Thursday, December 16, 2010...9:00 am

Eight rules of corporate writing for journalists

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In the current climate, some hard-pressed journalists may be thinking they’d like to get out of underpaid, overworked hackery and into the cozy, cushy world of corporate writing.

But freelancers who fancy dipping their toe into the water need to be aware of some cultural differences between corporate communications and journalism that can derail them.

Here, then, are eight key rules for anyone who wants to make the jump from journalistic bear pit to corporate feather bed.

  1. Get used to red tape
    Freelance journalists are used to getting a call or email asking them for a feature and giving them a more-or-less coherent brief. A couple of thousand words later, you send in an invoice and wait for a cheque or BACS payment. (And wait. And wait). Dealing with big corporates is different. My brief stint doing corporate work for a big energy equipment supplier involved getting set up as a supplier, signing a mutual non-disclosure agreement, providing quotes for work to generate purchase orders and filling out a range of financial-type forms. There was also a four-page “supplier integrity guide” to digest. Many freelancers by their nature seek to avoid this kind of thing and will give up at the first hurdle. Don’t. Just bear in mind that, once you’re in the system, those freelance payments are a bit more reliable than “the cheque’s in the post”.
  2. Embrace ‘reply to all’ emails
    It’s called corporate communications for a reason. Everyone communicates with everyone else all the time. Expect to receive constant email updates, memos and reminders as the project you’re working on progresses. Likewise, make sure everything you send to one person is copied in to anyone else remotely relevant. Don’t worry about wasting people’s time: employees in large companies love this – it proves that they are important and valuable and always in the loop.
  3. Don’t think for yourself
    Journos take pride in being able to interpret a scanty editorial brief and take a feature somewhere interesting off their own bat. Don’t be tempted to do this in the corporate world. If any question or uncertainty at all occurs to you, ping out an email to everyone involved (see rule 2) and don’t carry on too far with a project without getting a response. Corporates tend to be very clear about what they want from their comms and they want you to deliver it. Exactly.
  4. Keep it plain and simple
    Very plain. Drain all the colour out of your writing. Keep it as straight and factual as possible and avoid colourful turns of phrase and expression. Remember that much corporate output needs to be understood in offices and markets around the world, so its readers are often not native English speakers. In fairness, this does not make your writing bad – in fact it needs a lot more discipline. And sticking to the facts, writing plain and clear English and assuming your readership is global is actually increasingly relevant advice for online writers generally. But it is a bit boring.
  5. Avoid anything controversial
    Even if you’ve been used to writing very soft features, where no news is bad news and problems are always challenges, it’s still difficult to get used to the corporate horror of real language. This applies to everything, especially quotes that sound like a real person has said them. Think you can’t write something controversial about a management improvement programme? One interviewee’s inflammatory comment that “people see things that annoy them every day and want to fix them” had to be quickly altered to read: “Now when people see things that could be improved, they have the tools to do something about it. It’s satisfaction for them and a win for the business.” If not a win for engaging writing.
  6. House style matters. A lot
    Newspaper and magazine house style used to matter a lot more than it does now, given the changes in production processes the media is going through. Even in the old days, many journalists would be a bit careless about house style as they relied on sub-editors to get it right. But the corporate style guide is law, and anyone writing for company publications must obey it. In journalism you sneer at companies that try to insist you use ® and ™ symbols on their products. In corporate writing you must follow this guidance slavishly. Be warned.
  7. Learn to love Word’s ‘Track Changes’ function
    As a journalist you will probably never have used this – or even be aware of its existence. But Word’s ability to keep visual track of all the changes made to a document by different authors and editors is a godsend in the corporate world. Because, yes, in the end this is editing and approval by committee, and all the committee members must be acknowledged in the process. And when you manage to miss out one of the changes because you can’t decipher the chaotic Word document, that makes it your fault.
  8. Most of your time is not spent writing
    Even if you’re on an hourly rate, you’ll probably have to quote for jobs – and there are many factors affecting how long a corporate job will take. Meetings; email communication; getting up to speed with corporate systems and intranets and learning how to use track changes will all eat time and must be allowed for in your quote. As a rule of thumb, you should double the time you estimate it will take to allow for all the palaver.

If after all this you’re still undaunted, think of the upside. While the past two years has been grim for journalism, as newspapers and magazines close and aggregation web sites pay £6 an hour for churnalism thrown together by raw graduates, in the corporate world journalistic skills are valued – even prized – and its offices are, in comparison with the newsroom, paved almost literally with gold (well, at £25-£35 an hour basic, it’s nearly the same).

It’s something at which many journalists might have turned up their nose in better times. But things being what they are, the corporate world can look a great deal more attractive than the publishing house. Get it right and build a good reputation, and the rewards become even higher. Even if you have to wade through in-house jargon to do it…

2 Comments

  • One other thing you may have to get used to: officially-sanctioned illiteracy.

    OK, this could come under the style book heading, but I’ve found corporate clients often want common nouns capitalised (especially when this is to do with people’s jobs), companies described as plural, oddball acronyms and, in some cases, just plain wrong grammar because someone higher up ‘thinks’ it should be written that way.

    I sometimes get around this by telling clients I can make their copy read like material in one of the financial newspapers.

  • I come from the corporate world, and thought this article was a great read. You’re absolutely right, but I’d never thought about it like that before. It really is all about getting the message right, but first working out what “right” means. This depends on who’s in charge, who thinks they are in charge, and what sources of information you can rely on. The in-house jargon can be extreme, and is sometimes further complicated by arcane technical terminology.

    The crafting of a piece of writing only comes after what can be a very lengthy information gathering and consultancy period.

    I like your ploy for getting around the capital noun problem Bill. I might try something similar next time a client insists I use use the comic sans font for a cartoon.

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