This post is part of the Countdown Series on ShariLopatin.com, re-publishing my top “writing tips” blog posts from the past five years. The Countdown Series will culminate in a few weeks with the announcement of my business’ (Shari’s Ink) new arm, which will benefit other WRITERS!
Originally published Feb. 15, 2011
A creative writer once referred to me as a “writing scientist.”
I laughed at the time. But the more I think of it, as a journalist, I am a writing scientist. My degree is a Bachelor of SCIENCE in Journalism. There is a science to being a reporter, but over the years, I’ve discovered there is more of a science to writing.
My career has revolved around journalism (I started as a newspaper reporter), and more recently, writing for marketing and social media. Yet my roots are engrained in creativity. I’ve returned to those roots lately and discovered how my “writing scientist” background actually improves my creative writing.
Here are five ways a journalist’s training can help any creative writer improve his or her work:
1. Intrigue the reader immediately in 30 words or less.
In journalism, we’re trained to write a “lede” (pronounced lead) to every story. That’s the first sentence–it’s also the first paragraph–and it must be 30 words or less. But most importantly, the lede must catch the reader’s curiosity. If not, we lose that person for good.
Creative writers have the same task, but for different reasons. They want people to read their stories. However, if people are not enticed at the beginning, will they keep reading? I can think of countless books I’ve brushed aside because the beginning bored, or dragged, or “eased me” into the story.
Creative writers should start their novels and/or short stories the way journalists begin their articles: intriguing, and in 30 words or less.
2. Keep the story moving–don’t linger too long.
The average reader loses interest in an article after 500 words. Therefore, journalists need to cram as much information into those few paragraphs as possible, while keeping the story interesting.
Creative writers have more leeway. However, still keep the story moving. Writers will lose the reader’s sense of excitement if they spend too long describing a setting, or the way a character looks. Get the information in, then keep the story moving along.
3. Is the story newsworthy (a.k.a. unusual)?
A reporter will not write an article about a firefighter who saves a cat stuck in a tree. It’s cliché, and it’s nothing new. Yet, a journalist will write a story about a dog that saves a cat from a tree.
Why? It’s unusual.
And the bottom line is this: people want to read stories that are out-of-the-ordinary. Whether it’s in a newspaper, or a novel, this rule applies. Creative writers need to really think about their story. Has this been done before, in this way?
4. Write in Layman’s terms.
The average American reads at a 4th-5th grade level. Now, I’d imagine those who choose to read literary works of genius read at higher levels (I’d hope). Yet, if a creative writer explores a subject not known to the general public, make sure to explain what all those odd words mean.
Additionally, sometimes writing in Layman’s terms makes a story more entertaining to read. Complicated vocabulary doesn’t necessarily translate into better literature (ever listen to a PR hack blab for some company or politician?). What does equal better writing, however, is sentence structure and word choice.
With that in mind, good luck!
Shari Lopatin is a professional writer, editor, journalist, and social media manager with a decade of experience in media and communications. She lives in Phoenix, Ariz. and blogs about finding a literary agent, writing tips, social media or tech trends, and sometimes current events. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter!