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Why you need to write like the country’s best editors

How would you like to get work experience alongside some of the best sub-editors in the country? That’s something I had the good fortune to do during the training period in my first job as a journalist. These guys worked on the national daily papers in the afternoons and evenings, but did freelance work for magazine publishers such as my employer in the mornings. They were amazing to watch, able to scan a story, think up a great headline, and make it fit the space in seconds. (For the under 40s amongst you, this was before the days of computerised page layout!)

Today, as a marketing or product manager, almost anything you write will be going ‘straight to press’. Whether it’s an article for your own website, or a press release for external publishers, the chances are it’ll end up in front of customers exactly as you wrote it, without any professional intervention. So you need to know the techniques which were once the specialist skill of a technical journalist.

The sub-editors where I worked were also there to make sure the story had punch and clarity. Ensuring that the ‘who, what, where, when, why and how’ were all in the first few paragraphs was essential, but not enough. The piece had to grab the reader’s attention. And they managed it every time.

There was really no excuse for a poor story in the magazine. A lot of the material would have been written in technical format by a marketing or product manager, amended for readability by a PR consultant, put into house style by a journalist and have the finishing touches applied by a sub-editor. Of course it was good!

So how do you do all this yourself? If I could recommend anything for a news item, it’d be to check you’ve got the ‘who, what, where, when, why and how’ covered, wherever appropriate. But for all pieces, I’d also say that the introduction is more important than ever. There’s so much available to a reader just a click away that even the most mundane technical article needs to appear compelling from the outset. To this end, I’d suggest ensuring that the opening line is good: I like to ask a question, to highlight it in bold – anything to get the reader to move on to the next sentence.

Then ensure that the reader knows they’re about to learn something to their benefit. Don’t understate the importance of what you have to say. If it’s not important, why are you even bothering? I know it’s hard to convince yourself that a story about the Acme Flange Company using your blue widgets is exciting, but try to put yourself in the shoes of a prospect at the Acme Flange Company’s competitor. They will – genuinely – be interested in what you have to say. Always write as if that person was sitting opposite you.

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