May 3, 2011Can tabloid journalists teach copywriters how to write?

Yesterday, some friends and I had a go at guessing what today’s headline in The Sun, the UK’s leading red-top tabloid newspaper would be. Bin Laden’s death was a historic moment — how would the paper that’s read by over 1/10th of the population every day cover it?

Of course, The Sun is known for its outlandish headlines, often involving a pun, joke, or  outright shocker (“Freddie Starr ate my Hamster” being the oft-quoted classic.) So I didn’t think my guess of “Osama nails Obama in Islamabad Drama” was far off. But it was too long. The one thing the tabloids always get right is brevity. They don’t use two words where one will do.

Short, powerful, engaging headlines.

I guessed again. “Osama bin dun in,” I reckoned. Shorter, and also in the “working class accent” the Sun loves to use. But I was still two words too long. The Sun’s response was simple:

“Bin bagged!”

As a headline, it’s genius. In two words, the writers manage to get across three messages — and a pun:

If you’re reading this in the States, a “bin bag” is what we call a garbage bag (“bin” is British English for “trashcan”). So the headline is a very quick pun that suggests a number of things:

1 – Bin Laden has been “bagged” — we got him.

2 – even if he did receive a “proper” burial he deserved “to be taken out like trash”

3 – Go on, laugh, we did. So the headline not only tells a story, it also tells you what to think.

That’s quite a lot for two words.

Simple writing with mass market appeal

The rest of the newspaper is written in a similar style. The Sun’s editorials are often just 30 words long. On Page 3, a topless girl will give you a one sentence take on the main issue of the day, entitled “news in briefs”. But before you start groaning, remember that this newspaper is unashamedly populist and anti-elitist. It may not be the voice of the majority — but as the UK’s highest circulation daily, it must be doing something right.

Most writers are highly educated. Not all readers are.

Chances are if you’re a writer or a journalist, you’re educated to degree level and have a wide vocabulary. Not all your readers will have that kind of knowledge. Yet instead of using simple words, desiring to be more specific, you use longer, more complex words. But to some people, your message will be lost.

It’s all about knowing your audience.

If you’re playing to an educated audience, long words are fine. Being serious is fine. But for true mass market appeal, you need to be able to make your points quickly, simply, and in a way that engages with your audience — often, you need to be funny, using wordplay that appeals to the majority, not the over-educated elite.

David Ogilvy suggested to his copywriters that they go out and listen to a conversation on a bus, or in a bar, in the suburbs, or in a rural town. “Those are the people you’re trying to sell to,” he said.

Complex ideas, packaged simply.

Most of my colleagues frown on me for picking up my daily copy of The Sun. But as a professional writer with two degrees under my belt, I find reading “the nation’s paper” helps keep me in check. It’s too easy to imagine everyone thinks and acts the way you do.

That’s why it’s important to take a step outside your comfort zone and understand how to write for a wider audience — without patronising them. The Sun does this brilliantly.

At home, it’s the next-door neighbour. Down the pub, it’s one of the lads. On the street, it could be anyone you meet.

Pick up a copy and ask yourself —
could I get a complex message across in simple, short terms like this?

If you can’t — keep reading. You might learn something.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011 at 12:22 pm and is filed under Blog, Copywriting. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


  1. Nonita says:

    Hey Al!

    Just catching up with your blog. Loving the posts – this one in particular- as I too have also recently discovered the pulling power of tabloids, and in my trade, of sites like Jezebel and Perez Hilton… (Never mind Vogue!) It’s these guys who dominate the scene online when it comes to “connecting” with the majority of the readers and generating conversation.

    It’s funny how the majority of us seems to think that what makes a good writer is being able to display a vocabulary as rich and wide as a peacock’s tail, whilst as you rightly say, it is ‘Simple writing with mass market appeal’ what certainly works best – at least in the digital era of writing.

    Whilst there is no doubt that reading Shakespeare and poetry might be very useful at helping us carve our words and enrich our verses, it is all about knowing your audience and – again as you rightly point out in the post – communicating effectively with them in an engaging way.

    After all, isn’t being a writer a bit like being a politician? If you want to win the majority of votes, you must learn to charm both the uber -educated elite as well as the population.

    Great post! – If you add it to your FB page I am sooo hitting the ‘Like’ button! :)


  2. al says:


    I’ve been following your (many!) blogs much more closely since you started aggregating them on Tumblr — reminds me I must do a post here about the benefits of tumblr myself.

    I especially liked the one about models not being real people. Having met a few I’m not sure they are! A friend of mine sent me a link to a casting call for Dazed & Confused today and said I should apply. Alas, it was for the under 25s. Quite nice to think someone out there thinks I can still pass for a 24 year old though :)

  3. David says:

    That particular Sun headline caught my eye too. For all the people who read The Sun, there must be so many more who eye the front page, and good puns are hard to ignore. Sometimes it’s a headline and picture combination that does it, such as last year’s post-Election Daily Express(?) front page, which had David Cameron and his then-pregnant wife outside Number 10 with the words ‘England Expects’. There are also occasions where a far-from-snappy front page headline makes its mark: it was The Sun that had ‘If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights’, and though it takes a little longer to read than ‘Bin Bagged’, the populist contempt is still there, and Kinnock himself gave it credit for the Election result.

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