Writers vs Journalists – Two Very Different Species

Many people see journalism as a route to literary success. Certainly, bestselling authors like Cathy Kelly and Deirdre Purcell served their time behind the newsdesks of various newspapers. I had a burning ambition to be a writer, couldn’t see myself doing anything else, so I decided journalism would be a good way of achieving my ambitions while earning a crust.

As soon as I began in journalism, I realised that the disciplines of journalism and creative writing were not as compatible as I had imagined. In fact, the journalist and the creative writer are completely different animals. There is some overlap; a flair for words and an interest in the world around you are essential requirements for both disciplines. But there the similarity ends.

Journalists conduct their work in the public arena. They thrive on being the centre of all that’s happening. In order to be noticed in a competitive environment, they have to be able to shout louder than everyone else. They know that their destiny is in their own hands and they are always looking for opportunities to sell themselves. They tend to be gregarious, with a good line of convincing chat to encourage sources to talk to them. They live life at full throttle.

However, in order for a creative writer to be successful, they must carry out the bulk of their work in private. They usually shy away from the limelight and balk at the thought of promoting themselves. They share journalists’ interest in people and their stories, but are more likely to be onlookers at life, only taking part in interviews when they have to. They cocoon themselves in rooms lit only by candles and are more focused on their interior worlds.

For journalists, words are a means to an end. Their central aim is to get their point across in as few words as possible. Their skill lies in their ability to produce concise, readable prose. Creative writers, meanwhile, use words to paint pictures. Because they have more time to produce their words, their work tends to be more elaborate and stylised.

Journalists are often constrained by time and word count, whereas the creative writer has free rein to let their imaginations soar. Journalists are often of a more practical bent; they want to keep things simple and they thrive on deadlines. Meanwhile, creative writers see daydreaming as an important part of their process and feel that deadlines interfere with the delicate nature of that process.

There is an overlap between the two disciplines. Both journalists and creative writers are skilled at putting a fresh spin on a tired story. Creative non-fiction, where people use their own experiences to create a story, has a prominent place in newspapers, with the rise of the regular column. In fact, novelists such as Sarah Webb and Marian Keyes are regular contributors to newspapers and magazines.

No doubt, both disciplines can learn from each other. Creative writers can learn from the journalist’s ability to promote themselves and to be concise, while journalists can learn from the creative writer’s ability to engage with their subjects in a deep way and see the people they encounter as more than just a quotable source.

The moral of the story is, don’t become a journalist because you want to write. Become a journalist because you want to be at the heart of the story, because you’re glued to the newswires, because you thrive on guts and glory. If you want to be a creative writer, simply write. Writing can be fit into any other career path you choose to earn your daily bread.

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The Write Words

When you’re creating copy, choosing the right words to describe the product or service you’re writing about is an instinctive process. Quite often, I pick a word because it feels right, because it describes what I’m portraying more exactly than a similar word.

It’s like being a painter wielding a paintbrush. Each word has its own subtle shade and my role is to choose the appropriate one. For example, I could describe someone as being angry, but the person’s annoyance may not be as great as that. Using words such as ‘vexed,’ ‘irritated’ or ‘irked’ to describe their anger may be more accurate.

As a copywriter, you become reliant on certain words which act as linchpins in your copy. Sometimes, this can be a good thing, as it means you’ve pinpointed the words that are most effective. But other times, the words can become a crutch and turn your copy into clichéd mush.

I’ve put together a list of do and don’t words for copywriters, compiled on the strength of my own experience. Hope it helps you create dazzling, dynamic copy.

Do

Showcase – a more elegant alternative to ‘demonstrate,’ implies that you’re giving customers a flavour of the best your business has to offer.

You – addressing your customer directly strikes a friendly tone and makes them feel connected to you.

Sparkle – indicates dynamism, adds a hint of glamour.

Essential – shows that your product or service isn’t just important, it’s indispensible to your clients.

Enable – indicates that your product or service gives your clients the power to act for themselves.

Don’t

And – adds too much bulk to a sentence, using a comma as replacement improves the flow of the sentence.

Get – an overused word. Reach for more elegant alternatives such as ‘obtain’ or ‘gain.’

Have – again a clichéd, lazy option. Go for more action-oriented words such as ‘attain’ or ‘achieve’.

Not – even when used in a positive context, as in ‘not wrong,’ it’ll create negative connotations in the minds of potential customers.

Thing – not specific enough. If you know your product or service inside out, so you should be able to find the exact word you need to describe it.

In Defence of the Feature

When we think about newspapers, we think of the glaring headlines on the front page. Breaking news stories will always grab you attention when you’re flicking through your morning newspaper. But features take up a more substantial chunk of newsprint than you might think. As well as dedicated feature pages, you’ll find them in news-analysis sections and in the ever-growing mass of supplements that come with today’s papers.

