Why ex-journalists make great copywriters

So you want to hire a copywriter? Go for a former journalist. Here are four reasons why. They:

Are trained by experts

When I started out in my first job on a newspaper, I had a degree in journalism. It didn’t count for much.

It was only under the watchful eyes of older hacks – news editors and sub-editors with years of experience – that I really learnt how to string words together in a way that engages the reader and helps them understand something better.

Junior reporters weren’t allowed to go home until a sub-editor had seen their stories. If something wasn’t right, you were called over and made to stand next to the sub as they went through your copy.

“Hmm… ‘The council’s budget for road repairs is being cut.’ First, let’s switch that round to the active voice, so the readers will realise who the bastards are in this story. Now, why should this matter to your readers? How will it affect them? Oh, there it is, in the seventh paragraph! No good! We’ve gotta stick it in the intro… There you go, now people will want to read your story!”

How’s that for instant feedback from experts to sharpen your writing skills?

Can write fast

Journalists don’t have the luxury of writer’s block or going for a stroll to clear their heads so that they can calmly mull over five options for structuring their story.

Even if you’re a 70-words-per-minute touch-typer, it’s the thinking process – what to write, what to leave out, how to start and how to structure the rest – that determines how fast or slow a piece of writing gets done.

As a journalism student, I had to produce three self-sourced articles a week for grading. It was a breeze. On my very first day at the newspaper, I was given four articles to research and write before the evening deadline.

There’s nothing like the pressure of knowing that you’re holding up the production and distribution of hundreds of thousands of newspapers to focus the mind when having to decide how to structure a piece of writing!

Apart from the 5 Ws (who, what when, where and why) and the H (how), there’s no magic formula for writing an article. (Also, formulaic writing is boring writing.) I just had to learn – with the help of colleagues – how to get stuff done quickly. As I got better at it, I sometimes turned out up to eight stories a day.

And then the World Wide Web with its breaking news happened, and the deadline became “as soon as possible”.

So if you need something written yesterday, you know who to hire. Even if there’s no immediate hurry, you can be sure that a journo will hit your deadline easily.

Check their facts

Fact-checking comes naturally to journalists. If they slip up, they and their employers could end up in court.

Again, there’s no magic formula. There’s a dictum in the philosophy of science that extraordinary claims must be backed up by extraordinary evidence. Because of its nature, a lot of news is about extraordinary stuff and a responsible journalist would be able to back up what they write.

“So, the neighbour bit your Pomeranian puppy, Ma’am? Did you see it happen? No? But you did hear it yelp repeatedly and then you saw the neighbour running away? Are there any bite marks? Did you take it to the animal clinic? What did the vet say? Where can I contact the vet to confirm that? I’m also going to speak to your neighbour.”

Like everyone else, journalists sometimes get it wrong. But given the volume of news written every day and the little time there is for fact-checking it’s surprising that the “Corrections” pages of news organisations carry so few items.

The late The Sunday Times columnist AA Gill put it well:

“Now tell me, how long did your last annual general report take? Days? Weeks? And you had all that information to hand. How long did the last letter you wrote take? You just made that up. Newspapers are the size of long novels. They’re put together from around the globe from sources who lie, manipulate, want to sell things, hide things, spin things. Despite threats, injunctions, bullets, jails and non-returned phone calls, journalists do it every single day, from scratch. What’s amazing, what’s utterly staggering, is not the things papers get wrong, it’s just how much they get right.”

I ask my copywriting clients for evidence to back up their claims about their USPs and how wonderful their products are. In the end, it’s about credibility, whether it’s a newspaper article or a product description.

Aren’t precious about their work

Journalists are used to having their copy changed by others, often without discussion or even an explanation.

At least I had some input during those early evening sessions next to the sub while they tore into my writing, but that wasn’t the end of it. They would then send the article off into the bowels of the news production machine, where anything could happen to it.

While I was in the pub, celebrating the fact that I had written what I thought would be the next day’s front-page lead, an editor in production would cut my story to the bone and shunt it onto page four. Because the new lead story was about a political assassination that had happened shortly before deadline. (Prime suspect: an ex-member of the special forces.)

But it’s no use complaining. Prima donna journalists don’t last very long, except for a few very good ones that came up through the ranks and earned the right, partly by not being a prima donna when they started out.

Journalists quickly learn that they’re a part of something bigger and that sometimes other people will kill their darlings to serve a greater cause.

David Ogilvy said five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. “When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.” Most journalists don’t get to write their own headlines and, with headline writing not being an exact science, let’s just say it’s sometimes difficult to pick out your own stories among the others the next day.

So if you’d like to suggest some changes to a first draft delivered by your former-journalist copywriter, they won’t take offence. And they’ll love being able to write the headline!

An earlier version of this blog post was published on

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