My youngest son and I are both writers. He will graduate in May with a degree in creative writing, several years of experience editing his school’s literary journal, a novel-in-progress, and years of writing instruction along with several writing conferences under his belt including Breadloaf in Vermont. We occasionally joke that his editing job involves rejecting wannabe fiction writers like me and sometimes I feel like there’s more than a grain of truth in that statement. On the other hand, despite his education, and all the benefits that came with it, I don’t know how easy it would be for him to sit down and bang out the types of pieces I do on a regular basis.
I’m a self-taught writer who naturally gravitated toward nonfiction. I’ve written news and feature articles, book and theatre reviews, and now a book on college transfer (due out this summer) that allow me to showcase my natural talents-insatiable curiosity, interviewing a wide range of people, and a strong desire to present accurate information that readers could draw their own conclusions from.
Quite coincidentally, as I lay ill with the flu this weekend, I picked up Charles Johnson’s book, The Way of the Writer, and began to read. Like me, he did not get a college degree in writing. However he’s still managed to publish a number of well-regarded books in fiction, nonfiction, philosophy, and children’s fiction. Dr. Johnson, who worked for both newspapers and magazines as a young writer, asserts that people trained as journalists bring a specific set of essential skills to all types of good writing. Since this is something I’ve secretly suspected for some time, I read eagerly on to see if we agreed what these qualities were and felt quite validated to see that we did!
Here’s what Dr. Johnson and I think journalism can teach a writer:
- How to write prolifically about any subject. As he notes-there’s no such thing as writer’s block in the newspaper world!
- How to write something that all levels of readers can easily understand
- How to do research, to ask good questions based on what you learn, and to listen carefully to the response to develop further questions
- Perhaps most importantly, how to stop seeing your writing as sacred and untouchable. In journalism every word must fight for its life and if you don’t learn to cut out anything unnecessary, someone else will do it for you. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it and better you than your editor.
Is one way of approaching the writing life better than the other? I don’t think so. There’s room for both types of writers in this big and diverse world we live in. One isn’t better than the other; we can each add something valuable to the discussion and learn from each other. To me, the best writers are the ones who are always challenging themselves by trying to write in many different styles. Just don’t ask to see my attempts at poetry quite yet!