Image: Matthew Loffhagen
When it comes to writing, few things beat an insightful eye and an inquisitive mind. Happily, those attributes aren’t the sole province of novelists, and there’s plenty any writer can learn from journalism.
That’s why, in this article, I’ll be looking at eight ways authors can improve their writing by thinking like journalists. If you’re writing non-fiction, there’s lots that’s going to be directly applicable here, but fiction authors can also look forward to some useful advice. Let’s begin, then, with one of the most famous journalistic devices out there.
1. Answer 5 Ws and an H
The 5 Ws are often known by other names. You may have heard of them as ‘5W1H,’ ‘the Six Ws’ or even just ‘Five Ws and How,’ but they’re the basic questions one asks to provide the vital context for any story:
- What happened?
- Who made it happen/did it happen to?
- When did it happen?
- Where did it happen?
- Why did it happen?
- How did it happen?
When writing non-fiction, the 5 Ws (and an H) are completely literal. Leave one of them unanswered and you’re leaving out part of the story. When it comes to fiction, these factors are still important, albeit in a slightly more figurative sense.
In fiction, ‘where’ and ‘when’ might not be as straightforward as when talking about the real world. Telling the reader that the story takes place on the planet Juno IV may not be the same thing as actually telling them ‘where’ that is, since without some world building it’s a name and nothing more. Is Juno IV comparable to modern-day Earth? Is it comparable to a historic period or bound by specific laws and customs that influence the story? 1984, after all, takes place in 1984, but it’s not the 1984 that actually happened.
For this reason, it’s important to focus on whether the reader is equipped to appreciate what your answers to the 5 Ws mean, rather than just being sure to provide a technically accurate but unenlightening set of facts. Consider, for instance, the famous ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’ that precedes the Star Wars opening crawl. We’ve discussed before how – from a mechanical rather than aesthetic viewpoint – Star Wars movies are more fantasy than sci-fi. This opening cue to ‘when’ and ‘where’ we are is a signal for the audience to approach the various worlds of Star Wars as more feudal fantasy (with robed wizards and sword-wielding knights) than hard sci-fi (with speculative technology and incomprehensible alien races.)
Of course, Star Wars later visits specific planets such as Alderaan and Tatooine (often depicted with a single biosphere, giving them a clear ‘where’ definition of their own,) but in a completely fictional fantasy world, these larger definitions of ‘where’ and ‘when’ have value.Five Ws and an H – essential tools for a journalist, but just as useful to authors.Click To Tweet
If you’re writing period fiction, or even fiction set in a part of the world your reader may not intimately know, keep in mind that the 5 Ws may need a wider context than is communicated by single-word answers.
Finally, keep in mind that all 5 Ws (and that H) are important. In some cases, ‘when’ doesn’t need a more complicated answer than ‘now,’ but it does need that answer. ‘Why’ can be a question that implies the need for an otherwise absent backstory, and in the same way, all the Ws are worth self-applying to be sure you’re equipping your reader to understand the core facets of the events you’ve chosen to portray.
2. Don’t bury the lede
In journalism, the lede is the opening section of a story, but it’s specifically an opening that includes the most important aspects of the story that’s being told. The idiom ‘don’t bury the lede’ is therefore an admonition not to begin a story with details that aren’t as important or interesting as other information that’s included later. What does burying the lede look like?
“I saw my old driving instructor the other day.”
“Why were you in Venice?”
“Oh, I was briefly framed for a jewel heist and needed to hide out for a while.”
We’ve talked before about how prologues have (in all but a few instances) fallen out of favor with readers, and this is a big part of why: the reader assumes you’re leading with your best material. If that material doesn’t measure up, they’re going to lose all interest in seeing what else you have to offer.
So what does this mean for authors? Well, for non-fiction authors, it’s a case of making a good case for why the reader should want to hear your story. The 5 Ws (and an H) can help with that, but keep in mind that you might have to begin out of order to ensure you’re not burying the lede. If your memoir is going to include your role in the Cuban Missile Crisis, it’s best to begin with the missiles, even if that means setting the scene and then shifting back to an earlier date.
