copywriting_journalism

Lauren Quaintance, Head of Content, Storyation

How do you turn typical marketese-speak like this:

Be inspired to travel on a journey with APT to a destination that will excite, thrill and leave you longing for more. India, so spectacularly diverse …

Into story like this:

For George Harrison it was spiritual. For E.M. Forster it was mystical. For Steve Waugh it was emotional. So spectacular, mesmerising, fascinating — what could India do for you?

And how do you turn typical bureaucrat-speak like this:

The Western Integrated Family Violence Committee (WIFVC) is a representative, whole-of-sector reference group comprising provider stakeholders involved in the family violence service system reform process in Melbourne’s west. The role of the WIFVC – like its counterparts across the state of Victoria – is to ‘operationalise’ the state-wide family violence reform agenda (underway since 2006) in locally meaningful ways.

Into story like this:

WHY WE ARE TRUSTED AND RESPECTED: As we all know, these two reputations don’t happen overnight. Neither does change, especially for women who have experienced violence. It’s a long and unpredictable road, and often, uphill most of the way. But along the way, there have been some victories that have earned us that all-important influence with key decision makers in government.

To the question of how to turn copy into story, the answer I always give my CWiA writers is, ‘Think like a journalist’. All great copywriters share three essential attributes of a journalist — (1) investigative DNA for story (2) empathy with their readers and (3) ability to write pictures.

Then I read Lauren Quaintance’s article, Fire Your Copywriter (and Hire a Journalist Instead), originally published in the B&T (2014)¹. I exited her story with the thought, ‘she nailed it beautifully, and every copywriter should re-read this until they memorise it’. Ever since then, my how-to-turn-copy-into-story answer is promptly followed by an insistence to ‘read Lauren Quaintance’s article’, a key reference on the CWiA School’s reading list.

Lauren is co-founder and Head of Content for Sydney agency, Storyation², where the “sales pitch” is replaced by substance.  And today, CWiA’s Guest Speaker series is delighted to welcome Lauren to talk about how copywriters and journalists have a lot in common; and why only journalists know how to write stories that audiences want to hear. So it is with great pleasure to introduce you to Lauren Quaintance, and I can guarantee that her words will make a valuable difference to the quality of your writing from now on.

 


 

One of the things I am sometimes told by marketing managers is that they have a copywriter who writes the company’s content. In the past that person might just have been putting out press releases or doing direct mail, but now they also write blog posts or stories for their website as well. Fair enough. But here’s the thing about copywriters: they’re great at writing copy but they’re not great at writing stories.

Journalists and copywriters have a lot in common (I should know – I am a journalist married to a creative who is technically a copywriter) but they are actually an entirely different species.

Journalists ask annoying questions

When I was a journalist and editor one of the most effective insults you could deliver was to suggest that a colleague had “interviewed their typewriter”. Which is to say that they hadn’t interviewed anyone at all. Journalists use reporting to inform their writing – it’s what gives their stories the telling details that make them authentic – while copywriters rarely need to leave their desk.

Journalists are subject matter experts

One of the most important jobs a magazine or newspaper editor does is assigning the right writer to the right story. For my own agency Storyation I rarely use writers who don’t have a specialization. If you’re a writer, it’s not enough to say that you specialize in “travel”. I want to know if your deep and abiding passion is family travel, luxury travel, wine travel, solo travel or something else besides. Because if I need to commission a story on the best dumpling houses in Shanghai I need to find the person who has been to every back alley joint in search of the most perfect dumpling.

Journalists know how to sniff out a story

A magazine editor of my acquaintance used to say “There are no new ideas in the world”. Think about just about any topic and it’s been done by someone; somewhere. But journalists and editors know how to mine a topic for a new story or angle. An example: career women in their late 30s face a “ticking biological clock”. There’s a topic that’s been covered a lot. Yawn. But get a man in his late 30s to write about how he is clucky and struggling to persuade his partner to have children and you have an original angle on well-traversed topic.

