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?]

Published in: on January 31, 2012 at 10:21 pm  Comments (46)  

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  1. Hi, Don,

    I am the journalist you speak of.

    That’s very interesting — and a novel idea (ha!) — about the key to journalists switching to fiction. That is exactly the path I followed. Well, not really exactly.

    Many journalists get into the business out of a desire to right wrongs and to make a difference in the world, not unlike the reason cops become cops. I got into it to show off.

    So I did the reverse of the method you discuss. I was a columnist first, going all the way back to high school, and then a reporter. The righting of wrongs eventually became a higher priority than showing off.

    But you make a good case. Based on my own experience, I would add one or two things. Or three or four. The real benefit of shifting your writing from reporting to columns is learning to become relaxed with your writing, to let down your hair and to find your own voice. The use of “I” that you mention is really about learning to tell YOUR story rather than someone else’s.

    I was an award-winning reporter and a highly praised copy editor for more than 40 years. I have discovered that not all journalists can switch over to fiction. Some simply don’t want to, and some are not equipped to.

    But for those who do, I think the ease of it outweighs the difficulties you emphasize. I am starting my own blog (, and I talk about that very subject.

    First and foremost, regardless of the restrictions of “objectivity” and the inverted pyramid, journalists are storytellers. They know how to wring drama out of the most mundane of events, even a routine city council meeting.

    They also know the strength and power of active verbs and their superiority over adjectives and adverbs.

    The good ones know how to paint a compelling portrait of an interview subject with a few broad brushstrokes and some telling details. They are masters at “showing, not telling.”

    They develop an eye as acute as any master photographer’s. They see the wrinkles and the warts, the gestures and the idiosyncrasies. And they know how to weave those little tidbits seamlessly into their prose.

    As for “objectivity”: Phooey! Even if they don’t admit it, journalists know and practice how to put a figure in a good or bad light. Portraying heroes and villains, in other words, comes naturally to them.

    Lastly, at least for now, journalists have some supreme advantages over most other writers. They know how to get to the point quickly and effectively (else they will lose readers). Because of deadlines, they know how to revise and edit as they go; they may not get a second shot. And they can do it all, thanks again to deadlines, lickety-split.

    So, yes, journalists face some difficulties in reorienting their thinking to fiction. But I can think of no one better suited or better trained to become a novelist.

    Thanks very much, Don, for inspiring me to revisit something so very close to my heart. I hope more journalists will consider making the change. The rewards are better than an Almond Joy candy bar: indescribably delicious.

    — David Nickell

  2. Thanks, David. As you make this transition, I suggest that you write about it on your own blog. Lots of journalists are loose in the world nowadays, and they need models. So write your stuff and then write about writing and marketing it. Don

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