Think Like a Journalist to Improve Your Writing (Trench Coat Optional!)

Think Like a Journalist to Improve Your Writing (Trench Coat Optional!)

As a teenager, I felt in the very core of my being that I was destined to be a newspaper reporter and probably a Pulitzer Prize winner.

I was already reporting for my middle school newspaper, “The Saghalie Skyhawk”, on crucial issues of the day like lunchtime panhandlers itching to satisfy a Cool Ranch Doritos craving, and writing horoscopes littered with alliteration.

What more could a girl want from a career?

I stuck with it, continuing to try on the journalism hat while writing for school newspapers in high school and in college.

I graduated with a degree in Journalism from Seattle Pacific University in 2005, around the time when prospects for career journalists were looking dire.

The digital age was taking hold, and the future was, at best, extremely uncertain for traditional media outlets. Even my professors were anxious.

Ever the pragmatist, I decided to abandon my childhood dreams of whiling away the hours in a real live newsroom for a broader communications career, though I had little more than an inkling as to what that meant in the workplace.

Once I finally joined the ranks of ye olde working worlde, I discovered my journalism education had prepared me exceptionally well for a veritable cornucopia of writing styles and mediums, and, even more importantly, I knew how to communicate with people.

But you don’t need a journalism degree to apply the basic principles to your writing. When you think like a journalist, you will become a better writer.

Here’s how you can use 10 tenets of journalism to improve your writing, no matter your genre or industry.

1. Remember the 5 Ws

Journalists can never forget the 5 Ws: Who, What, When, Where, Why (plus the sixth unofficial W: Why should I care?).

These are not only the building blocks for a news article, they also serve as a baseline for a corporate communications plan, as a sketch for a customer profile and as a starting point for a novelist’s character chart.

2. Know your audience

Who are you writing for? What’s on their to-do list? What keeps them up at night? What television shows do they watch? What do they read? What are their political views? Do they have children? What do they want most out of life?

Imagine you are writing for one person. And don’t write a single word until you know who that person is, and why they will want to read what you have to say.

3. Refine your lead

Okay, okay: journalists would call it a lede.

It’s the same concept: your hook, your sizzle, your selling point. Your primary summary of what’s happening.

Figure out, first and foremost, what will engage your audience and motivate them to read more.

Human beings are wired for storytelling — so tell a story.

If you can add human conflict to the mix, all the better.

4. Show, don’t tell

Memoirists, novelists and journalists are equally familiar with the idea of showing, not telling.

It’s the art of painting a picture with words. It’s setting the scene. It’s using specific examples to engross the imagination.

For example: “She put on another pot of hot coffee” is rather generic.

However, “As she ran out the clock on the last 14 minutes of her 12-hour shift, the waitress reluctantly refilled the industrial coffee pot for perhaps the thousandth time that day” is not only more specific, it also conveys the mood of the scene.

Another trick is to weave in the five senses: sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell — just don’t try to force all of them into the ultimate run-on sentence.

5. Trust, but verify

Whether you’re writing a competitive analysis for a business, doing research for your latest book or interviewing a subject for a magazine, you need to carefully evaluate your information sources.

Err on the side of the reliable, the reputable and the truthful. Stay away from drama and speculation.

Know the difference between an established news outlet or a qualified subject matter expert and a random online commentator.

Double-check your facts and vet your sources.

6. Strategically structure your writing

Imagine a pyramid.

Your most important, catchiest and most interesting content belongs at the very top of the pyramid.

Attention spans are shockingly short — you have mere seconds before your reader moves on.

Thus, it makes sense to arrange your writing from most important to least important, in case the reader jumps ship halfway through.

7. Mind the details

Details matter.

Names, titles, punctuation, dates, capitalization, citations and other minutiae (can anyone out there spell minutiae without the aid of Spell Check? I can’t.) can make or break your story.

If you demonstrate that you can handle the small details, you’re more likely to find more work, book deals and future clients.

Remember that accuracy, paired with consistency, lends credibility.

8. Aim to stir emotions

Writers write to connect with people. And people connect via their emotions and their shared experiences.

Read your writing out loud.

Does it feel flat and monotone? Try again until the words start coming to life.

Picture the scene playing out in a movie.

If you want your writing to have a lasting impact, make it your goal to evoke emotion: amusement, horror, nostalgia, anger, inspiration, or whatever is appropriate for your audience and your writing.

9. Trim it up

Throw out anything that doesn’t serve the primary purpose of your writing.

Sometimes diversions from the topic at hand can provide fodder for another blog, article, or book.

But if it doesn’t belong, or confuses the narrative, it’s got to go.

Take it from Mark Twain:

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very:’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

Extraneous information and commentary weaken your work rather than improve it.   

10. Focus on the human element

I love this technique for dealing with data.

Data byte: According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Americans consumed 140.43 billion gallons of gasoline in 2015.

So, what? Do a bit of math to bring the point home to your readers.

Try this: Americans consumed enough gasoline in 2015 to fill more than 212,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Now you’ve made an impact and created a visual for your reader.

Anyone can think and write like a journalist.

