Why I think journalists make great fiction writers

I recently read a blog post that made my blood boil. I’d link to it, but I don’t want to be responsible for driving traffic to it — just as I wouldn’t want to be responsible for sending you to Mitt Romney’s website or a Scott Stapp fan page. (You’re welcome.) The post was titled something like “Why journalists don’t make good novelists,” and the author’s arguments were basically that journalists write in a news format and therefor lack creativity.

To some degree, the writer had a point — there is a bit of a “science” or format to news articles. After all, you don’t pick up The New York Times or visit CNN.com and read sentences like, “The councilman’s brow glistened with desperation and his voiced boomed like thunder through the room as he demanded action from the stoic faces that sat before him.” If a journalist were to include a sentence like that in an article, one of two things would happen: The copy desk would rewrite it, or the writer would be called to the editor’s office and likely wouldn’t have a job much longer.

However, you don’t pick up a novel and expect it to be written in inverted pyramid style. Such a novel would be over rather quickly as all the important information would be supplied in the first paragraph. For example, here’s how “The Hunger Games” would unfold on the front page of The Panem Gazette.

Katniss Everdeen, 16, and Peeta Mellark, 16, both of District 12, won the 74th annual Hunger Games in an unprecedented turn of events after the Gamemakers reversed their ruling and allowed a pair of tributes to win the games. Everdeen, known to fans as “the girl on fire,” won the hearts of Panem’s viewers after volunteering as tribute in place of her sister, Primose Everdeen, 12. Everdeen developed a relationship with Mellark while in the arena; however, an anonymous source reports that she has been romantically linked to Gale Hawthorn, 18, a District 12 coal miner.

Not the most fascinating read, is it?

But just because a journalist has mastered news writing doesn’t mean that same journalist can’t master other forms of writing. In fact, I’d venture to say that there are A LOT of advantages to being a journalist who also writes novels. Here are just a few:

  • You learn the importance of deadlines. You may stress about them, but you meet them — or you lose your job. So you learn to meet them.
  • You learn not to get too attached to that lovingly crafted sentence or be offended when someone tells you to “cut the crap from graf 3″ or completely rewrites your lead without consulting you. That’s the business. You grow a thick skin. You learn it’s not personal. Honestly, this has been the greatest advantage for me as a writer. I’ve had crit partners and beta readers who got defensive or burst into tears when someone critiqued their work. I dare you to do that in a newsroom.
  • Speaking of editing and critiquing, journalists and copy editors rule supreme when it comes to brevity and cutting unnecessary fluff. They say what needs to be said in as few words as possible. Plus, journalists are skilled at hooking a reader. The lead sentence needs to convey the necessary information, yes, but it also needs to grab a reader’s attention — in 30 words or fewer.
  • But most importantly, if you’re working as a journalist, you’re likely writing and/or editing at least 40 hours a week. After all, writing is your job. You’re not writing flowery prose or plotting the perfect scene, but you’re practicing your craft every single day — and getting paid for it.

As Daniel Levitin says in Outliers: The Story of Success, “In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice-skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or 20 hours a week, of practice over 10 years… No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. ” (Liza Kane wrote a great blog post on this last year.)

Guess how quickly we journalists amass those 10,000 hours.

And although I’ve yet to read any of Jennifer Weiner’s books, I was thrilled when I ran across this amazing post of hers that explains how to become a writer in 8 steps. I’ve included an excerpt from that post below.

I think that journalism is just about the perfect career for aspiring young writers. It’s not especially remunerative, nor, in spite of what you see on TV, is it particularly glamorous. But it’s great training. Like John McPhee said, you write every day, and you write on deadline, and you write to fit the space available, which means you don’t grow up into one of those writers who gets sentimental over her sentences or overly attached to her adverbial clauses.

And writer’s block? Heh. Try telling an underpaid, pissed-off assistant city editor that your story on the school board meeting isn’t done yet because your Muse hasn’t spoken, and you will quickly, perhaps painfully, come to the understanding that writer’s block is a luxury no working journalist can afford, which will help you avoid it when you’re a working novelist.

Journalism, particularly at the lowest levels, will knock the F. Scott Fitzgerald right out of you…which is something many recent college graduates — myself included — could use. It also means that when you finally write your novel, your New York City editors will adore you, because years of journalism will have taught you the fine art of being edited — of how an impartial reader can suggest changes, cuts, additions and amplifications that will make what you’ve written even stronger.

Plus, you will not whine about your deadlines — you’ll meet them. You will not be offended if someone suggests that your second chapter’s dragging and your title’s ill-conceived — you’ll fix them. This willingness to be edited, and ability to meet deadlines, will make you different, and easier to work with, than a great many novelists. Your editor will adore you.

Now, I don’t think journalists make the best novelists or make better creative writers than any other profession. My argument is this: Journalists don’t necessarily make bad fiction writers.

I think I speak for most journalists when I say that we love words and storytelling just as much as any other writer. After all, we are essentially just writers. Believe me when I say that we didn’t get into this career for the high pay. Or the angry emails from readers … or the Chilean ambassador.

Yep, I once got a two-page letter from the ambassador about an article I wrote. I wish all my readers’ criticisms arrived on nice paper with presidential seals. It makes me feel all classy and legit.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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7 thoughts on “Why I think journalists make great fiction writers

  1. I can’t believe someone would say they can’t write fiction. I mean if they can’t write well why would journalist be employed right?
    And the Chilean ambassador wrote you a letter? What in the world was that about?

  2. Hey, Jess! The ambassador wrote me because I used a photo of a Chilean avocado in a story I wrote on eating local food. He thought the article would make people not want buy his country’s avocados so he detailed why the product was eco-friendly and asked me to replace it with a different picture. I can only assume that U.S.-Chilean relations are incredibly good right now for him to have that kind of time.

  3. Now I’m interested to know how the author of the other post justified their argument! Will you forgive me if I google it? Not because I agree, mind you. Journalists spend every day honing their writing skills and work in the harsh reality of writing as a business- how can that not be beneficial?

  4. Awesome points, Laura! I think you’re a fab writer and love your current WIP! I definitely need more help making deadlines and developing a tougher skin.

    I know I couldn’t hack it as a journalist, but am SOOO grateful for my journalist beta readers who help strengthen my work. I have one in particular who is always pushing me to make scenes grittier and characters more real. She’s good at adding details that count and cutting the fluff that doesn’t. Perhaps this blogger you mentioned doesn’t know any journalists or has only had experiences with bad ones? Anyway, I’m glad you took a stand for your craft! *fist pump*

    (Wait! Are fist pumps even cool anymore?)

  5. Excellent post.

    I am not sure why people would think journalists wouldn’t make good writers. One look at the history of 19th and 20th century novelists would point you that many writers were journalists as a profession.
    Personally, I consider myself a writer first, and a journalist second. Journalism is my profession. I can assure you, I have the same love of writing and literature as anybody who went for an MFA degree in creative writing, or any professor of literature. I just didn’t see myself in that lifestyle, I wanted to be out there traveling, getting stories, mingling with people to enhance my writing. I’m sure you understand. Journalism just happens to be the closest thing to writing fiction and actually getting paid for your work. I could say the same thing about screen writing, or other forms of writing which all perform the function of narrative. To me, they are all related. Now, if writing for films or novels were more lucrative for me, I would of course do that as well.
    I’m sure publishers and editors constantly working with writers are also benefited in their own ways of seeing good work/bad work constantly.
    Not all, but certainly many people in journalism/publishing have the end goal of being a successful writer of fiction to express our ideas.

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