July 15, 2017 by Ed Kennedy
What’s the Difference Between a Journalist, a Copywriter, and an Author? (And Why it’s Important to Know in the Online Era)
This is a question commonly asked but more rarely is an answer provided. ‘What is the difference?’ is a question many clients can have when looking to hire, and it is also something many new writers ponder when starting out. Sure, the roles of a journalist, copywriter, and author all involve writing, but the way in which their daily work is approached is very different. Especially in the online age.
In the era of the Google search engine it’s not news clarity has often come at expense of accessibility. This is true for all parties in the writing business, from the creator, to the publisher, to the distributor. This can be complicated even more by the rise of eCommerce and online business which makes it possible for someone to be a creator, publisher, and distributor all in one (themselves separate roles, but best discussed in a future article). Wearing many hats is no bad thing. In fact, there are strong arguments to be made for professionals to hold a diverse skill set in the era of disruption.
Where it’s complicated is when these roles are confused. This means broader access to professionals and skills doesn’t deliver greater productivity via diversification, but instead poses great challenges. An employer looking to hire an employee or independent contractor for work may find it really difficult to write an ad that properly details who they need for a project, and what skills they need to bring with them.
May the following assist employers in discerning which professional they need for which task, and give any new writers an idea where to start when beginning their career.
The online era allows everybody to have access and write. That is a worthwhile thing. It is also a reality that the rise of fake news has brought with it a renewed emphasis upon the professional ethics and standards of journalism practice, as well as a recognition by many readers that reading news they trust must mean they read it from a trustworthy source.
You want a journalist if you have news to share. You want a journalist when diverse research (think interviewing people first hand over sorting through manuscripts) is desired. You want a journalist when the accuracy of content is a chief priority. Wait, when wouldn’t the accuracy of content be important?
When it comes to marketing. If need a copywriter to write you an ad for your energy drink, obviously you don’t need a raft of data and lab research to back up the fact your drink ‘tastes good on a summer day’. Provided your content doesn’t verge beyond puffery and risk being regarded as outright fabrication, you’re OK. But it also wouldn’t cut the mustard as a news item.
The old adage ‘journalism is the first draft of history’ serves as the guiding star. If you want a piece of writing to endure and be relevant for the longest period of time, pick a journalist to write it. If you want a piece to reach the biggest audience possible fastest, pick a journalist. If you want someone that’ll be well-versed in the understanding of how the media can impact public debate for better (or occasionally worse), dial 1900 journo.
If you want someone to write sleek cutting-edge copy or a really thick book about agriculture in Asia? Read on to see what the other roles offer.
In a nutshell: journalists are best hired for writing focused on news and newsworthy content.
Copywriters are at their best when they can showcase a diverse sample of writings. Many journalists can theoretically do this too, but as many journalists commonly spend years of their career working in one niche (whether by design or necessity), it can be rarer for them to have a diverse portfolio on hand.
What’s more‚ there is a big difference between a piece of content being newsworthy versus enticing. Journalism seeks to inform and generate debate. Copywriting seeks a response. This is not to suggest journalism can’t generate a response, nor copywriting can’t inform, but their core aims at different.
News of a huge protest against a government policy is newsworthy, and can generate action. For example ‘I’ll go to the next protest’. A one sentence slogan by a tea business about how tea reduces cholesterol seeks action but also informs (about the health benefits of tea).
A good writer can switch between the two roles as they have the ability to switch their thinking between them. From a business perspective, their ability to do this is typically evidenced by their samples. If ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’, then certainly a good copywriting sample can be worth a thousand jobs.
From a writer’s perspective, it is altogether OK if you’ve solid experience in one field and now wish to broaden your career, just be sure you can back up that desire with a solid portfolio to show you understand the differences, and know you can’t approach a new story on an urban planning issue involving cars and cyclists the same way you would a piece on vintage car restoration, even if they both have cars as a common component.
In a nutshell: hire a copywriter when you seek to generate a specific action from readers.
These are the heavy hitters of the pack. This is the sort of role you advertise when you are looking for someone to write you a comprehensive book, a series of books, and maybe something smaller like a research paper (though in this case the writer title will suffice). Credentials for an author can take many forms but are always at their core underpinned by one thing: rigour. There’s an old useful basketball adage ‘Star athletes make star plays’. An author shall be able to evidence their capacity to handle a big project and show their skill at seeing it through‚ even when the size of the task is enduring.