Journalism is essentially the pursuit of truth, and truth can be expressed in innumerable forms: poetry, fiction, art, music, investigatory journalism, cultural commentary, blogging, and children’s books, to name a few.

Start and end with the search for truth, pay attention to the world around you, and you’re on the right path.

Trench coat optional.

Filed Under: Craft

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  • Kay says:

    Dear Megan,
    Thank you so much for writing this. I am currently working on a article with a friend, this is the first time I am doing some thing like this. Your tips have really helped me structure my thoughts on the approach I am going to take. Thank you! If you have any tips on how to be creative with language, please do share.

  • How many years have you been a journalist. You do it for the people of the country. You give it back to different people. You work for you. Do you enjoy doing that

  • Sheri says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Megan. It’s a great reminder of all those things I know intuitively, but don’t always remember. I especially like the 6th W. It was definitely an element when I was doing proposal writing for a government contractor. I also agree with your assessment of grammar and punctuation errors. I’m especially intolerant of them and will tune out otherwise good content if there are too many errors.

  • Thank you for a very interesting article. I am a stickler when it comes to correctly punctuating, spelling and capitalizing properly. Today’s audience seems to feel this is insignificant and communicating in “all” lowercase characters is acceptable.
    Will you be addressing this grammatical deficit in your future writings, or am I alone on this topic.
    Just yesterday, I requested a company, promoting marketing, remove me from their distribution list as I found it difficult to read their correspondence when it is written like a lengthy text message.
    I’m not a grammar snob about this, but I dislike the trend that appears to be gaining popularity and bastardizing the English language.

    • Megan Sharma says:

      Hello, Lee! Thank you for reading and for your comment.

      Which is worse: all lowercase, or all caps? I personally can’t stand all caps correspondence (and delete it immediately).

      I agree that we do live in a more “text talk” culture these days. Attention spans are shorter. I suppose it’s just the way of the world.

      That said, it never hurts to build a strong foundation for good writing at an early age (which, I hope, our schools are still doing!).

      Keep on writing!

  • Samantha says:

    I love this article, Megan! I also graduated from a WA university with a degree in journalism and find that I use those skills every day as a copywriter. Now I’m freelancing, but when I was employed as a copywriter, I was often asked to come up with questions to ask customers and ambassadors and I always enjoyed putting on my journalist hat for those sorts of tasks.

    • Megan Sharma says:

      Hi, Samantha! Thanks so much for reading and for taking the time to leave a comment.

      Two cheers for Washington state and for journalism!

      BTW, I LOVE your web site! Very nicely put together and designed.

      And I am incredibly jealous that you have written for Rick Steves. Of course, being from the Pacific Northwest, I swear by his travel guides.

      Cheers and happy writing!

  • Ashley Dietrich says:

    Great article. Thank you for sharing your expertise and helpful tips while also providing an enjoyable read. I look forward to reading more of your work in the future.

  • Callie says:

    Thank You for this one Megan. I look forward to your newsletter and always enjoy your posts. Like Ranee this is the first time I have left a comment. This piece was insightful, helpful and enjoyable to read.
    You can sign me up as a future student too 🙂

  • Bharti says:

    Great job Megan ?

  • Barbara Marsh says:

    Awesome article! I learned a lot! Wish I’d known that stuff when I was in school!

  • Janelle Alex says:

    Not so different from writing fiction. 🙂 Great points that you’ve shared! Thank you for your post.

  • Ranee Tomlin says:

    I faithfully read every Write Life blog posting, and I’ve loved many of them; but this is the first one for which I had to take the time to provide a comment. You’ve written an exceptional piece!

    I planned to major in journalism but would have graduated during a time when jobs were hard to come by and we weren’t yet imagining new options for journalism degrees. My pragmatic side prevailed, also, and I went a different direction. I’ve been kicking myself for several decades.

    If you ever expand this blog into a course, I would love to be your student!

    • Megan Sharma says:

      Hi, Ranee! Wow, you totally made my day. Thank you so much for your kind comments on the article.

      I’m so glad you found value in it!

      It’s never too late to start doing what you love, right? There are so many opportunities for what they used to call ‘citizen journalism’ these days. Or freelancing. Or blogging. Or coaching. I’m sure you’ve found something you’re passionate about.

      I will definitely reach out to you if I ever develop a course! Right now I am focused on freelance writing and my book, but who knows what the future may hold?

      Cheers 🙂

      • Ranee Tomlin says:

        Megan, I never have found anything I’m as passionate about as writing, although helping other writers (as a copyeditor) is close. Maybe, though, you can be my role model for writing! Thanks again for sharing your great knowledge and skills with us.

        • Megan Sharma says:

          Helping other writers is awesome! Copyediting is one of those jobs that you’re either very gifted at or can’t do at all. Kudos!

          Have a great weekend, Ranee!

  • Great Article! You’d be surprised how important writing communication is to accountants like myself. Passing this article on to my millennial staff in hopes they will understand the importance of a well structured email to a client. 🙂

  • Laura says:

    You are amazing, Megan! I love reading your blog and look forward to reading your book. Keep up the great work! 🙂

  • James Thorne says:

    This is a great help, Megan. I took a small correspondence course in journalism as a teenager. I’m sure it helped me.

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