Lots of folks today tout themselves as gurus, mavens or doyens of content marketing writing. The tricky part for companies looking to hire an independent writer is how to get past all the hyperbole and find someone with the skills required to develop an excellent piece of content.
One oft-overlooked resume entry that should be at the top of a content writer qualifications checklist is a traditional journalism background. A content writer who has a journalism degree along with news reporting or news editing experience will usually have some very specific competencies that speed the content writing process and ensure a product meets its envisioned goal.
So what special skills do j-school alum bring to the content writing table? Here are four of the most important:
1) Journalists have top-notch interview and research skills.
Any credible news story includes information gathered from reliable sources. To do so, good journalists get out from behind their desks (or at least get on the phone) to gather the facts.
The same goes for content writers. They, too, must conduct interviews and be completely comfortable when:
- Talking to a broad range of people that may include a CEO, CMO or senior vice president of sales; a product engineer or manager; or even a company’s top customers.
- Asking what may be perceived as dumb questions or asking questions to which they already know the answers. Journalists use this technique as a tool to get folks talking, get an explanation from a different viewpoint or check if a source is truthful. Content writers can use the same system to elicit quotes as well as discover not-so-obvious value propositions, features and benefits, and other tidbits of information that can be weaved into a content piece.
- Being faced with hostility or skepticism. Reporters often deal with individuals who are unwilling to be interviewed. The same happens in the content writing world. Subject matter experts and executives, especially those who don’t see the value of content marketing, are often are reluctant to give up their limited time. Some folks won’t talk because of concerns about sharing proprietary information, and others may even see the content writer as a threat. In these cases, the training and experience of a journalist can overcome many objections.
As for the research side of the house, any j-school worth its salt requires students to include a class or two on research and statistics. These skills serve a content writer well. Why? Excellent content writers must have the ability to:
- Dig through reams of information (e.g., product sheets, sales presentations, trade and investor analyst reports, spreadsheets) that often is complex and technical to find nuggets of information that support a writing project.
- Correctly interpret graphs, charts and research stats, and determine which numbers are relevant for inclusion in a project.
- Conduct independent research to better understand a company’s marketplace, gather competitive intelligence and discover outside supporting information that can be incorporated into a project.
2) Journalists are quick to understand new topics.
Rarely are news reporters focused on one specific topic. And even if they do specialize in a single sector, such as healthcare or mobile technology or tire manufacturing, they are expected to report on a variety of happenings across a broad range of companies, organizations and products. Add deadlines into the mix and you’ll find that successful journalists have developed strategies to get them quickly up to speed about the subject at hand. This ability to quickly grasp the big ideas and the nuances of almost any topic easily transfers to content writing projects – a huge time saver for any organization looking to bring on a new freelance content writer.
3) Journalists are sticklers for factual accuracy.
Writers who graduate from j-school understand the importance of ensuring their facts are correct. I taught news reporting to aspiring journalists for a number of years. My policy of giving an automatic “F” on any writing assignment that contained a factual error, even if it was just a typo, was one that most journalism professors still embrace. This is a pretty darn effective teaching technique for getting people to pay attention to facts. After all, the implications for a newspaper (and an individual) are considerable when a newspaper incorrectly publishes that Margie T. Smith instead of Margie R. Smith was arrested for check fraud or prostitution.
This attention to detail and on getting facts correct is equally critical in business communications. Mistakes can lead to all sorts of bad outcomes, including investor panic, customer-driven lawsuits and reputation damage. A content writer who has memories of that first and likely only “F” in a news reporting class because he or she didn’t check and recheck facts will not only be more conscientious about getting a company’s information correct but also may be more likely to find inconsistencies in source materials.
4) Journalists understand the concept of writing for the reader.
One of the Principles of Journalism published on the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism website states that a journalist must strive “to make the significant interesting and relevant” and that “the effectiveness of a piece of journalism is measured both by how much a work engages its audience and enlightens it.” Isn’t this also the goal of content marketing writers?
Of course, just because a person waves a journalism or communications degree does not automatically transform that individual into a good content writer. A slew of additional skills – understanding content marketing principles, knowing how to incorporate keywords, having an ability to work with teams (content development is rarely done in a vacuum) and more – are also essential. However, when all other things are equal, an ex-journalist’s mindset and skills are great additions to a company’s content marketing efforts.
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