Lord Leveson’s lesson for Cheltenham copywriters (and anyone who writes)

It was interesting to read the recent article in The Independent about content in the Leveson Report that appears to breaks a basic rule of journalism – that you always check your sources and don’t cut and paste. In the article, the UK daily claims that the judge warned about how inaccuracy in newspapers ‘caused significant concern’ – and then used incorrect facts about The Independent in his document.

In reality, it was probably a minor oversight. I doubt you’ll find a copywriter who’d put their hand up and say it couldn’t possibly happen to them. But as professional copywriters in Cheltenham, or anywhere else, we have a responsibility to take all reasonable measures to prevent this. And it isn’t hard…

Copywriters regularly use the Internet as one of their reference sources. We combine that information with our own knowledge, the results of fact-finding interviews, client-supplied source material and information from other sources. Then we create original content to do a communication job.

Use of the internet comes into its own when writing original SEO copy for landing pages, online articles and even blog posts. Why wouldn’t we, with Google at our fingertips? It’s not so much what we use, but how we use it that matters. And how thoroughly we check the information we find. This can often be validated against what we already know, or by cross-checking with other sources. As The Independent pointed out, ‘journalism students are taught at college that when researching on the Internet, they should not assume that the first site they come to is reliable’…

Of course, intelligent assessment of the quality and reliability of a chosen reference site also helps. BBC website: good. Badly written Johnny nobody’s site? Possibly not so good. With care, and alertness to the risks and hazards, the end result should be accurate content. But let’s never say never, because, just as I’d challenge you to show me a published document without a typo, accidents can happen to the best of us. As the Leveson Report reportedly confirms…

Which brings me back to cutting and pasting and the trouble that thoughtless use of Control-C and Control-P can cause. As a professional writer, I won’t cut and paste content from online sources into anything I write (I’m not including properly attributed quotes here, but general information that I might glean online while I’m researching content). I’ve found this to be a good discipline.

If anything, it’s harder and more time consuming to stitch together other people’s pasted words and writing styles than to read what they have to say and synthesise original content. (That said, I regularly have to edit copy drafted ‘by committee’. The ability to turn several people’s different styles into one consistent text is a fundamental editing and rewriting skill. Interested? Please contact me.)

Instead, I’ll do my research and immerse myself in a subject, then write an original piece based on what I’ve learned. By the time I’ve integrated this with existing source material supplied by my client, or my own knowledge, I can be sure the piece is original – and that it has my mark on it, not someone else’s.

Novice copywriters or those who churn out quick, cheap and dirty content for ‘copy mills’ may think this naïve and over-complicated – and that anything goes when you are throwing copy together for SEO purposes. I disagree, which is why I’ve always taken a pride in making sure that every SEO article or page that I write is a properly researched, structured and written piece of copy. It may cost a bit more, but that’s a small price for a client to pay for the knowledge that their content won’t get them into trouble when the plagiarism police come around. If you commission copy, especially web copy, please bear this in mind if you ever feel tempted by SEO articles or pages at silly, low prices. How do you think the copy mills can churn out 500 to 700 words for a few pounds without resorting to cut and pasting or copy spinning? But that’s another story…

On the subject of policing cut and pasted copy, and as a final check that nothing’s crept through by accident, there are always online services such as Copyscape, Plagium, FairShare and CopyGator. They are potentially useful to those seeking to identify plagiarism of their content – and copywriters wanting to avoid the embarrassment of unintentional infringement.

In the case of the Leveson Report and The Independent‘s article, I suspect that a tiny mistake was made in good faith and slipped through the editorial process on a massive document. I’m sure no-one set out to blatantly cut and paste content. And that’s the approach any writer should take – whether you’re a teenager writing this week’s homework, a freelance SEO copywriter, or a senior judge tasked with the most important review the UK press has probably ever seen.

is an experienced Gloucestershire based copywriter specialising in Marketing, Web/SEO, technical and PR copywriting.

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