5 Writing Tricks You Can Swipe from the Professional Journalist’s Playbook

5 Writing Tricks You Can Swipe from the Professional Journalist’s Playbook

You’re passionate about blogging.

But your blog is just one of scores covering the same topic.

How can you possibly stand out? What can you do to get noticed?

Well, here’s one way that can get you loads of attention:

Think like a journalist.

Reporters are in the business of getting noticed – if their stories don’t make a splash, they’ve essentially failed.

That’s why they are completely focused on delivering information their readers want to know – and they use a variety of newsgathering techniques to dig it up.

Fortunately, these methods aren’t hard to adopt – you can totally do this. In fact, it’s a wide-open opportunity for any blogger who wants to raise the bar for their content.

So what does it mean to think like a journalist?

Swipe the following five techniques from the journalism world to stand out with blog posts that are magazine-article quality:

1. Get a Scoop

Beat reporters keep their jobs by digging up unique information their competing rags don’t have.

By contrast, most blog posts don’t tell us anything we haven’t seen a hundred times before. So if you want mad traffic to your blog, break a big story.

You may think this seems impossible. There’s nothing new under the sun, right?

Wrong – scoops happen all the time. You just need to know how to find them.

One excellent way is to interview interesting people. Do a bunch of interviews on one topic, and you can even write an expose – readers always love to get a peek behind the scenes, or find out if a company’s promises are really true.

And be creative about where you look for information. If you’re profiling a popular person or company, check for lawsuits on Lexis-Nexis or Justia, ask around your network, and Google “[person’s name] sucks” to see what you find. Dig up some fresh dirt, and you’re sure to have a popular post.

2. Become a Trend-Spotter

Any given day, you can see bloggers tweeting about how they’re trying to slap an idea together at the last minute for tomorrow’s post. But that’s not how you become known for quality content.

Reporters always have scads of ideas up their sleeves because they usually need to write several stories every week – and they never know if their editor will like their top choices. So they’ve always got backups.

I call this newsgathering process “collecting string.” Each factoid you find may not be a story in itself, but as you collect news items, you’ll start to see how your pieces might connect into an interesting, coherent set of information – a ball of string, or a trend story, instead of unrelated scraps.

I’ve used this spot-a-trend technique to get huge traffic on my Forbes blog, on posts like this one about fast-food trends.

Besides reading popular blogs (which I’m betting you do already), string-collecting methods can include the following:

  • Creating Google Alerts on your topic that deliver daily headlines
  • Monitoring press-release sites such as PR Newswire or PR Web
  • Studying online and print magazines
  • Watching Amazon.com for upcoming book releases
  • Following popular culture such as TV shows and movies

Create idea lists as you turn up news so that when post time rolls around, you’ve got dozens of possibilities, and you can choose the strongest topic. I have dozens of pages of topic ideas for every blog I write, and add to it every week.

In addition to reading within your sector, look beyond it for ideas that might be old hat in one industry or community, but fresh to your readers.

3. Pick Up the Phone

Few bloggers take the time to do interviews. Fewer still take the time to actually speak to a real person.

Sure, many bloggers send out a few quick email questions to top bloggers and then do roundup posts with the results. But that’s not an interview – that’s an email. You don’t get unique or fascinating information that way.

Interviewing means talking to a live human being, either in person, or on the phone, or Skype. Talking to people live also allows you to build relationships, and find out personal details or tips nobody else has published. Journalists are always cultivating their sources, building trust so that they get the news first.

That unique content is worth its weight in gold. A quick interview on an interesting topic can get you a ton of traffic – like I did with this post about how to open a restaurant on the cheap, which continues to bring me a ton of readers each month on my Forbes blog about entrepreneurship. I spent perhaps 20 minutes chatting with this restaurant owner, and it was well worth it to get more than 68,000 views.

Think nobody will talk to you? You’d be surprised. Tons of book authors, academics, researchers, business owners, and other experts are dying for any scrap of exposure they can get. Ask them for 10 or 15 minutes — the worst that can happen is they’ll say “no.”

Make a habit of ending your interviews with a future-focused question that gleans you more ideas, like, “What’s next for you?” That way, you can hear what’s coming up that you might not know to ask about.