For fiction authors, it means starting with the action – what is this story actually about? If you’re going to be relating the personal adventure of a young fantasy hero, don’t begin with events a thousand years prior that will only be relevant ¾ of the way through the story you’re telling. You chose to tell this story for a reason, so make that reason clear to the reader. Part of doing that is learning how to…
3. Utilize the inverted pyramid
The inverted pyramid is a journalistic metaphor that describes how information is prioritized in a given story. The first section of the inverted pyramid (the wide top) is the 5 Ws – these are the core details, and so it makes sense that the story begins with them and makes them as clear as possible. The tighter middle of the story is for details – the situation is fleshed out and the ‘How’ probably gets more attention. Finally, the narrow bottom of the inverted pyramid deals in general and background information – the things that happened prior to the story as well as its likely outcomes.
Not only does the inverted pyramid illustrate how to prioritize information in terms of clarity, but it has a practical application for stories that might not retain readers right to the end. When a non-fiction piece is written according to the inverted pyramid, the reader never lacks important information – Person A, who read the first paragraph, and Person B, who finished the article, can discuss the most important details – they both know what the story was ‘about.’ Person B has more context, but they both know the basic information – they’ve both been successfully informed.
The inverted pyramid doesn’t map perfectly onto all longer writing – by design, it foregrounds the most vital, surprising information and then leaves the more complicated, less shocking context for later. This can still make for a great story; knowing that war will break out is the big news, but watching the machinations and betrayals that paved the way isn’t inherently dull. In fact, Kurt Vonnegut’s short stories often operate according to a form of this inverted pyramid – he tells you, up front, what’s happening, and then explores what that means for individual characters, or perhaps how it came to be. Stories like Galapagos aren’t propped up by twists or climactic endings; they front-load their big events and then explore the fascinating minutiae that surround them.The inverted pyramid orders information so that every reader gets the vital facts.Click To Tweet
Another way for fiction authors to approach the inverted pyramid is in terms of planning a story. Fix your big events in place, work out how they actually work as a narrative, then establish the B plots and backstories that make them believable. This may be how you already work, but if it’s not, it’s worth considering why this structure works so well – while world building first and then finding a narrative might be satisfying, it prioritizes the details that matter least in relation to a compelling story.
However you work, consider that the inverted pyramid is an illustration of what’s most relevant to the story you’re telling. If your planning broadly mirrors the pyramid, great. If it doesn’t, that’s fine too, but ask yourself why that’s the case, and be sure it’s a result of conscious choice.
4. Trim the fat, keep the lean
Journalists use the inverted pyramid for another reason. Ordering the story in such a deliberate manner makes it easier to cut down as needed; you’re not searching for things to cut because you already know where to look for the least interesting information.
Cutting texts down is a common necessity in journalism, where the space a work takes up matters more than in many other disciplines. For authors of both fiction and non-fiction, trimming the fat – the content that isn’t really important to the story – is a practice to emulate.
The most important part of trimming the fat is being able to tell the difference between fat and lean. Lean is what’s essential to the story – the events that have to happen, the characters that have to exist – with everything else there to add flavor. Of course, too much fat crowds out the lean, and a lot of editing (at least in the early stages) is cutting the unnecessary so what’s vital has room to breathe.
Develop a journalistic sense for what’s essential and what, in a pinch, can be cut as needed. It’s always best to work on being able to do this before it’s necessary – the need to cut something can be demanding in a way that isn’t always conducive to finding the best thing to cut. Being able to tell fat from lean will also help you fold your writing.
5. Show and tell
I won’t belabor this most common of writing device (not when you can check out Here’s Why Telling Is Just As Important As Showing.) Suffice to say that journalists have to tell their readers what happened, but they also have to show them the 5 Ws and an H. It’s no use simply saying, ‘The result of today’s vote was shocking’ without telling the reader how and why that’s the case. Hack journalists might editorialize without contextualizing, but good journalism (and thus good storytelling) gives the reader evidence over assurances.
Telling the reader that someone is untrustworthy or brave doesn’t have nearly the impact of showing them why that’s the case, whether in fiction or non-fiction, and while telling helps the reader interpret what they’re shown, it’s rarely persuasive by itself.
6. Trust, but verify
In journalism, ‘trust, but verify’ means that you shouldn’t automatically distrust an individual but you still need to back up their account with facts before you share it.
Many people argue that if you have to verify, you never trusted in the first place, but that’s not necessarily the case. ‘Trust’ doesn’t just mean ‘believe,’ it means ‘don’t approach pessimistically.’ Basically, ‘don’t assume someone is lying but make sure you can prove their account to a third party before you share it.’‘Trust, but verify’ marries optimism to responsibility, and it’s a great motto when researching your book.Click To Tweet
This is useful advice for any sort of research, and even for editing your own work. Don’t doubt yourself, be trusting and optimistic of your own insight and knowledge, but verify everything before you publish.
