(Writerly) Lessons I Learned from Journalism

I whine a lot about how writing news on deadline stifled my creativity.

But as I transition from newspaper reporter to author, I’m realizing that journalism taught me a handful of lessons that apply to writing a book, reminders that can benefit even non-journos.

Do readers care? If my manuscript came across my reporter’s desk as a press release, would I throw it into the trash? Hopefully I’d pitch the idea to my editor and he’d get excited about putting it on page one. But first he’d ask: Is there an audience for this? How can you craft this story so people care?

Deadlines work. There’s no such thing as writer’s block when your story is scheduled to go to press in an hour. Create deadlines for yourself, both short- and long-term, and meet them. It’s as simple as that. If that means settling for imperfection, so be it. Lucky for us, self-imposed manuscript deadlines come with a perk: revisions are not only allowed, they’re encouraged.

Don’t bury the lead. A reporter’s intro has got to be interesting, offering at least a glimpse of the meat of the story, or readers will move onto the next headline. All we get is one sentence — saving the hook for the third paragraph is useless. So work on turning all your beginnings — the beginning of the book, beginning of each chapter, beginning of each scene — into fabulous leads. In a novel, yeah, you can save some of the juicy stuff for later. But if your beginning isn’t engaging enough to suck me in, you’ve lost me to the obituary page.

Quotes have to really say something. All those sentence fragments the mayor spewed about the Deed Restriction Task Force — it’s boring. Reporters only have room for one quote anyhow, so they pick the one that’s the most compelling. Of course, in an 80,000-word manuscript, there’s space for more dialogue. But that doesn’t mean anything and everything your character could say should be included. Cut the part about the task force. Quotes that don’t move the story along get kicked to the curb. And that brings me to…

Cutting ain’t all bad. Newspaper reporters rarely have as much space for a story as they’d like. Even when my editor offered a respectable length, I’d wake up in the morning and find half the story had been cut overnight to make room for some tale about a dog that could juggle. In truth, sometimes the part that was cut just wasn’t necessary. So ask yourself, while revising your manuscript: If you had to cut something, what would it be? Now look again — Is the story actually better without it?

Oops, I’d better go. My imaginary editor is reading this over my shoulder, asking when it’s gonna be done.

15 Responses

  1. Good points! I’m tweeting this one.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. Deadlines are still evil. 😉

  3. Excellent post! Deadlines are the only way I am able to get things done. I have to enlist my husband to make me stick to my self imposed deadlines. If I don’t give myself goals, I’ll just wander around on the keyboard for hours and get nothing done! Of course, it also helps to banish myself to a bookstore for three hours with no way to leave (we share one car right now) and no internet access!


  4. Great post. I’m finding too, that if I give myself self-imposed deadlines I’m writing more.

  5. I was wondering about your process of swtiching from journalism to memoir-writing. Isn’t it wonderful when we can take our experiences from one thing and apply them, with some creativity and imagination, to something else. I truly can’t wait to read your manuscript, Alexis.

  6. I give myself self-imposed deadlines sometimes. If i feel stifled, I do a one hour exercize and try to type a three page paragraph and see what happens. Sometimes I put it in my junkyard and use it down the road when I need a spare part to complete a particular section of a manuscript.

    Stephen Tremp

  7. yep- I am working under my newspaper deadline right now-and even though I loathe it at times, it keeps me on my toes! I made sure to put just that in my query letter too, including how large my readership is. hoping it’ll help!

  8. lots of good tips!

  9. This is an awesome post, Alexis! I especially love your encouragement to put deadlines upon ourselves. It’s so easy when we’re the “boss” to let ourselves off the hook. I like the idea of both short term and long term goals!

  10. I like your ideas, Alexis. I think I am going to try to impose a deadline for myself and see if that helps with my serious issues with procrastination.

  11. I must confess I don’t have any discipline concerning deadline but I always try to have good quotes/dialogues.

    Bargain with the Devil

  12. I’v really learned how valuable rewards are! The other night, I promised myself a glass of wine if I worked on my sample chapter for one hour. I ended up writing for almost 2 hours, and was very happy with my work.

    A publisher is waiting for my sample chapters — probably not with baited breath, mind you — but that deadline wasn’t working for me. Wine works. 🙂

  13. […] [Brief Aside: I bolded that, dear reader, because I think it’s something we can’t be told often enough. Want more of Alexis’s great tips? No problem.] […]

  14. […] a journalist, I never used them. There are no italics in news stories. Journalists have to figure out how to emphasize words in other ways. Or not emphasize at […]

  15. […] check out this post on my blog: Writerly lessons I learned from journalism. 4. What’s your book about? What compelled you to write a […]

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