Bonus question: Ask if you can have an exclusive on the information they’ve just given you. This means they won’t tell anyone else about it until after you publish it – and your blog will be the only place readers can go to get this news.

4. Dig into the Data

Bloggers love to write off the top of their heads, and this can result in vague generalizations about their topic or industry. Journalists never do that – they nail down every fact and tell readers where they found it.

You can do this too – and give your blog instant legitimacy.

Find relevant research that sheds light on your topic. Industry associations, market-research firms, trade publications, and government agencies are four of my favorite places to find interesting, independent data. (But beware of research done by corporations that just proves how great their solution is.)

It’s not hard to find new surveys with a little online research – so do it. Once you get your hands on the data, see what fresh conclusions you could draw from it, aside from the headline that research house is pushing in their press release. Lots of research firms release data in Excel form now, so it’s easy to sort it for different variables.

Data manipulation is the technique I’ve used for most of my Forbes slideshows, including my most-popular one ever, which has gotten nearly 900,000 views.

The figures in that post came from a trade-magazine report on the biggest fast-food chains in terms of global revenue. I re-cut their data to rank the chains by which American-based restaurant brands had the most units overseas. That gave me a fresh angle – the fast-food chains with the biggest global presence – and fresh rankings that didn’t appear anywhere else, even though the study was widely distributed.

Finally, double-check and make sure you’re citing that data accurately. It’s easy to look at the wrong line on a big chart.

5. Circle Back Around

Here’s a final, easy trick journalists use to ensure they have a steady stream of great stories: When they hit on an interesting topic that gets a strong response, they set up a reminder that they want to revisit it again later.

Reporters create “future” files and drop a note in for six months or a year after that big conference, earthquake, bankruptcy, or interview with a fascinating rising star. Then, when that date arrives, they write a follow-up about what’s happened since.

Did predictions made at that conference come true, or did they flop? Did the town get rebuilt, or is it still a wreck? Did the star hit the big time, or flame out?

Follow-up posts have built-in popularity because they reference something readers are already familiar with and curious about. Few bloggers take the time to follow stories down the road this way, and readers will love you for giving them the update.

Too many blogs raise an issue or make a claim of what they’ll do, and then the topic vanishes, leaving readers hanging. If you vowed to lose 50 pounds on your blog, be sure to come back a year later and post about it again – even if it’s to discuss why you failed to reach your goal.

Think Like a Reporter and Rise Above the Blogging Masses

All of these journalism strategies help you deliver useful information in a documented way that makes readers trust you.

Thanks to the interviews, research, and trend-spotting you’ve done, you’ll come off as a blogger who really knows what they’re talking about!

These techniques also don’t take a lot of time, and you can pick any one of them as a starting point for improving your content.

Think of yourself as a beat reporter covering your blog’s topic instead of “just a blogger,” and your readers will see your blog as a high-quality online magazine.

And they won’t want to miss a single issue.

About the Author: Carol Tice is a longtime journalist who writes the Make a Living Writing blog. She co-teaches Article Writing Masterclass, the 10-week course where you learn to write quality articles, and get feedback from pro editors.

44 Comments

  1. Sue Anne Dunlevie
    Dec 11, 2014 @ 10:27:18

    Hi, Carol,

    LOVE this post!

    I have had great success with using the phone for interviews. I offer an email interview or phone interview and I’m surprised just how often an influencer would rather talk than write.

    I like your idea of trending topics. I’ll start using that one right away.

    Thanks,
    Sue

    • Carol Tice | Make a Living Writing
      Dec 11, 2014 @ 10:36:07

      Trends are the bomb, Sue!

      I often think that the #1 reason people read nonfiction now is for help making sense of our too-rapidly changing world.

      Anytime you can connect the dots for people and say, “You saw x, y, and z happen — and here’s what that means when you look at those all together… people love you.

    • super
      Dec 13, 2014 @ 22:35:49

  2. Brenda Spandrio
    Dec 11, 2014 @ 10:29:03

    I’ve been stuck with my blogging because, as you said, my posts start sounding like what’s already out there ad nauseam. I no longer write for a content mill, but at the time, I did a lot of what you are recommending and felt much better about my writing. Frankly, it was more interesting the my own ramblings.

