My agent, Liv Blumer, asked me what’s involved when journalists change genres, such as beginning to write fiction or a memoir. Specifically, she asked if “journalism training makes it hard to make up a story, and … to write luxuriously, i.e., with descriptions that add texture to a book.”
Yes, it does, and it usually first happens when news reporters become columnists. They’ve spent their entire career up until then keeping themselves out of their writing. Merely mentioning themselves or expressing an opinion or using the first-person pronoun “I” feels like a betrayal of professional values. The secret is to create a new persona, not Janey the ace reporter, but Jane the personal columnist. Jane has permission to use those apparently “unobjective” techniques.
Their second problem is language. The wording of newspapers is deliberately flat, an attempt to sound objective by not using colorful terms. Journalists copied this technique from scientists in the nineteenth century, and escape it only in sports writing or light features. If a columnist sounds like a scientist, readers will not read the column. Even newspaper economists don’t sound like economists.
The last problem is form. Journalists learn to write in the Inverted Pyramid, stacking information in declining order of importance and interest. Readers pass out from boredom after three paragraphs, if the writer is lucky enough to get them to read that far. Most new columnists realize they have to escape the Infernal Pyramid, so they fall back on their high school English training and write essays. But columns are not essays, which generally get to the point at the bottom. Effective columns tell readers early what they’re about, and develop that.
Liv’s question was about shifting to fiction or memoir, not columns. The principles are the same. You give yourself permission to have opinions in public and to talk about yourself. You abandon the voice of the newspaper and create your own that fits how you think and feel, and want to sound. And you leave behind journalistic forms and learn new ones, usually by studying the genres you want to write in. In other words, converting journalists have to abandon the techniques that create the illusion of objectivity.
All of this is discussed in some form in my forthcoming book, Writing Your Way (Writer’s Digest, March 13, 2012).
[Care to share your experiences in changing genres?]