Keeping it simple: top tips on how to write like a journalist

Do you want to work in marketing, communications, public relations or as a freelance copywriter?

If you can learn to write succinctly like a journalist does, you’ll have a much better chance of success.

Freelance London copywriter's helpful tips

That means short sentences and telling the story in as few words as possible. Here are some helpful tips:

  1. Understand the information
  2. Order it
  3. Keep it simple.

1. Writing tip-1: understand the information

This sounds obvious but it’s surprising how many ‘don’t knows’ you hear in corporate communications if you ask what something means.

But in order to write clearly, you need to fully understand the information you’re asked to write about.

Imagine you’re writing about how to look after your dog. You’d know the subject well. You’d have no trouble writing about it.

You’d start with the most obvious information like where the gourmet steak is kept. Then you’d move to the next. And then the next.

London-based website copywriter who looks after words like they're pampered pooches

Jargon be gone! Don’t be afraid to speak up

Consider this: you’re a communications officer and your boss asks for a press release on a report that’s been written by someone in the company.

The author of the report is a specialist in their field but has no clue about how to write for a public audience.

You read it. Do you understand it? Is there a top line? If yes, great. If no, read it again. Do you get it now?

Only with a thorough understanding will you be able to write about it in plain English.

Perhaps it’s so technical or written in jargon that only your boss and the author understand. In which case you’ll need a healthy dose of confidence to convince them of your argument.

A number of communications staff are afraid they’ll be seen as ignorant or stupid if they query something.

Often a journalistic-type phone call is what’s required with the person who wrote the report or who has responsibility for the project.

Or use your judgement and deconstruct the thing. 

Ask questions

As a journalist you work on different subjects each day. Sometimes two or three.

You’re often new to an area, unless you’re a specialist.

The only way to tackle this is to ask questions. Really basic ones like

  • What’s the story/report/event about?
  • Why are people going to be interested?
  • What’s the most important information you want publicised?

So many people get irritated at being asked questions, especially members of the scientific or medical community or those who regularly test their IQ and have gone to the trouble of joining Mensa.

Freelance London website copywriter's happy customer

If you don’t understand it, it’s unlikely anyone who’s not a specialist will either. Develop a thick skin, a child-like curiosity and ask away.

2. Writing tip-2: order information well

Having taken the above steps, you finally begin to understand the subject. So now, the fun part – translating the laborious waffle into plain English.

First, weed out unnecessary information (see below for advice on this).

When you lack confidence, like at the start of a career, you do things you wouldn’t ordinarily do.

You worry about weeding in case something’s important so you keep too much in. Then you produce a thesis, not a press release.

So many press releases cover two or three pages before you even reach the Notes to Editor and Background sections.

Freelance London copywriter's jargon cops

To avoid cloudy thinking, it can help to imagine you’re explaining it to your grandmother, or to children. Kids are, by nature, excellent jargon cops. Nothing gets past them. Why? They like to ask.

Why are you writing in this incomprehensible style? Why are you confusing us with all this excess information? Just get to the point!

If something repeats itself it’s usually fine to edit the second mention out.

If your boss asks for a particular message to be replicated, try weaving it into someone’s quote instead.

Thoughts on screen – a personal brain dump: write out your understanding as one mammoth brain dump on the screen – for your eyes only.

Keep the words simple and sentences short. Two things help:

  • Write for your grandmother or for a child
  • Write as you speak (imagine you’re telling your friends in the pub and use that language).

Keep it loose and informal. Do the buttoning up afterwards, when you consider the audience.

Put the long words to one side. You may need to reinsert them.

Who, what, where, when, why: following this rule ensures your brain dump retains the essential information.

You need to explain these five things as close to the top of your press release as possible.

Structuring a news story – the inverted pyramid

To be in with the best chance of getting your press release noticed by journalists in busy newsrooms, you should treat it like a news story.

London copywriter discusses news pyramid

(NB: this inverted pyramid breaks all the rules on correct use of capital letters! See my post on this subject here.)

All news stories are structured around an upside-down pyramid, the so-called ‘inverted pyramid’.

As mentioned, the top two or three paragraphs will contain the most important information – the who, what, where, when and why and sometimes the how.

The tapering lower parts of the pyramid show that other material should follow in order of diminishing importance.

The middle section can contain pertinent but not essential information, alongside the quotations from the main people involved.

The bottom is where you put periphery stuff like dates, location and contact details.

3. Writing tip-3: keep the language simple

Catch yourself when you get flowery and bring your style back to short and snappy.

Why write in a different way to how you speak when the words are forming in the same brain?

Heading: The main message should leap out in your heading and the tight top paragraph.

Try to keep the heading on one line only as a condensed version of the opening paragraph.

Overuse of superlatives

Avoid superlatives like ‘groundbreaking’, ‘applauding’ and ‘pioneering’.

Most press releases with headlines containing the word ‘groundbreaking’ are anything but. And how can an organisation ‘applaud’ something?

Two-line paragraphs: Try to keep each paragraph on two lines only, if possible, especially the first.

(NB: This rule regularly gets broken especially if the client’s name, report title or product is lengthy. But it’s a great exercise in achieving brevity.)

Aim for one side only: Try and keep the bulk of your press release on one page with the notes to editor and background information at the top of page 2. (This is often not possible especially if there’s more than one organisation that needs to be included in the press release.)

A hefty medical or legal journal is unlikely to be bothered by a press release spanning two, three or even four pages. But if it’s a newsroom you’re targeting, it’s best to remember how journalists are notoriously busy.

Freelance copywriter UK - no slacking

Unless your story is dynamite they’ll not read past the first two or three paragraphs.

Press release skeleton – after structuring your brain dump around the inverted news pyramid, writing short sentences in easy language and using the ‘who, what, where, when, why’ checklist, you should now have a good skeleton press release.

Now it’s time to edit, amend and formalise.

Inserting quotes is a good way of creating flow. 

One is ideal. Two are ok but any more, when the message is effectively the same, is tedious.

If the press release is about a new report or study, you’d quote the author and perhaps an expert.

If it’s about a scheme or product, you’d quote the chief executive or another senior person.

Try to remember the ‘write as you speak’ rule when drafting quotations.

Professional writers never forget their audience

It’s also time to consider your target audience.

If you’re writing for a consumer magazine and are confident the journalists will understand the technical terms you stripped out at the start, you can reinsert them if you think they add substance.

This applies to all forms of publicity writing. Is your audience a youth market, the over-50s or people with specialist knowledge?

Whoever you’re targeting, you can’t go wrong if you stick to plain English as most freelance copywriters and journalists do.

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