    Thanks for the suggestions. Time to get serious!

    • Carol Tice | Make a Living Writing
      Dec 11, 2014 @ 10:36:57

      Glad this helped you, Brenda! Every blogger needs to think about what their fresh slant is they can bring to their blog topic.

  3. Kevin Duncan
    Dec 11, 2014 @ 10:29:53

    Hi Carol,

    Good to see you on BBT again!

    Reading your post (which was great, by the way) reminds me of how I sometimes wish I went to college to be a journalist. It certainly would come in handy these days as a blogger. 🙂

    Becoming a trend-spotter is a great tip, and it’s the one I can certainly use. I try to stay up to date on things, but I’m often short on time. I’ve never fully taken advantage of Google Alerts, so that’s probably a good place for me to start.

    Thank you for your post, Carol. (And for your comment on my “Bucket List” post here at BBT a few week’s back!) I’ll be tweeting this shortly.

    Hope you have a great day!

    -Kevin

  4. Sangeetha Menon
    Dec 11, 2014 @ 10:32:54

    Carol,

    Think like a journalist! You are 101% correct.

    In this digital era of information overload no one has the time to spend their time reading all the articles they come across.

    Thinking of catchy titles definitely works for our rescue.

    A great post with executable pointers.

  5. Mary Collings
    Dec 11, 2014 @ 10:59:23

    Hi Carol!

    That’s a great post with solid advice. I particularly like the idea of changing your attitude from being “just a blogger.” I feel there’s a lot of snobbery regarding bloggers and that’s a shame. At the end of the day, it’s content and all content has to be great.

    Luckily, I don’t feel like “just a blogger” as I know (now more than ever!) how much work goes into writing a really great post.

    I met an ex colleague from the supermarket where I worked until recently. She asked me what I was doing and I said I was learning to write guest posts for blogs. Her response? “What’s a blog?” This – from a girl who spends half her life on Facebook.

    My take on this? Woohoo – I’m more of an expert than I thought I was. As Tim Ferriss says “You only need to know a tiny bit more than the next guy to be an expert!” He’s right to a point but as you say, add in a good wodge* of some properly researched content and you’re golden!

    *quaint English technical term 🙂

    • Carol Tice | Make a Living Writing
      Dec 11, 2014 @ 12:08:09

      Hi Mary — great to see you here!

      I think we can start to change some of the ‘just a blogger’ stigma by changing our own thinking about what we’re doing. When we create more valuable, article-level blog posts, more readers start to realize that this is the magazine of the future, not some ugly step-cousin of great writing.

  6. Jenna Dalton
    Dec 11, 2014 @ 11:29:46

    Great post, Carol!

    I especially like the idea of circling back around. I use a program called Things which gives me daily reminders of stuff I need to do. It’d be simple enough for me to plop in a reminder to follow-up on a post topic on a specific date. Definitely going to use it the next time I write something that could use a follow-up post. Thanks for the idea!

    • Carol Tice | Make a Living Writing
      Dec 11, 2014 @ 12:09:03

      Back when I started out, I had a physical accordion file with the 31 days of the month on it, and popped ‘future file’ items in there. Now, of course, it’s all software. 😉

  7. Mark Chase
    Dec 11, 2014 @ 12:01:47

    Thanks for sharing your process Carol! It’s nice to see your behind the scenes actions to the many articles I have read on Forbes. I agree, interviews are a great way to uncover great ideas and topics.

    • Carol Tice | Make a Living Writing
      Dec 11, 2014 @ 12:10:37

      Great to see you over here, Mark! I just did a really fun interview that I’m hoping to put up this afternoon — with Cheech & Chong comedian Tommy Chong!

      Once you start interviewing, the thing a lot of writers don’t realize is…it attracts additional invites for interviews. PR people read your blog and see you do interesting interviews, and then they want to connect their clients to you. Chong’s people reached out to me. 😉

      • Mark Chase
        Dec 11, 2014 @ 12:24:27

        I can’t wait to read the article! Should be a lot of fun.

