New Post: On Writing – Five Ways I’ve Used Journalism Skills in Creative Writing
Around this time two years ago I began to apply for a Master’s in Creative Writing. In the end, I was accepted on the course but chose to follow my portfolio career. Though I know it would have been a rewarding journey, I figured I could write creatively with or without an MA. But applying for a post-grad reminded why I valued my journalism degree that has proved to be incredibly useful not just in writing but in other areas such as TV presenting, acting and PR.
In the process, I scoured my old uni transcript from the early nineties, contacted a former professor and dusted off my CV that brought back memories of the days at uni. We stuck up our noses at the creative writers in the English department – we seemed to be in two different worlds with an unspoken (or sometimes spoken) rivalry. As I perused the classes I had taken, I was grateful for many of the skills I learned as an undergrad that have helped me write creatively today. This includes my first novel, but also short stories, poetry, radio plays and short screenplays.
So here are a few ways I’ve incorporated the formulaic way of writing (who, what, when, where, how and why with facts and quotes to back it up) into fictional prose.
1) The Power of Observation – As a student journalist, I was always observing my environment while looking for a budding story. In my different roles, I’ve met street workers in the red light district, basketball players, celebrities, aerial photographers, method actors and more. When I observe, I find endless ideas for characters, stories, and descriptions. To pay heed to my environment means I have fuel for future creative writing.
Peoples minds are changed through observation and not through argument. – Will Rogers
2) Everyone has a story – it just needs to be unlocked. And I mean everyone. I’m a closet introvert, but I love going to a party or event and sitting down with one person and finding out their story. I think a journalist can ask the deeper questions that cause people to open up and tell their story. A friend of mine is a broadcast journalist and recently I listened to an interview he did with a musician. He told me that it was a spontaneous interview and had little time to prepare. But he is a trained journalist who knows how to draw a story out of a person. It was a 20-minute interview and in the middle I almost cried as the musician relaxed and began to share vulnerable aspects of his personal life. I credit it to my journalist friend who had ‘unlocked’ the story through his open-ended questions and really listening to the musician as his story unfolded.
3) Ask the deeper, unexpected questions. I think this comes from learning how to unlock someone’s story, I also think it comes from experience of what I would like people to ask me. For example, I couple I know came back from a two month trip to India. The first question I asked was, ‘So tell me your 2-minute version of your highlights of the trip.’ This, of course, led to TONS of other questions, and I think they shared things that they hadn’t even thought about. The obvious question would be ‘how was your trip? that would probably elicit a rehearsed answer. But I want vulnerability and colourful descriptions . . .which is what I got.
I don’t think there are any rude questions. – Helen Thomas
(* I agree with the quote above, I think rudeness is on HOW you ask, not what you ask).
4) Use Economical Words and AVOID Flowery Language – How many books bore you when you read a spew of synonyms? I think that young adult novels have learned to avoid this trap. A sentence or paragraph is there to make a point, not a melodrama. In journalism, you HAVE to get to the point quickly because of space issues, and the end of your story could be chopped. Today, with lower attention spans or social media word count constraints, being economical with your word choice is key. I believe people want to read your content. And unless you are trying to make a point, flowery language is only a stumbling block in things like radio or screenplays . . .in most things really.
5) Fact Collecting & Research – It has been said to ‘write what you know’. And I agree but I think that you can also research in this age of easily ‘googling’ a subject. I remember one of my writing groups several years ago where a woman had researched numerous ways you could murder someone without leaving a trace. She chatted with forensics experts and even visited a morgue. In class, she explained why some crime authors were inaccurate in their murder descriptions (let’s just say this was a fascinating but rather morbid class). We have the power of the internet at our fingertips; I can look what someone’s house might look like in Canada just by pushing a few buttons on Google Maps. And I can find out more facts than I care to know about practically any subject on the planet. But don’t rely on google. An author I read about recalled when she wanted a character in her book who was an avid gardener. She spent the day with a friend who loved to garden, and wrote down her observations which in the end led to a very believable character in her book.
So in all, I am incredibly thankful for my journalism degree. They are skills that I’ve learned not just for journalism-related jobs such as PR (by the way ‘brand journalism’ is now one of the hip terms to use instead of PR) but also in my creative writing.