Lessons from Journalism: What Journalism Taught Me About Writing Fiction
Updated: Apr 6, 2021
While I was attending a course at Ryerson’s School of Journalism in Toronto, the instructor said, if you want to be a journalist you must learn to write effectively. That’s interesting but what does it mean? The answer spilled out in her lesson and then finished with the first in-class assignment – to write an obituary, effectively. An obit? Really? I was beginning to wonder if I was in the right class. But the lesson was a revelation.
When you think about it, an obit has all the basic elements of report writing in journalism. Using the well-known inverted pyramid format, the beginning of an obit starts with the most important piece of information – who died. Then, as you read through, the next piece of information is less important, and so on, until you get to the end (the tip of the inverted pyramid) and all the information has been given.
Now think about Agatha Christie’s book Murder on the Orient Express. After we are introduced to the main characters, the luxurious train comes to a grinding halt just after midnight due to an avalanche impeding the train’s progress. The next day, a passenger is found dead in his compartment and Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, who is on his way to London, is asked to solve the case. So we know from the beginning (the top of the inverted pyramid) the most important information – a murder. As the story continues, we are introduced to more and more clues, through Poirot’s investigation, until we reach the end (the tip of the inverted pyramid) and the mystery is solved.
OK, now let’s get back to class. So what can journalism teach an aspiring fiction author? Well, there are similarities and differences between the two.
One of the main differences is that fiction is written in a way that allows readers to experience the protagonist’s life. Journalism reports a story while focussing on answering the 5Ws and 1H (Who, What, Where, Why, When and How).
So here’s what I have taken from the journalist’s toolbox to help hone my writing craft.
Research is important
Media journalists do not (should not) invent things. Everything they write is backed up by facts, whether in documentation or interviews. Writing fiction, historical fiction in my case, relies on getting the facts right and then used to help tell the story. I touched on this in a previous blog about the challenges of writing historical fiction.
Details matter. They can help the reader get immersed in the story or, if getting the facts wrong, can make the reader stop reading and get out.
There’s rhythm in conversation
When a journalist interviews someone, there’s an awareness of the rhythm in speech and conversation. Listening not only to what is said but how it is said adds to the realism of what is reported. In fiction writing, dialogue does just that through its natural sounds and expository dialogue.
I remember when I wrote an article during a period as a Communications Manager in a large aerospace company, whereby I interviewed the very first employee of the company, still living at the time, 78 years old. The interview approach was casual; a natural and trusting conversation about his time with the company. He drew me into his world of aviation with the ebbs and flows of his memories. It taught me how dialogue can be used to help make a story real.
Use words wisely
A typical media story can range from 350 to 750 words and maybe 1,500 words for a major news event or feature story. Making good use of words becomes important to tell the whole story. In fiction writing, equally important is to make every word, sentence and paragraph carry its weight. You’ll notice in a printed news report very few adverbs are used. The same principle should be applied in writing fiction. I managed in my story, The Final Crossing, to have used only 84 adverbs in an 82,000-word story. Replacing adverbs with action words and “showing” not “telling” goes a long way to paint a picture that excites, challenges and ultimately satisfies the reader.
Meet your deadlines
A journalist is constantly under pressure to meet their editor’s deadline. Even if there’s considerable re-writing involved or fact checking, corroborating with witnesses, etc., the deadline does not change. Novelists can learn the importance of meeting dead line whether they are self-imposed in committing to write a chapter a day or asked to revise/re-write by their agent or publisher. In realty, life happens and you may need to ask for an extension. But learning how to pace yourself and adhering to the disciplines you have developed will help you meet those deadlines.
Imagination creates the story
Journalists don’t use imagination to write their stories since news reports are based on facts. On the other hand a novelist relies heavily on imagination, intellectual endurance, and emotional obligation.
Some may argue that imagination is a gift. Perhaps it is. But it can also be harnessed by reading widely, writing/re-writing extensively, and tapping into your own life experiences. In time, thoughts run rampant; characters are created and refined; dialogue comes naturally; twists and turns keep your readers engaged; and, finally your story is created.
Journalists turned novelists
Author and journalist Marjorie Simmins recently interviewed Canadian author Lawrence Hill about his recent memoir (posted on Jane Friedman blog posts). Hill is also a professor of creative writing at the University of Guelph and has written ten books, including The Illegal, The Book of Negroes (TV series that premiered on CBC in Canada in 2015), and Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada.
When asked how journalism helped to write this memoir, Hill replied, “First of all, I learned as a journalist how to interview people. So I didn’t feel shy conducting interviews and that was helpful because I had to ask all sorts of intimate questions … Being a journalist helped me understand how to organize the story …”
Here are some other journalists turned authors who went on to write some of the most memorable and impactful stories of our time.
Charles Dickens began his career as a parliamentary shorthand reporter.
George Orwell was reporting for the Observer while writing Animal Farm and gathering his thoughts for his book, 1984.
Bram Stoker and H.G. Wells were both keen journalists.
Rebecca West worked as a journalist for the feminist weekly Freewoman and the Clarion, in support of the suffragette cause.
Maya Angelou was a journalist in Africa in the early 1960s before writing her first collection of poems.
E.B. White started off as a writer for The New Yorker before he became the author of the well-known Charlotte’s Webb. He was also a grammar pundit who composed the original The Elements of Style. Today, the revised Strunk and White publication (authors William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White) is a staple for writers of all disciplines, including novelists.
Margaret Mitchell started her career as a reporter for the Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine. Who can forget her most famous character Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind?
L.M. Montgomery worked as a journalist in Halifax before she wrote Anne of Green Gables.
Mark Twain was a journalist before becoming a novelist.
Finally, at age 17, Ernest Hemingway was hired by The Kansas City Star. Later, after returning home from WWI in 1919, a family friend offered him a job in Toronto and he eventually became a freelancer and staff writer for the Toronto Star Weekly.
But of course not every successful author began behind a desk and typewriter of a news media outlet. Some were lawyers turned novelist (Erle Stanley Gardner, John Grisham, Meg Gardiner) while others were ordinary people with extraordinary talents in storytelling.
As part of my writing toolbox, the key and basic writing principles I learned in journalism can only help me become a better novelist.
Until next time!