This style of writing also requires organisation to be a cornerstone of the writing. An otherwise OK journalist who has a knack for landing great interviews will still find a way to stand out. A whizz copywriter may struggle immensely in navigating a project management app like Asana or Basecamp‚ but their award-winning copy shall ensure they keep getting work. An author of a big book has no such safety net. If you take a deal for thousands of dollars to produce a book of thousands of words and then are unable to piece together an effective and ordered outline to write the book? You’ll not get repeat business from that client.
True, the rise of eBooks means many authors now write smaller books, faster. Just the same, it is not the number of pages alone that makes a book different from a longform article or thesis. It’s instead the capacity to identify a clear purpose at the book’s beginning – whether it is to inform, advertise, argue, or anything other aim – and capably see that through to the end. Sure, a new eBook shall be digital, an older book in ink and paper, but the skill set required to produce a good one remain the same throughout time and technology.
An author’s ability to deal with large-scale projects is surely a virtue. This said, just like how light planes are better than 747s for some flights, authors are not always an ideal first pick for the job. They may find it hard the identify with the ‘immediacy’ of the 24 hour news cycle as journalists do, or relate why ad slogans like ‘Always Coca Cola’ and Nike’s ‘Just do it’ are now iconic. They could write you a 70,000 word book on the history of Silicon Valley’s legendary Sand Hill Road – but ask them to come up with some one word slogans to advertise on a bus travelling down that road, and results may be elusive.
In a nutshell: authors are like 747s: hire one for the ‘long haul’ writing of big content.
Can Professionals Do Multiple Roles?
While these roles are distinctive in terms of their work, they do indeed also have many similarities. This is evidenced by many journalists writing books, by many copywriters beginning their careers as journalists, and many copywriters also writing books on their industry (alongside a variety of other combinations herein). That’s why ‘writer’ remains a catch-all that applies to anyone who puts pen to paper regularly. If unsure what you need, you can just seek out a writer. This can be especially useful if you seek someone in the fiction sphere, as while a professional in the non-fiction realm can indeed call themselves a writer, they’ll usually revert to describing themselves as a journalist or an author if they don’t specialise in fiction. The downside of using the writer tag is the lack of specificity. If you need a writer for a quick 500 word article, getting an expression of interest from a bestselling ghostwriter of multi-volume sci-fi fiction is likely not who you’re looking for. Such an ad and expression of interest just wastes both parties time.
There also needs to be consideration of how many roles and clients you can juggle effectively. It must be remembered working across multiple fields in writing is not just hours spent before Microsoft Word or Google Docs, but time spent negotiating a deal, attending to emails, and sorting invoices and payment. Then there is the logistical challenge that comes with speaking to prospective clients (whether you contact them or they contact you), and even being able to effectively ‘switch caps’ mentally between finalising a longform article with a journalism client, discussing a crisp piece of copy with an ad agency, and starting work on that book you’re set to author.
Overtime this is certainly something that is manageable for someone that has solid experience working across multiple fields, but if you’re a new writer starting out it can be ideal to stick to one sphere. Otherwise it can be confronting…
The Ghost Among Us
Then there is the role of a ghostwriter which invariably sits somewhere between all 3 of these roles. Accordingly, knowing the distinction is worthwhile for people seeking to hire. Not all work needs to be signed and authored by default – website content like a bio or explainer of services is a key example of this – so a writer may suffice here. You need a ghostwriter if you need something authored that would be signed but for whatever reason feel unable to produce it yourself‚ whether due to time‚ talent‚ or even budget constraints.
For this reason ghostwriters are most often found writing within the first person sphere. From speech writing to LinkedIn blogs to long form articles and full size books‚ a ghostwriter can fit the bill if you want to communicate something but struggle to write. There is a big difference between the two‚ and so too is there a difference between pretending to be good at something seeing your talents best used elsewhere.