  8. Anabelle Bernard Fournier
    Dec 11, 2014 @ 12:03:25

    Of course this is an article by Carol 🙂 Should have known when i got the email.

    Data and interviews are a great way to make your blog more authoritative–and to pin yourself as an expert in your field. I need to think more like a journalist, for sure!

    • Carol Tice | Make a Living Writing
      Dec 11, 2014 @ 12:13:02

      Well, I hope I’m not *too* predictable! I’m excited to be here on BBT — I’m a very avid reader of this blog.

      I’ve been known to describe myself as a ‘data whore’ — I love, love fresh data! So few writers take the time to wade into big surveys, and there are so many great ideas you can tease out of a big lump of data that will be exclusive to your blog.

  9. Anne Ricci
    Dec 11, 2014 @ 12:06:58

    Hi Carol!

    great post! I will definitely apply your advice to write more popular posts and guest posts in 2015.

    I also feel I want to interview experts, but I have this dumb inner voice whispering “nobody will talk to you”. Now I can reply: “Carol said they will.”

    Thanks for all these tips!

    Anne

    • Carol Tice | Make a Living Writing
      Dec 11, 2014 @ 12:13:52

      It is a zero-risk activity to ask if you can interview someone. Worst that happens is they say ‘no.’ And then you ask someone else. Repeat until you’re interviewing someone. 😉

  10. Michael Chibuzor
    Dec 11, 2014 @ 12:20:22

    I love the first point: get a scoop. This has been working so well for me recently. My new blog just suddenly starting getting organic traffic, even without any backlinking plan or structure. All I did was write about a topic from an entirely unique angle that no one has ever considered possible.

    You practice what you preach Carol. Thank you for helping writers throughout these years. Although I’m not a member of your ‘Den, but I’ve heard success stories from close pals.

  11. Ali
    Dec 11, 2014 @ 12:55:16

    Great ideas! I feel like quality blog posts are just like journalistic articles with a more casual approach. Do you agree or do you see that comment as off-base?

    Thanks for the post!
    Ali.

    • Carol Tice | Make a Living Writing
      Dec 11, 2014 @ 13:35:23

      Depends on what you mean by ‘more casual,’ Ali.

      If you mean the language and tone is a bit more conversational, I’d agree.

      But I think what it means to most bloggers is playing fast and loose with facts, making generalizations without substantiating them with real data, not caring if someone’s name is spelled three different ways in your post, and recycling what they’ve found online without adding anything new.

  12. Andy
    Dec 11, 2014 @ 13:15:17

    Great Post. I liked all the ideas, especially the last one. But (hence this comment!) the very first tip sounds like all fluff. There is too much negativity already to ‘look for fresh dirt’ just to get a popular post. If someone resorts to it, that would simply indicate that they have nothing positive to contribute and want to bathe themselves in someone else’s limelight. A bad idea in the long run IMHO.

    • Carol Tice | Make a Living Writing
      Dec 11, 2014 @ 13:41:45

      Well, the tip to get a scoop doesn’t necessarily mean a negative one, Andy. Great scoops could include a new charity a celebrity is founding, or a company’s new product, or new-store expansion plan that’s still top-secret but you found out what’s going to happen through your own research (tip: Watch Indeed.com for hiring notices on companies of interest and check the locations they want people in).

      While I wouldn’t recommend writing nothing but negative scoop posts, it’s been repeatedly proven that negative headlines get more traffic than positive ones, and that people gravitate to bad news. It’s just in our nature. They also appreciate a heads-up on anything negative going on that affects their lives. I can tell you I have gotten so many positive responses and formed new relationships from writing the expose I linked to above. You can also check out how many comments that got.

      The fact is, part of our job as bloggers is to be a bit polarizing — to point out the bad stuff, to take a stand, to disagree.

      I balance the negative/expose-type posts I do with many positive and inspiring ones. You definitely wouldn’t want to do nothing but bad news.

      But…just consider trying to get an exclusive on something. Some piece of fresh news that you would be the first to break, good or bad. Trust me, that’s huge for any blog.

  13. Joel Arndt
    Dec 11, 2014 @ 15:06:59

    Love this!