Features have an unfair reputation for being fluffy. In fact, because of their length and broader focus, they can reach into places that news stories cannot. In my view, the feature plays two roles. It explores the issues underlying the main news stories of the day and it shines a light into neglected corners of society.

The most common type of feature is the service feature. It offers practical lifestyle tips in easy-to-follow steps and usually centres on travel, technology and consumer advice. The news feature is also common. Effectively, it explores the stories behind the news. For example, a gangland murder in an urban area may give rise to an article discussing how the laws surrounding the burden of proof can be modified.

Many features are based on one-to-one interviews. The public are always interested in features which promise to give an insight into the lives of their favourite celebrities. Other interviews take the form of human interest stories, celebrating triumph over adversity. Profiles analysing the life and contribution of a prominent person are a staple of news analysis pages. Reviews and comment pieces also come under the umbrella of features.

Feature-writers have a freer hand than news journalists when it comes to style. Features are typically 800-1500 words, which is 2-4 times the length of the average news article. This gives the feature writer the scope to use more expressive language and provide a richer tapestry of detail. The extra space also enables the feature writer to do justice to their subject, to dive under the surface of a story.

The feature is often seen as a filler or a soft option. But in fact, the feature has even more power than news. It encourages originality of thought and gives interviewees a greater chance to tell their story. It can bring issues that were previously hidden to light, which after all is one of the remits of media. Above all, it gives ordinary people a voice. They are more likely to be the subject of a feature than of news and the feature is often about an issue which directly affects them in their daily lives. The feature has proved that it deserves its place in our newspapers.

Generating Your Own Publicity

Have you been plastering web pages and newspapers with huge ads, but received no response? Do you feel that the world needs to know about your business, but don’t know where to start? We live in cash-pressed times and advertising no longer has the effect it once had. But you can still target potential customers in an engaging way, by making yourself newsworthy to media outlets.

The received wisdom in marketing is that you must know your audience in order to reach them effectively. But when approaching media outlets, the journalist is your first audience. And what they’re looking for is news, a handy, bite sized news item that will fill space. It’s time to drop the marketing speak and ask yourself what’s new or special about your business.

Journalists and editors receive dozens of emails every day, with businesses clamouring for attention. They’re not going to be interested in the fact that you are doing an offer of 20% off wedding dresses for the month of September. But they will be interested in the fact that you are Ireland’s only stockist of a particularly beautiful range of dresses.

If you’ve won an award, are bringing in a new product line or expanding your business, centre your press release on that. If you have a less tangible offering, or you feel that your business isn’t much different to others in the field, why not set yourself up as an expert. Centre your press release on your field of expertise, whether it’s business coaching, IT or website development. Offer advice and tips. You are bound to have skills that no-one else has in quite the same way. That way, your press release won’t be just an extended plug, it will offer your audience something of value, beyond self-promotion.

The next decision to make is where to send it to. Media outlets related to your industry may be interested in specialist advice or new developments. If you’re a new business, there are a lot of slots in the media profiling people who are beating the recession by developing innovative products and services. And local newspapers are always keen to support new businesses. They rely heavily on advertising, but if you’ve won an award or have a significant new development, you’ll make it onto the news or business pages.

You can create a general press release and draw up a list of places to send it. But if you’re particularly keen on being included in a specific publication or programme, it’s worth studying it carefully to see where your business fits and creating a press release which is specifically tailored to that publication. Your press release is a template; you can tweak it to suit the needs of whichever publication you send it to.

I’ve touched on the importance of angles in a previous blog entry (The Write Angle). Once you’ve identified the angle that’s likely to be of interest, hit journalists with it straight away, in the subject line of your email, in the headlines and in the first paragraph. Take the trouble to find out the editor’s first name and write them a brief note, explaining why you’ve chosen to approach their publication or programme. Then include the press release in the body of the email, so they’re not searching for it.

This is a slower method of gaining publicity than advertising. It can take time for editors to get to your press release and they can get lost in the pile. If you’re particularly keen to be featured, it’s worth giving the editor a call or a follow-up email to see if they got it. Also, the editor may not use your press release immediately, but months later, they may call you for a quote. For example, if you sent in a press release about your new website-creation system, you may be quoted in an article about how to build the perfect website.

If you are featured in the media, the publicity you gather will be subtle but potent. People’s interest will be piqued by what you’re offering and they may mention that they saw an item about you to their friends. You’re generating word-of-mouth buzz for your business on a wider scale. You’re telling your audience a story about your business and if it’s a compelling enough story, they’ll be keen to sample what you have to offer.