Hiring a ghostwriter is often the right move for a professional skilled at running a business but perhaps not writing for a business. A hire here can bridge that gap, but by virtue of ghostwriter’s generally holding a more advanced set of business skills that a writer (more on this in a moment), be prepared if hiring one to draw up a formal contract. A good ghostwriter shall always adhere to good ethics anyway, but it is ideal for both sides there is shared clarity about a project via a contract when there is a sizeable workload and cheque in play.
In a nutshell: ghostwriters are highly-skilled but often fill niche roles in the industry, hire one when you know you need one.
Reading the Signs
Knowing how to write is the expectation of a writer. Knowing how to hire should be the prerogative of the hirer. Getting the right person with the right ad is not just going to be significant it’s time to toast your success with a coffee (or cup of Irish coffee depending on your preference), but also is about productivity. With a variety of research illustrating the billions of dollars lost annually in the global economy due to lost time, getting it right the first time has never been so valuable. The reasons for doing so are not merely a matter of linguistics or titles but can also have a very real impact on your budget. A chief example is NOT advertising for a ghostwriter is when you do not need one.
Due to its demand in fields like business‚ law‚ and politics ghostwriting often attracts a higher rate than a regular writer‚ commensurate with their experience. This is owed to the depth of knowledge and level of skill required to write authoritatively for professionals in these fields. It is also a matter of addressing the higher risk, as a legal article that misrepresents a law, or a politician’s speech that states an incorrect fact could have huge consequences for the career of the hirer, and the ghostwriter’s career alongside them. Combined with the need for confidentiality and the drawbacks of it – a ghostwriter may write a hugely successful piece of content but is unable to ever show it in their portfolio due to contractual agreement – whether hiring or working in the field, ghostwriting shall always be in a certain niche of writing.
Seeking someone from the niche can be the right move for a hirer, just as working in the field can be inherently rewarding by many measures for a writer, it is just important for both sides to understand the nature of the role.
This same dynamic applies to the work of a journalist, copywriter, and author.
What If I Feel like I Don’t ‘Fit’ into Any of These Roles? What Am I Exactly?
For those seeking not to hire but instead to be hired, the distinctions of these titles are usually less vital – provided you can produce evidence of your skillset. This doesn’t just go to concern length and depth of experience, but principles of business too.
It is tremendous if you are a new journalist and feel confident enough to stick you hand up to author a 90,0000 word book for a client – but if until now you’ve by and large been producing 500 word opinion pieces for your high school newspaper – you do need to think if you’ve right now got the skill set.
A no to ‘right now’ doesn’t mean it’s a ‘never-never’ for you. Rather it is just also important to recognise, the larger a writing project the more likely it shall take the form of a conventional business deal. Delivering work that is incomplete, late, or of poor quality will not just see your content miss out on publication – it could also see a writer in serious strife. Tread carefully.
So, if you find a project you like that you feel completely out of your depth, it can be better to keep note of it, but also keep away for a time. Work elsewhere, build your skills, and then return to declare your a candidate for the big gig. A little bit of negotiation about your skills and how well you can deliver on a deal as a writer is always to be expected, just make sure you start from a strong position at the outset by having a good foundation in place.
Inking the Deal
Just as you would in any other field, building a reputation for delivering quality work, on time, and to budget is an essential for anyone seeking to build a business in writing. A good reputation certainly has its own rewards (ongoing clients, new clients, and growing revenue throughout), but is tested each deadline and on each project.
In the minds of many, that is equally the greatest virtue and biggest downside of a career in writing. With each role comes different demands (a journo’s deadline hours away, an author’s months) but the pressure of deadlines always remains.
Nonetheless, over time the speed in which you research, write, and produce content ‘fit for print’ grows. So does your ‘internal clock’ that ensures your perpetually conscious you’ve a deadline. This can have benefits not only to your career in writing, but any work you may seek to do in other fields.
Whatever type of professional you feel you need for your business, or whatever role you’re thinking of beginning your career in writing in, these roles are informative of direction but should not restrictive of the outcome. Whatever field it is, and whatever content is in, writer’s write. If you’re a writer and time and tide find you a position to write? – then write!
Ed Kennedy is a journalist, ghostwriter, and web developer from Melbourne, Australia. Contact Ed via firstname.lastname@example.org on Skype or LinkedIn.