At the end of 2015, I retired from a full-time editing position with The Record/ Herald News in New Jersey, where I had worked for ten years. Previously, from 1972 to 1998, I wrote for another daily newspaper, The Star-Ledger. When I started out, newspapers were thriving, and if you wanted a writing job with a regular paycheck, becoming a reporter was your best bet.
You’ll notice that at large mystery conferences many guest speakers and panelists of a certain age come from newspaper backgrounds. Unfortunately, these jobs are dwindling today and the ones that remain aren’t what they used to be. That’s a shame, because my newspaper career taught me skills that can benefit any writer.
Some ground rules of journalism may or may not help you as a writer of suspense fiction:
Pyramid Style. You put the most important information at the beginning of the story. Not only does this grab the reader’s attention of the reader, but if an editor has to cut for length, only the more trivial and unimportant details will be sacrificed. Of course, if you put all of the key information into the first paragraph of your mystery, you’ll produce nothing but very short “flash” fiction! But you should start with a grabber of an opening scene.
Strict Objectivity. In a news article, the reporter does not give her opinion of the event or the people involved. The most she can do is ask participants and witnesses about their feelings and quote them. Feature writing or an investigative series may describe a person or a scene in a moving way, but stops short of passing judgment or telling the reader what to feel. A writer from a journalism background may need to learn how to break this rule and convey strong emotion in her fiction.
The Deadline is Sacred. Some newspaper stories have tighter deadlines than others, but whether you’re writing every week or every day, something has to go in that slot. If you don’t produce on time, the higher-ups may reconsider your employment. In fiction, you should rewrite to make the piece is as good as it can be, but you’ll still need the discipline to meet deadlines for a publisher, or even a short story contest.
Journalism rules that definitely benefit the fiction writer:
Butt in Chair. At a newspaper, you can’t wait for the muse to strike. If you stall by going for more coffee and chatting up a co-worker, an editor will tell you to sit down and get to work. You can’t stew in self-doubt about your level of talent, either. Just start writing; even if the first draft is drivel, you can fix it later.
Get Your Facts Straight. Writing mystery fiction also involves checking facts–about police procedure, weapons and poisons, financial scams and legal loopholes. These days the Internet makes research easier, but often that’s just your starting point. Track down experts, interview them and visit them if necessary. I’m an introverted person, but after all those years at newspapers I can call up a stranger, make an appointment and slide right back into reporter mode when interviewing them for some aspect of my novel.
Show, Don’t Tell. A beginner may write, “Linda was so sad, she felt like crying. How could something like this happen? She felt like the sun would never shine again…” A journalist can’t fall back on this kind of subjective approach, and learns to describe a character’s frame of mind through facial expressions, tones of voice, posture, actions, etc. Even in fiction, that’s often the most effective type of writing.
Establish Your Priorities. Under time pressure, a reporter has to scan her notes and quickly decide the overall thrust of the story. Based on that, she must choose what to emphasize, what to downplay and what to leave out completely. When you learn this, you’re less likely to be sidetracked by a subplot or a secondary character, so that your story becomes unbalanced or morphs into something you never intended.
Cut or Be Cut. At a newspaper, your word count is based on the space allotted. An important, breaking story or an investigative masterpiece may be given more leeway, but if you write a column or a feature that needs to be contained on half a page you can’t run over that. Most journalists learn to trim their own writing, because if they don’t the editor will, perhaps more brutally than they’d like.
Though a newsroom can be a stressful place, I appreciate the discipline I acquired from my years in the business. I hope that in these days of blogging, news website and ezines, those skills won’t be lost completely, because they can help any writer become more productive and effective.