6 Ways Being A Journalist Can Make You A Better Creative Writer
Guest post by freelance journalist, editor and creative writer David Silverberg.
Discipline. No fear of rejection. Savvy research strategies. Adding vivid details. These are all skills I learned as a journalist over the past 20 years, writing for the likes of BBC News, The Washington Post, and The Toronto Star, and I contend these are skills that also helped me develop as a creative writer of spoken word poetry and solo shows.
You might think that journalism and creative work are two different beasts, but I consider them brothers from the same mother. The link between them is engaging writing.
It doesn’t matter if the content is fictional or factual; what is most important is telling a story that is both compelling and clear.
Clarity is one of the first lessons we were taught at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism. Reporters could have all the powerful quotes and head-turning statistics and taut tension in an article but if the reader can’t follow one idea to the next, then the writer has failed.
"Being clear and straightforward with my non-fiction work taught me to delete meandering paragraphs and pointless anecdotes or asides. I cleaned up any phrases loaded with too many adverbs and learned about the power of strong verbs and nouns."
I improved as a journalist, earning accolades from editors and readers on my articles for my news network Digital Journal, where I edited this citizen journalism website for more than 13 years.
Midway through my time there, I gained the confidence to pitch to indie and mainstream news outlets, and I soon gained credits at The Globe & Mail, Canadian Business, Saturday Night Magazine, Vice and NOW Magazine.
What I also learned early about being a journalist and editor is the discipline required to put your bum in the seat every day.
"Laziness isn’t an option."
When I dealt with deadlines as a journalist, I transferred that process to the creative work that occupied my evenings, mainly spoken word poetry.
I began to see the value of deadlines as a creative writer. I knew I didn’t have any “hard” date that I needed to finish a poem by, but I began to place that on myself so I would stay focused.
I didn’t want to be the kind of creative writer to wait for the Muse (whoever that is) to grace me with her divine inspiration.
"I laid out a schedule for each creative assignment: make an arbitrary date to finish a poem, perhaps two weeks from now, and each day sit down at the computer and turn off my phone to work on the piece like I’m writing an article that requires that same kind of steadfast focus."
It likely wasn’t a sparkling first draft, but, as Anne Lamott says, "Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend.”
3. Descriptive Detail
What journalism also brought to my skillset is adding descriptive details to my writing. More than 10 years ago, when I wrote a fun piece for the Globe & Mail on “ganja yoga” (yes, it’s cannabis-friendly yoga lessons), I made sure to bring colour to my story so readers could feel like they were with me, smelling the pungent smoke hover over the downward-dogging bodies.
When we read an article that places us right there with the reporter, we’re transported out of our own space to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with that writer, seeing through their eyes. That kind of technique is transferrable to creative writing.
And a quick addendum:
"Use all five senses, whether you’re a fiction or non-fiction writer. The more you can have readers smell and taste and touch what you’re experiencing, the more intimate they will feel to the story you’re telling."
Sight is the go-to sense when writers describe a scene but don’t neglect all the other nuances that can bring us into the action.
4. Exposure To An Array Of People
One of the key tasks I do in my journalism work is interview people. It’s hard to estimate exactly how many folks I’ve interviewed for articles but I’d hazard a guess at more than 2,000.
"I’ve been treated to so many different viewpoints and personalities that my creative projects have benefited greatly from those thousands of interviews."
For example, when I started working on my solo show Jewnique, which revealed my up-and-down relationship with Judaism, I interviewed other Jewish Canadians about how they felt connected to the faith.
By having that deep experience of being a focused interviewer and listener, I didn’t feel awkward talking to them for more than two hours each.
Being exposed to an array of people has also infused my creative writing in ways I likely can’t highlight as explicitly as the above example.
When you speak to a cancer researcher one day for an article, then Bryan Cranston the next day for another piece, and then chat with a NASA astronaut the day after, you’re getting a quick education about the fascinating lives of people across the world that the everyday writer can’t always access.
These rich and comprehensive conversations reveal to me the motivations behind these success stories, which could help form the structure of forming a fictional character, say, or laying out the backbone for a plot.
5. Research Skills
If it weren’t for my journalism career, I doubt I would have the discipline for research that I do today.
Researching is essential in journalism...and in all writing, even if you write frilly haikus. The more you know about how the world works, the more you can fuel your writing with the context and details to make your story more rounded.
If you're writing a novel about police procedures, you can't just rely what you see on Law & Order. You have to dig to find the data and the interviewees that help your scenes feel authentic.
Journalism taught me to go beyond Wikipedia and Google results to consult journal research via SSRN, for example, or dip into Google Maps’ Streetview tool to “see” as much as I can about a location far from home.
I used to think research techniques were the sole domain of my journalism practice, but I later realized this is a skill vital to any writer interested in adding realistic and accurate details to their projects.
6. Beginnings And Endings
Finally, writing countless articles for the past 20 years encouraged me to fine-tune my beginnings and endings. How you start and finish a piece of writing can make all the difference to readers.
With my articles, I wanted to bring as much descriptive writing to the first sentences as I could, and I brought that same approach to my poems and solo shows.
"'Don’t back into a lede', students often hear at journalism schools. I love that advice because it encouraged me to get to the heart of the story right away, even if I paint the scene with some brushstrokes of details that will help engage the reader."
Endings are often trickier in both creative and non-fiction writing. They don’t want to leave the reader hanging with too many questions but they could also exit the story with a whiff of mystery and intrigue. It’s a delicate balance.
What has helped me is learning from the greats, a lesson I would impress upon every writer, no matter their level of experience. Reading is writing and writing is reading, author M.T. Kelly once told me, as he explained how you can’t be a successful writer if you don’t read inspiring works of art.
So I pore over authors and journalists who perfected the ending, such as John Irving, Harlan Ellison, Jeff Maysh, Joan Didion and David Sedaris. These writers, among many others, brought an attractive flair to their endings that encouraged me to seek different paths to concluding a story that spoke to the content’s theme and emotions.
I avoided same-old cookie-cutter endings in articles, such as concluding with a summary-like quote, and in my poems I refrained from circling back to the beginning’s statement or phrasings, an overused trick bordering on the cliché.
When I hear about a journalist-turned-novelist, that transition never surprises me. Journalists record history as it happens. Fiction writers tell us more about the human condition after something has happened to them, or to the characters they create.
Journalists and creative writers both are witnesses to change in the world, and they can both invite us to think critically about how people navigate those joys and challenges.
About David Silverberg
David Silverberg is a freelance journalist, editor and creative writer. His clients include BBC News, The Washington Post, The Toronto Star, Business Insider, New Scientist, NOW Magazine and many more. His first solo Jewnique debuted in Toronto in 2018 and has since toured across Canada. His latest poetry collection is As Close to the Edge Without Going Over (Kelp Queen Press), and his poetry can be found in literary journals, haiku collections, English high school textbooks and across YouTube. He launched his writer-coaching business in January 2020.