6 Reasons Journalists Don’t Make Automatic Copywriters—and Vice Versa


I spent my holiday holed up in a drafty AirBNB in Toronto—and writing posts for my new online column in Forbes.

Exciting news, right? Indeed. Also: a testament to how challenging it is to put my journalist’s hat back on after five years of copywriting. Here’s what I’ve learned after a few weeks worth of writing—and why the disciplines can’t simply be interchanged.

1. Bluster vs. Confidence

  • Journalists are a self-deprecating bunch. The more you brag, the more you risk losing your readers—especially for the kind of first-person features I’d been assigned to write. If you must trump out your accomplishments, it should probably either come with a hard-won story or verge on ironic, as in “I thought I was a rock star; I got too big for my britches; I paid the price.”
  • In copy, confidence is everything. Write tentatively, and you risk seeming unsure of your value. This applies to the first person or the third.

2. Qualifying vs. Not

  • As a corollary to no. 1, the journalistic form loves to qualify. A sales method is “somewhat powerful.” A new technology makes things “more efficient.” Part of the writer’s job—as observer and commentator—is to measure, quantify, mitigate.
  • For years, I’ve been asking MarketSmiths copywriters to remove the qualifier. Adjectives like “more powerful,” “more efficient,” “faster,” and “lighter” make readers think too hard about relativity, so we’ll say “powerful,” “efficient,” “fast,” and “light.” It also streamlines the piece.

3. Story vs. Poetry

  • In a feature piece, you have all the time in the world (er, how ever much space your editor allows) to meander gracefully to your point. Like a short novel, introductions are drawn-out, plots developed, conclusions full—and space ample. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end.
  • Storytelling for publications can result in actual stories. When it comes to wordcount, copy is like poetry to the more copious space. In other words: you’ve got no room to spare. You have to catch eyes, build credibility, create urgency, and call to action—in 100 words, or often much less.

4. Early vs. Late Punch-line

  • In feature writing, you have to actually land the joke. You can build a story around it, make supporting arguments, and artfully join them together in the end to build a strong—and clear—conclusion. Messiness and tangents are allowed—and encouraged.
  • Copy is neater than journalism. In copy, you can (and should) let the reader draw his own conclusions. It follows a rhythm—and instead of adding unlimited detail, you know when it’s over. Tidied up and delivered with a bow.

5. One vs. Many Truths

  • Both forms insist on the truth, but in journalism, you’re expected to present both sides of it. Exploring possibilities, developing arguments, and drawing multiple conclusions are invited. Often, the writer’s opinion is palpable.
  • In copy, the intent is to solidify the value of a product or service to spark desire. Copy only has one truth to tell: it creates intent and spurs action.

6. Leisure vs. Urgency

  • In a feature piece, it’s all the little details that keep you riveted to the punchline. There’s room to build plots and sub-plots, express opinions, make corollary points. And it’s these tangent-like quips that build a powerful piece that resonates with the reader.
  • In a copy piece, it’s a sense of urgency to benefit from the product or service you’re describing. The benefit need be front and center—and the call to action compelling. There’s no time to wander gracefully to your point; you have to knock the wind out of it immediately.

Alas, journalism and copy are two different forms of writing with two very different approaches. But experience in each only richens your writing skillsets—and connects you deeper to the power of the word. Here’s to wearing both hats at once.

Jean Tang

Jean Tang

A champion of high-end content, Jean is a living tribute to copywriting for humans. In 2012, at a TEDx talk, she declared her now widely viewed “War Against Bland.” The visionary founder of MarketSmiths, Jean leads her growing team to captivate, inspire, and motivate readers. She has helped thousands of global clients generate revenue from words (up to 12,000% ROI), and transformed the writing of hundreds of seminar attendees at the SXSW Interactive Festival (2014 and 2015), SXSW V2V (2014), the Small Business Summit (2014, NYC), and other venues.

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