I logged a lot of years as a journalist before I made the leap into marketing. I edited my junior-high and high-school newspapers, earned a graduate degree at UC Berkeley School of Journalism, and worked on the copy desk of a major daily newspaper (five deadlines a day), unscrambling syntax, correcting spelling, and writing headlines and captions. I freelanced for national magazines, had a monthly column in the notorious Playgirl magazine, edited the regional content for a biweekly magazine, and was nominated for a National Magazine Award.
At first, writing marketing copy instead of filing stories seemed like a big change. But gradually I came to see my journalism training as an invaluable asset in my new career. In fact, I now believe that a journalism education is excellent preparation for writing of any kind.
Here are some of the lessons I learned from journalism and the ways in which they apply to marketing:
1. Get to the point. All journalists learn the inverted pyramid format: putting the most important news in the first paragraph, or lede, and the least newsworthy information at the end. Readers of ads, web content, and white papers are no different. Give them the information they need up front; don't waste time with throat-clearing and other verbal filigrees.
2. Take notes. Good journalists don't depend on memory -- the cranial kind or the computer kind. Journalism taught me to always carry a small notepad with me. I'm constantly jotting down observations, snatches of conversation, and facts -- along with the date and place I encountered them. During a meeting, I write down key points in the discussion. I transcribe my notes on the computer when I can, but the hard-copy version gives me a chronological record that's often more reliable than my hard drive.
3. Ask and anticipate questions. When you're digging for information, there are no better digging tools than the five W's --who, what, when, where, why -- plus H for how. I use them all the time when I'm interviewing clients. Who are your competitors? What are your products? When do you expect to launch? Where are your target markets? Why are you in business? How do you expect to achieve your goals? And like the journalist I once was, I'm ready with follow-up questions when I get the answers.
4. Spell the names right. This one's easy for me; my own last name is often misspelled, and I'm always making corrections. So I know to ask -- and double check. You may hear "John Smith" when in fact it's "Jon Smythe." Your fear of sounding stupid when you ask will be greatly exceeded by your embarrassment at erring in print or online.
5. Nouns and verbs are your best friends. As E.B. White wrote in The Elements of Style (one of my J-school textbooks), "The adjective hasn't been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place." (The novelist Daniel Handler tells a story about a writing teacher who told her class, "Always cut out the adverbs." A wise guy in the back of the room called out, "Shouldn't that be 'Cut out the adverbs'?") Three of the worst offenders: very, really, literally. Strip out the modifiers and focus on vivid, precise nouns and verbs that engage your readers' senses. (And yes, I know I used two adjectives in the previous sentence. Rules can be broken sometimes.)
6. Hello sweetheart, get me rewrite. Old-school journalists had the luxury of a "rewrite man" who polished raw copy into a publishable state. I've had to learn to be my own "rewrite man" and harshest critic. E.B. White again: "Few writers are so expert that they can produce what they are after on the first try. ... Do not be afraid to seize whatever you have written and cut it to ribbons; it can always be restored to its original condition in the morning." And White didn't even use a computer.
7. Omit needless words. I used to write "the reason why..." until a martinet of a copy editor drilled it into my skull that "the reason..." will suffice. Marketing writing is notorious for excess: "because of the fact that...", "in order to..." Delete them and discover how much more muscular your copy is.
8. Grab attention with a great headline. Writing headlines is like creating bouillon cubes from chicken soup: All of the flavor, none of the filler. Being able to distill a complex story into a five- or six-word head gives you clarity and focus. It's an invaluable skill in advertising and catalog copywriting -- for any writing, for that matter.
9. If you make a mistake, issue a correction. Nobody's perfect, but we all can be honest. The New York Times publishes corrections every day. Magazines publish them monthly. The corporate world, though, sees mistakes in print as signs of weakness. On the contrary, they're opportunities to show your customers that you're scrupulous and humble. And customers appreciate that.
10. There's no writer's block on deadline. Samuel Johnson famously said that the prospect of hanging "concentrates the mind wonderfully." Deadlines have the same effect. (Maybe it's that "dead" word.) The clock is ticking, the trucks are waiting to be loaded with the next edition--who has time for doubt and self-pity? Not you. Start writing!
Great column. Alas, the rules that you (and I) learned from journalism seem to be rules no longer. I am pained and saddened to read so many news stories--even front page, hard-news stories--that require me to read five or six paragraphs before letting on what the story is about. And it's not uncommon these days to read an entire story and still have a distressing number of the 5Ws+H unanswered. Keep fighting the good fight.
Posted by: Bob Cumbow | June 07, 2007 at 09:18 AM