I Hear Journalists Write

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Posted on 05 Feb 2013 02:48

I am inclined to say that journalists use writing primarily to tell stories; whether they are writing opinion pieces, covering breaking news, or doing interviews, their purpose is ultimately to create some sort of compelling narrative (though the story may not always compel the reader to like the subject; compulsion may be in any direction). To write like a journalist, one must be scrupulous; I've heard horror stories about the advanced technical classes necessary, and of course there's the matter of factual accuracy. Nobody likes libel, and presumably even fewer people like being sued for libel, and presumably very few people indeed like having to run a new edition with a section of edits taking up the inside front cover, or needing to attach a comment about an embarrassingly misspelled name or misquotation to the end of a blog post. I think one of the subtler aspects of journalism would be any particular insertion of spin, whether liberal or otherwise; the primary objective of writing has to seem to be the conveyance of information, rather than the way that information is then influenced by the writer or publication, and then the way it influences the reader. Anybody can write a bare-bones summary of events, but I think the real trick lies in taking that generic skeleton and adding literary musculature, if you will, to make it a beast you can control. Last term I spent some time talking to an ex-journalism major, and over the summer I also worked with an ex-journalist from the New York Times; both of them agreed that journalism is an excellent way to avoid making personal connections, which also pretty much ensures you will die alone, but in terms of useful information they both stressed the voracity that is the news cycle. I would guess, therefore, that an important skill for a journalist to have would be the ability to look at a series of events and pull out a story, whether political in nature, human interest, or some ungodly process story combination of the two. One of them explained that she had left because the constant wealth of awful things people do that people then want to hear about got overwhelming, and the other had simply not found it his “thing”, though he did offer a certain amount of comfort in the highly idealistic view that journalism is the noble pursuit of the truth (which, as far as delusions go, is pleasant enough).

I've talked to various people about my writing, usually in the form of “oh god I wrote a thing please read the thing and then never talk to me about it again”. One of them told me that I have a fondness (and talent) for rich saturated description, which he thought would be wasted on journalism; he did misspell three words in doing so, though, so I'm inclined to take that with a grain of salt. Another told me that if I could manage to remain emotionally distant for more than five minutes at a time, I could probably do it, which promptly irritated me enough to prove her point. In general, I like to tell stories; I like to tell stories about people; I like to know more about things that should probably not be poked; I like figuring out how to get people to tell me things, and then I like fitting all these things into place, and making something complete. I like finding the right turn of phrase to describe a person's reaction, a location, an effect; I like knowing things. (Generally we call that being nosy; at least this way I'd have a professional excuse.)

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