    When you write blogs like an investigative journalist, the unique data, quotes, and revelations you document become a resource for other writers. You gain readers and become a trusted “news” source.

    Great post. Thanks Carol.

    • Carol Tice | Make a Living Writing
      Dec 11, 2014 @ 15:32:35

      Good point, Joel — the other thing you get is a ton of backlinks. Everybody else wants to mention or riff on your scoop.

  14. Lavina Melwani
    Dec 11, 2014 @ 19:37:18

    Hi Carol, thanks for all those great points. Since I’m a journalist who took on blogging about five years ago, I can say it really helps to use all these journalistic tools on a blog. Another trick is to find a niche or a beat which is not over-exposed and has a potential audience. I write about the arts through the prism of India. Since I do a lot of face to face interviews as well as phone interviews, I feel comfortable calling my site an arts portal.

    • Carol Tice | Make a Living Writing
      Dec 12, 2014 @ 11:49:05

      Love how you’ve been able to position yourself as more than a blog and as a resource instead, thanks to taking a more fact-based approach! Great example of how this attitude can help a blog succeed.

  15. Bryan Collins
    Dec 12, 2014 @ 05:25:48

    I was a journalist for various publications in Ireland several years ago. I’m not a journalist now but I still find amazing value in carrying out interviews.

    The future file is an excellent idea and one I could have benefited from back then. One for Evernote I think!

    • Carol Tice | Make a Living Writing
      Dec 12, 2014 @ 11:51:54

      Bryan, I once was on a multi-day journalism retreat with my editors at the time, and their top gripe was the lack of follow-up stories.

      So, X company filed for bankruptcy. Then what happened? Or X company merged with X — did that work out, or a year later did they quietly sell the company off again for much less than they paid? Google introduced a new feature — did people use it? Follow the story down, and readers will love you for it.

      As it happens, a post I’m building right now is a follow-on. I’m taking some 2014 dining predictions, and then have some new data on what we really ate, so we can see which predictions were right and which bombed. People LOVE this sort of followup.

  16. Katherine Swarts
    Dec 12, 2014 @ 12:18:33

    This beautifully complements your latest MALW post on “writing real articles instead of blog posts” (http://www.makealivingwriting.com/stop-writing-blog-posts-do-this-instead/). Hope everyone on this thread reads both!

  17. Raspal Seni
    Dec 12, 2014 @ 21:02:01

    This post is like homework for me this weekend. I’d love to try #3 – Pick up the Phone.

    There are tons of software programs and are a Google search away, but I’d love to know what do you use to keep notes or future files on your computer.

    BTW, I too have been guilty of promising updates/future posts about something and then having vanishing or completely forgetting about them.

    I’ll take two of the five tricks you mentioned and work on them this weekend. Thanks.

    • Carol Tice | Make a Living Writing
      Dec 14, 2014 @ 14:19:18

      Any 2 of those tips will get you started, Raspal!

      I’m not very technologically minded — pretty ironic since I run an online community and blog, huh? But it’s true! Probably because I started as a professional writer back before the Internet, smartphones, and apps.

      I usually just have a Word doc for each publication I like to write for, and throw notes in there with dates if I want to come back to something.

      I know others love Evernote for this.

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  19. Paul Back
    Dec 13, 2014 @ 18:27:22

    Hey Carol

    I couldn’t agree more.

    Most people put in a superficial amount of work into a post – they subconsciously take things less seriously because of the mentality of “being a blogger” as if that means you can absolve yourself of doing hard work.

    I think if more people truly took this seriously they would be much more successful – the handful of bloggers that go out and create truly amazing content, as hugely popular, some in record time.

    I love your list of ideas, each one is a powerful strategy but I think my favourite is getting on the phone with someone. Bloggers tend to hide behind their computers and not engage people in “real life” to try to get a story, more information or inspiration and that’s a shame.

    Thanks for the inspiration, I’ll try to start doing this more often.

    • Carol Tice | Make a Living Writing
      Dec 15, 2014 @ 14:04:16

      Totally agree — would it kill you to pick up a phone? Verify that rumor. Get a new angle on a hot topic from an expert.

