Creative writing and journalistic writing are two very different animals. If you’re accustomed to one, the other can be jarring at first.
Journalism works on strict deadlines. You are expected to get your piece done by that deadline, or it doesn’t go up. Miss the deadline too many times, and you my friend don’t work for that paper anymore.
Journalists are expected to turn out massive amounts of work, but at the same time, each of those pieces are expected to be a short and to the point as possible. The smaller your piece is, the more ad space the paper can sell. Scratch that, the paper’s already sold that ad space, and they’ll cut your piece if they have to/decide to.
Because of the constant deadlines and need for as slim copy as possible, journalists develop horrible alcohol addictions, I mean write by a code.
Maybe you’ve heard of it. It stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid. Journalists are also kind of assholes. It’s all the stress.
Yes, creative writers do live with deadlines and word count limitations, too. But think of our limitations as a bathtub. Journalists are working with shot glasses.
Here, then, are some of the ways I use the quick, tight, KISS style writing I learned in journalism to improve my creative writing.
For one thing, journalists do a lot more of this than we do. I’m out there learning about Russian swearwords, a journalist is finding out how often Russian diplomats cuss out visiting dignitaries. I haven’t interviewed anyone since I worked on my school paper, when I did it literally for every article I wrote.
I started by writing down a list of questions I needed the answer for. Then, I wrote down all the things I thought I knew, so that I could fact check them. (That’s the other thing about journalism. If we’re wrong on a fact, it might not even matter that much unless you’re writing creative nonfiction. If they’re wrong, they’re gonna cause all sorts of hell. And by that I mean it could embarrass their publication, and potentially get them fired.)
Then I get to work. I need reputable sources, people that other people trust. And they can’t be other news establishments, that’s terrible form.
Then I would set up appointments for the people I wanted to interview. The time I had in between the first interview and right then was the time I had to research. I was looking for the answers to the questions I had in front of me. If I found something fascinating that I could add, I’d write it down. But I wasn’t looking for inspiration, I was looking for answers.
Next, I was double checking the answers, and making sure I kept track of my sources. (Which, by the way, is another thing we creative writers should work harder on.)
The interviews came next. I always hated that part a little bit, it was the skill that took me longest to master. At first I was pretty much reading my notes off cards. I learned, though. Some people are really good at talking to other people. Some of us hate talking to people we don’t know, let alone having to ask a whole bunch of what might be awkward questions. Yes, you can learn all sorts of tricks to make interviewing easier and more efficient. But at the end of the day, you’re going to have to practice a lot to get comfortable.
Now that you’ve got everything together, it’s time to actually write.
Omit Needless Words
If you haven’t read Elements of Style, by William Strunk, put this down right now and go do it. The words above are right from it, and they are words I live by in my writing. This is pretty simple to explain, even if it’s not easy in practice. If a word isn’t doing something useful, providing information, setting a scene or giving depth to a character. We don’t need to know about the drapes unless the drapes tell us something we need to know.
As creative writers, we need to take this two steps further.
Let’s talk about side plots. As a fantasy writer, this is kind of hard for me. I have a big cast, and because I put a ton of time into character development, they all have their stories to tell. It makes it worse that in the first draft, I throw everything in. You should, too, because there should be no filter in your first draft. You just don’t know what sort of awesome stuff you can come up with if you don’t have a filter.
Even so, I can’t tell them all, and that makes me sad. But telling too many stories is distracting. Not just for the reader, for you as well.
Fortunately, my second draft often weeds the weaker side stories out. It’s the easiest way to handle weak side plots, in my opinion. Once you’re down to just the strong ones, keep just the ones that perform double duty. Does your side plot deepen your main one, tell us something about an important character, or expand the reader’s understanding of your world? If not, maybe you should stash that story away for later.
Finally, let’s talk about your cast. Again, remember to KISS. If a character can be cut, she probably should be. Simple as that.
In closing, just remember, keep it simple, because you’re not stupid.