, ambiguity, empty phrases and other clutter.

That’s not necessary. As content marketing eclipses more traditional marketing and advertising copy, there’s something to be learned from writers and journalists. Delivering a story people want to read means spending time to create something they want to know about, and respecting readers by not peddling sensationalist or annoying pitches.

Yes, you are writing with a point-of-view. No, it’s not investigative journalism. But marketers will do well to read (and apply) much of the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics to build the kind of trust and attention they want associated with their brand. It’s not just about what’s right. It's what works.

Here are a few tips from the newsroom:

Earn Trust

You’re unlikely to have an audience that matters if they don’t believe what you’re saying -- whether your topic is Washington politics or CRMs. You can adapt most of what journalism preaches to write content that sells and attracts customers. The basic principles? Tell the truth (given your disclosed point of view). Act independently. Minimize harm. Be accountable to your readers. Read it all in SPJ’s Code of Ethics.

Write Long and Well, Not Short and Shallow

A 100 word post isn’t a bad thing. But if you want to attract and keep an audience, write longer, higher quality stories more often than you’re doing now. FastCompany found its articles drew more traffic after it began adding more length and context. Data digging by the founder of KissMetrics showed his longer, richer posts equalled more audience. Marketing Experiments discovered long copy outperformed short copy by 41 percent and increased ROI from negative 14 percent to over 21 percent.

There is a caveat: If you’re writing long, write well. Otherwise don’t bother. Sometimes, shorter copy can convert better. It’s not about word count, it’s about having something to say. So keep your prose as slim as possible. Go deep if warranted. There is magic in paring down your words to the essentials. Try this exercise: Take what you have written. Shave it down to a few sentences. Then a phrase. Then one word. Keep adding constraints until you find only what is needed. Then you can easily chip away the rest. Anything you add back better matter to the reader.

Don't Forget the Headline

Headlines matter. More than ever. Twitter is merely the fine-art of headline writing taken to the masses. Don’t worry if you’re not good at it —yet. It’s an acquired skill, one that blends art, science and is well-served by a good editor. The science part is simple: use concrete nouns, active verbs. The art is teasing out the compelling, human, urgent message in just one line. Tap into the authenticity of your own message.

Facts are Nice. But People Understand the World in Stories

Humans, it turns out, are pretty impervious to facts. Study after study has found humans seek out facts to confirm their view of the world, not the other way around. Often, we don’t think, we rationalize.

Yet people are remarkably open to stories. Narratives enjoy a direct line to our brains, while facts must dodge a thicket of emotions, distractions and biases to reach our hearts and minds. In the book "Corporate Legends and Lore: The Power of Storytelling as a Management Tool," author Peg Neuhauser tells of an MBA class that was divided into three groups to persuade a student audience about the future success of a winery. One group had only statistics, the second had both statistics and a story, while the third had just a story. The third group swept the competition: the majority of students in the last group judged the winery’s future would be successful.

This principle holds if you’re selling life insurance or a new startup: stories win over statistics. So tell a good story. But don’t forget that marketers, like journalists, should get their facts straight. The Internet knows where you live. Check that your statistics back up the story you’re telling.

Write What People Care About: People

People, you might have guessed, want to know about people and, by extension, themselves. There is nothing so fascinating to us as our universal desires to love, be loved, do the right thing, be happier, more successful (and our opposing natures including greed, fear, envy and the rest). For journalists, this means revealing those universal motivations in everyday stories.

Marketers can tap into something similar. The most direct way is to write about benefits, not features. You should write about how features affect people, not the features themselves. Steve Jobs didn’t mention gigabytes, gigahertz or other technical jargon during the launch of the iPod. He evoked awe, surprise and beauty. It was simply 10,000 songs in your pocket.

Learning Opportunities

A great overview of this features vs. benefits discussion is at Enchanting Marketing by Henneke Duistermaat. It boils down to this: people don’t care about your features, product or company. They care about how these affect their lives, make them feel and solve their problems. To cite Duistermaat, don’t say you design beautiful kitchens. Tell people how the kitchen makes them feel relaxed and comfortable. Don’t write your company has strong door hinges. Say it won’t break after the door is slammed a thousand times. The product plays a supporting role for the main character: the reader. Make sure whatever you write is about them.

Write for One Person

Writing for an individual -- even someone you made up --  is a powerful way to improve your prose. Kurt Vonnegut got it right when he said “write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”

To put this into practice, create “user stories”as described in this post by OpenView Ventures. These mini-profiles of the folks you’re writing for will come to define your content marketing strategy and help you avoid wasting countless words appealing to a non-existent audience.


The writing process takes time. You aren’t writing a novel, but you still need a few (maybe many) careful hours of focused thought that allow you to find a message, outline an argument, tussle with words and locate the right anecdote. When you do get down to writing, this will get those words onto the page faster — and with greater impact. Unless you’re in the business of breaking news, one great article will do better than 10 mediocre ones.

One trick is to make breaks a part of your writing process. Get your thoughts down on paper. Write out the first draft. Then wait! I would suggest a minimum of an hour. Overnight or longer is preferable. Your mind will work on the words while you’re away and you’ll have fresh insights when you return to it.

Say it Aloud. Remove What Sounds Awkward

At the risk of sounding strange, read your prose to yourself. Better yet, read it to an outsider. Then ask him or her to repeat back what you said. You are likely to find out two things: you write more gibberish than you think, and you are not conveying the point you meant to make. Speaking aloud is one of the best ways to recapture that spontaneous, authentic voice you’ll find in the best stories. Visit a newsroom and you will find journalists sitting at their desks talking to themselves. Are they crazy? Possibly. Are they deep in the writing process? Absolutely.

What’s worked for you? Let me know in the comments below.

Title image by Everett Collection (Shutterstock)

About the author

Michael Coren

Michael Coren is a journalist and contributor to FastCompany, The Economist and other publications. He is the founder and CEO of Publet, a platform to create, distribute and track multimedia publications on any device.