      We all know it’s about unique content, yet most bloggers continue to write the same old topics, off the top of their heads, and then wonder why their blogs aren’t taking off.

  20. Victoria
    Dec 15, 2014 @ 11:27:33

    Love the idea of thinking like a reporter and getting the scoop on potential stories. I’ve definitely noticed that the most fascinated bloggers that put out extraordinary and unique content stand out in comparison to those who write the usual run of the mill blog posts.

  21. Jackiejones
    Dec 16, 2014 @ 06:22:16

    Very well written post with good and useful information. And the idea is really excellent.

  22. Leanne Regalla
    Dec 16, 2014 @ 09:12:34

    Great tips, Carol – thanks! I like the data analysis tips especially, since I come from that background. Seems that kind of original thinking could really set a blogger apart.

    And interviews? Definitely fun and very valuable.

  23. Sameer
    Dec 16, 2014 @ 09:58:45

    Hi Carol,

    Great tips, though I wonder how are you going to interview someone who is interesting? I mean who ? I always read a lot about improving once blogging skills and increasing the traffic on ones blog. I usually try to write on the topics which are trending, though I don’t get great traffic to my blog site, is it becoz of SEO problems or something else ? If you could suggest that would be greatest help 🙂
    Here is my passion – http://samusayshi.blogspot.com.

    Unique 49 different articles so far on topics ranging from sports, movies, politics, current affairs, travel etc.

    Best Regards
    Sameer

    • Carol Tice | Make a Living Writing
      Dec 16, 2014 @ 12:44:50

      The woods are full of interesting business owners, authors, community leaders and more, Sameer.

      Writing on ‘trending topics’ isn’t helping you because you probably aren’t adding anything new to the news. That’s where interviewing can help you — then you’ve got something fresh we haven’t seen elsewhere.

      Before you worry about landing interviews, though, you’ll probably need to focus your blog. Writing on 5 different topics makes it difficult to attract and retain readers.

  24. Monu Kumar
    Dec 18, 2014 @ 02:18:41

    Hello Carol Tice,
    How are you?
    Before writing I Think like a journalist. I am writing well articles. But truly speaking these tricks are very different from my writing style. These all tricks are so unique and very useful. As per these tricks I have 60% knowledge about writing, but now I have 100% knowledge. Because now I have the knowledge of these unique writing tricks.
    Before some years I didn’t know about writing. But now with the help of you I am writing good articles. Frankly speaking, I am using some other writing tips.
    Like I am writing readers friendly articles, not lengthy, but very useful and unique.
    By the way Carol Tice, your writing tricks are very popular.
    I like these tips and tricks. I will share these tips and tricks for those persons who don’t know about writing tips and tricks.
    🙂 Thanks from the heart 🙂
    Regards
    Monu Kumar

  25. Gail
    Dec 24, 2014 @ 13:08:07

    Home(work) for the holidays…you make some great points. The sleuthing and engagement involved in interviewing appeals to me and to my readers. Time to revive doing interviews for fresh insights and material! Thanks for the tips, Carol.

  26. Jon Bowes
    Dec 24, 2014 @ 23:52:26

    Google “[person’s name] sucks”.

    I love that. I always google “[person’s name} complaints” and that helps out, but sucks is so much more personal and realistic.

    I’ve actually had readers from my posts ask for follow up posts, specifically like my one about selling 90% of my possessions and buying a one-way ticket to Peru.

    It’s a common internet thing, to want the OP to deliver. I guess on my blog, since I’m the OP then it’s up to me to deliver!
    High five for the great tips!
    Jon

  27. Andrew
    Jan 04, 2015 @ 11:52:33

    Hi Carol,

    Really great post here.

    What you said here is actually really true. Beat reporters really do dig deep to get the story and they always make it interesting. As bloggers, having that same type of mentality can only help us grow to be better.

    I really like your trend spotting tip. “Reporters always have scads of ideas up their sleeves because they usually need to write several stories every week – and they never know if their editor will like their top choices. So they’ve always got backups.”

    Great strategy reporters use and something I’m working on. I have many drafts right now and it’ really good to have them around and not have to worry about always coming up with new ideas.

    Superb post, Carol.

    Take care.

    – Andrew