My very first semester in college, I was offered an internship at a daily newspaper. I turned it down, rather piously as I recall. I was majoring in English, not journalism. I was going to be a fiction writer. Why would I want to write daily news?
Ironically, ten or so years after turning down that internship, after a series of adventures, mistakes, odd decisions and false starts, I found myself at a newspaper, covering courts and cops. That was my beat at two different papers – the first a twice-a-week small town, and the second a daily regional. I really did once have a story for which they held the press. It was a meth bust, the first in the area, and it happened exactly at deadline.
I’m out of newspapers now with no plans to return. I’m grateful for my time spent on a news-cycle deadline. It cleaned up my overwrought writing style. It was a crash course in “Humans in Crisis 101.”
Here are some things I learned in the several years I was a reporter that I’ve incorporated as a fiction writer:
1. Decide what is the most important thing in the story you are about to tell. Begin there. (This goes along with the concept that the reader should know what a story is about in the first seven lines, or, for a novel, in the first seven paragraphs.)
2. Do not raise useless questions. If you leave a reader with questions, they ought to be on purpose.
3. Don’t include everything. Details matter. Have a defensible reason for every detail you include.
4. Maybe you’ve heard that newspapers are written at a sixth-grade level readership? I don’t know about that. But I do know verbosity is boring and will get you mocked at a news meeting.
5. Maybe you’ve heard “if it bleeds, it leads?” Nah, not really. What happens isn’t nearly as important as to whom it happens.
6. Thick skin, darling. Also, appreciate a good editor.
7. Deadlines are excellent inspiration. Finish your stories and poems! They won’t all be great, some of them may stay in the drawer. That’s ok. Really. (And sometimes they age well.)
8. If you are covering a Big Topic and you can’t be first (perhaps because your paper comes out the next morning and Channel 12 goes “live at five”) then talk to people on the edge of the story. They may have a lot to say.
9. Sometimes a boilerplate story really is just that. Sometimes all it takes is going there – injecting humor into the story about the 70-something known for her Mustang car collection, even though she died in one after suffering a heart attack while driving.
10. Perhaps most important: you are telling someone’s story, you are their representative. That’s as true of fiction as it is of news stories. If the story is about the young wife mourning her killed-by-a-drunk-driver-husband, don’t make her cry but document it if she does. Note the mini-Dachshund with worried eyes with her. Hold that extra minute before you decide the interview is over, notice how she picks up the little dog and holds it close to her, how they both look across the field at the road he should be coming home on, separate in their understanding of their grief and yet together.
And don’t be a headline snob. The best stories are sometimes disguised as small stories. Your story about a girl with a bunny might change lives.