Is content writing about copywriting or journalism?

We’ve hit crunch time in the content writing world. Two different species of writer have started inhabiting the same territory.

Journalists left the old mountains of media empires to feed on the plains of marketing. Copywriters  looked up from grazing on the advertising savannah and thought, ‘Is there enough here for us all to survive?’

There is, but it’s hard for writers, editors and content marketers to see that. Because the best and most effective writing is invisible—you don’t realise you’re reading. You just experience its power.

To create really effective content marketing you need both skills. And you need to balance their use so they work together. Because used incorrectly, copywriting and journalism can undermine each other.

But by carefully blending the best of both skills, you’ve got something that can change a world.

Copywriting as content writing

You can feel good copywriting before you realise it. It can caress you or hit you, and often takes your breath away. And there’s stuff that copywriters can do that journalists suck at.

Great copywriting uses emotive language. It’s the  principle behind Elmer Wheeler’s  catchphrase, “Don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle”. Wheeler is one of the original authorpreneurs. The New Yorker profiled him in this 1938 article. Read it. It’s a classic, ‘peek-behind-the-curtain’ piece of journalism.

In Wheeler’s own words: “The sizzle is the tang in the cheese, the crunch in the cracker, the whiff in the coffee and the pucker in the pickle.”

Making sense of the senses

In other words, the sizzle is a description of your senses: taste, sound, smell, and whatever sense involves “puckering”. Maybe a combination of all three.

I’ve written more here about how describing your senses makes writing far more emotive. Copywriting is persuasive because it isn’t logical or rational. It goes straight to eliciting this emotional response. Good copywriting links the benefits of a product to an emotional, sensual response to it. That’s its great strength, but also its greatest weakness. Because we’re not dopes—we know when we’re being emotionally manipulated.

And not everyone likes it.

Journalism as content writing

I once knew a woman who categorised everyone she knew based on which member of The Muppets they were like. In her world, copywriting would be a bit like Animal—kinda wild and intense and scary. Where journalists would be like Sam the eagle—authoritative, rational and logical.

Not everyone likes that wild ride. Some people resent the manipulation.

When you feel you’re being emotionally manipulated, having a rational, logical guide is comforting. Having someone who can peek behind the curtain and show you how things are working helps you manage the emotional roller coaster. Their authority helps.

Great journalism can get inside the features of something, rather than being dazzled by its benefits. Boring journalism just lists the features, but doesn’t actually unpack them and explain them.

By the way, if you think that sounds like a description of a press release, you’re right.

Cool world

Don’t get me wrong—great journalism can be extraordinarily powerful to read. But it’s a power that reaches into your cerebral cortex, rather than your gut.

Read William Langewiesche’s account of what happened on 9/11 in American Ground, for example. Or Eric Schlosser’s patient, rational and powerful Fast Food Nation. Both will enrich your life enormously.

But there will always be a wall there. A distance between you and the subject matter. A coolness.

You’re hot, then you’re cold…

Maybe that’s the best way of looking at it. Copywriting has all the flushed, sweaty heat of a sudden emotional reaction. Journalism is the cool breeze the pulls you back to reality. Usually this kind of clash leads to species extinction (see Neanderthal vs homo sapiens, cats versus numbats etc). But there is a way the species threat can be avoided.

If you can alternate between those skill sets in one piece of content, you can drive a reader from an emotional high, to trusting you. Which is a powerful journey to take them on.


About the author: Rob Johnson


Rob Johnson is a director of Engage Content. When not writing about all aspects of content marketing, he leads a team of talented and good-looking writers and editors all living a Gen-X fantasy existence in a top secret headquarters in Pyrmont, on Sydney’s fashionable western side.

This article was first published by Rob Johnson

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