How Journalism Improves Your Fiction
Working as a reporter helps your writing in three ways: accuracy, practice, and camaraderie.
Have you ever read a news story that gets something wrong? Let’s say that the story was about an event in your hometown, and the writer called the main arena by another name.
What happens to you? Do you keep reading and forget the error?
If the piece interests you, you will persist in reading it. Nevertheless, you lose trust in the writer. If he or she made that mistake, what other mistakes are there? So, even if the writer hasn’t lost you – and your concentration – you now use the critical faculties of your brain to excess. When someone reads your novel, you want them to be engrossed in the characters and the story, not questioning the correct name of a place.
As a reporter, you are trained to get it right and to assume nothing. When interviewing someone, I was taught to get their name, age, and place of residence, and to check the spelling of the name. Don’t walk away from a person named “Smith” and assume that it is spelled that way. “Smith” has a number of variations, including Smyth, Smithe, and Smythe. When writing fiction, you also have to get it right. Throughout your narrative, the spelling of a name remains consistent as does the name of the arena, and the color of your character’s eyes, unless you are Gustave Flaubert who famously changed Madame Bovary’s eyes from “brown, but appearing black” to “black in the shadows but dark blue out of doors.” Fortunately, the 19th-century novel about a married woman who escapes her middle-class banality with dreams, love affairs, and false pretensions is a timeless one too good to be let down by Flaubert’s descriptions, which may have been intentional.
Practice, practice, practice. Working as a reporter means that you write a lot. At one point, I cranked out at least five stories a day at an understaffed newspaper. Writing one piece after the other improves your writing. Compare your unedited pieces with the edited versions, and you learn what to do the next time. Everyone needs an editor. It is a blessing when you have a good one, someone who knows the craft and respects the writer.
Reporting is an intense endeavour. You are always working: looking for ideas, pitching stories, and reporting and writing them. Therefore, your relationships with editors and other reporters are key to your success and well-being. These are people whose opinions you value because of their work. Their generous feedback supports your writing. The glorious aspect of newsrooms in my past was its makeup of old hands, journeymen/women, and cub reporters. You couldn’t buy a better writers’ education.