This is perhaps the only way to catch certain mistakes in your own work without hiring an editor. There are a lot of mistakes it’s easy to make because you were too trusting of your own assumptions. When referencing the famous Douglas Adams book, for instance, are you really, truly, 100% sure whether it’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? Is L. Frank Baum’s book titled The Wonderful Wizard of Oz or just The Wizard of Oz? And is Gene Wilder in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, or the sneaky but distinct Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory?
Don’t worry about these little details as you write (in other words, trust,) but do be sure to go back as you edit and check every single factual detail, whether you’re confident or not (but verify.) This applies to research, but it’s also true of grammar and punctuation. Check everything, because that’s the only way you catch everything.
7. Address your audience
Journalists don’t just write up their work and release it into the world – the way in which they write is informed by the nature of the publication in which their work is published. For journalists, this means considering the common knowledge of their expected audience; a story published in National Geographic may assume its readers know specific terminology that would need to be explained if used in a daily newspaper. Similarly, a local newspaper might take for granted that its audience has the context for a story about a local celebrity, while a national publication would have to contextualize who they are.
The same is true in other types of writing – having a clear idea of who you’re writing for will inform what you say and how you say it. This is the case on every level – one of the reasons authors need to be careful when using familiar places as story settings is because they’re likely to under-explain some details in a way that harms the experience of anyone who doesn’t have a familiar reference.
Many authors avoid defining their intended audience like the plague, refusing to budge from the ‘it’s for everyone’ mindset. That’s a nice way to think, but it downplays the need to write for certain readers. Let’s say that you work on a farm and you’ve written a book set on a farm – what terms or practices need to be explained to readers who have never left the city? Now, what terms and practices are going to be so obvious to rural readers that explaining them will feel patronizing or even silly?
It’s possible to engage both types of reader, but only if you make a set of decisions about what to explain and when. Assuming that you’re writing for everybody doesn’t invite everyone in, it just leaves you blind to who you’re pushing away.
Like a journalist, identify who you’re writing for and what they need to know. It’s fine to be inclusive of other groups – few authors are hostile to anyone who isn’t their ideal reader – but clarifying who you expect to reach and how best to communicate with them will vastly improve your work.
8. Learn to use headlines
Headlines are one of the most misunderstood tools in modern journalism, and that’s because they’re so separate to a story that they’re usually written by someone else entirely.
Why? Because headlines do a lot of work. Not only do they have to grab the reader, but they have to fit within a certain space, hit all kinds of readability metrics, and avoid stealing words or concepts from other nearby headlines. A headline writer doesn’t write one headline, they write a publication’s worth of headlines, ensuring that each does its job and doesn’t detract from the others.Headlines – like blurbs, titles, and cover design – are sales tools. Let them do what they do best.Click To Tweet
The most obvious parallel for writers is your book’s title and the fine art of standing out from the crowd, but even the theory is useful. Headlines are often ‘dumb’ – they use short words and they express the simplest form of the story. Here’s what they don’t do, though: they don’t hold anything back and they don’t confuse the reader (or, if they do, someone messed up.)
Headlines tell the reader what’s in store and they invite questions – in fact, they invite the 5 Ws and an H that the journalist then immediately answers. There are occasions where playing coy is best, but selling your work isn’t one of them, and that’s what headlines, titles, and book blurbs have in common. The headline’s there to get the reader in the door. Sometimes that means playing a little dirty – we’ve all heard articles accused of having ‘clickbait’ titles – but as long as you’re not lying, it’s all fair play. Headlines are a selling tool first, and it’s best to treat them as exactly that. Identify the ‘headlines’ in your own work, the things that are there to sell the art, and let them be what they truly are. If you’ve got to choose between a mysterious blurb that doesn’t share much and one that spoils the first three chapters but instantly grabs the reader, choose the reader every time.
Start the presses!
Those are eight ways that thinking like a journalist can help authors improve their work, but it’s unlikely they’re the only eight. In terms of guiding principles, journalism is about informing first and entertaining second, but at the end of the day, it’s still the art of telling a story, and that means authors and journalists have a lot to learn from one another (that’s on the occasions where they’re not one and the same person.)
What other journalistic lessons apply to authors, and how did you discover them? Let me know in the comments, and check out How To Find The Story In Your Non-fiction Project and How Can You Turn Your Blog Into A Book? for more great advice on this topic.