Journalists are born skeptics

This might seem like the last thing you want when you have a product to sell, but putting the needs of your audience first is an inviolate principle of content marketing. If you want to reach an audience that is skipping TV ads, ignoring banner ads and binning direct mail then you need to create content that audiences will find compelling and credible and journalists have an innate sense of what that is (and won’t be afraid to tell you). A healthy dose of skepticism coupled with an ability to see story ideas through an audience lens can be invaluable. Copywriters, on the other hand, are hired guns schooled in the art of selling and their copy is more like shiny, polished marketing-speak.

Which is not to say that every marketing manager should rush out and hire a journalist. Left to their own devices journalists will not necessarily write content that is in keeping with brand values or business objectives. But guided by a good content strategist, a journalist is much more likely to find stories that audiences actually want to hear.


¹   B and T magazine, Fire Your Copywriter (And Hire a Journalist Instead), October 10, 2014

²   Storyation.com

8 Comments

  1. Grace says:

    Learning how to write correctly is paramount in today’s society whether it be reading a book or content in online websites. Capturing the attention of your reader is no mean feat. The reader loves stories, and inspiring ones at that. We need to grab their attention in the first sentence. The experienced writer knows just how to do this. Whether it is a copywriter or a journalist, a great article will be written, but possibly from different views and research. Great article. Thank you.

  2. Cecilie says:

    Of course they’d have to be careful not to use the inverted pyramid too much. But I think it’s something that would work very well, especially in a collaborative setting. A journalist would be doing so much research, and would be able to write their copy from a different angle to what someone with a marketing background would write. Each professional field have their own style of writing and would certainly bring something to the table as a copywriter.

  3. Hanna says:

    As an ex-journo turned copywriter I’m so thrilled to read Lauren’s piece. I sometimes struggle to make my boss (as well as our clients) understand why I feel such a need to sit down for long interviews, or why I feel that my research is incomplete if I can’t visit the factory/office/shop to see, smell and feel whatever product I’m writing about. One of my favourite tools as a reporter – especially when interviewing ‘experts’ or ‘specialists’ – was to ask the ‘dumb’ questions. To tell the interviewee to “explain to me like I was a five year old”. This method is great for copywriters to use. Not only will you have a chance of quickly get your head around more complex topics, but you also get a hint on how you should explain this to the customers/readers (given they aren’t experts too, of course).

  4. … now I really don’t understand – because your point is exactly my point – neither David Abbott (unashamedly is/was my hero) and John Bevens and Lionel Hunt etc are NOT journalists – they call themselves copywriters – and this article (as I’m reading it) conveniently scoops us all up into a convenient little pool of copywriters then loads up a 303 and fires cheap shots willy-nilly killing the good with the bad – the articles degrades people like Abbott and other fine writer’s by association in an attempt to promote its own and I think it’s a disrespectful way of self promotion.

    • Fair enough Barry, I can’t speak for Lauren but her words are a clear reminder that we copywriters (who are not David Abbott and John Bevins) also need to be as investigative about subject matters as journalists (just like David Abbott and, in particular, John Bevins). Especially in social media, websites and media releases, where we need to be newsworthy, informational, instructional, entertaining as well as persuasive. And the best of us do all five in one — David Abbott and John Bevins being worthy role models for that.

  5. Here we are trying to lift (regain?) the importance and value of copywriting overall as a razor-sharp business tool to be faced with a call-to-arms from one of our own. In very simplistic terms, journalism is about reporting by answering the questions who, what, when, where etc etc. Investigative journalism by definition digs deeper, broader, wider. In general, the role is not to influence and persuaded – it is to report. When the words matter in advertising, website content, blogs, tweets (it’s all advertising / copywriting) then it’s about influence and persuasion. Storytelling is not the domain of journalists – in fact I would argue it is merely one of the techniques to be used to report or to influence and pursuade. But I get back to my main point – copywriting (and journalism) has been a commodity by many for too long. And here we are out there eating our own young.

    • Thanks Barry, but I think you missed the whole point of Lauren’s article. I’m a copywriter and I got it (and so do my CWiA students). Digging deeper and broader applies to copywriting as well as journalism. And descriptive writing is way more engaging than salesy buzzwords. It’s what makes David Abbott and John Bevins two of the world’s greatest copywriters featured in D&AD’s Copybook.

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