For seven years, I was a bonafide Girl Friday, a Lois Lane, a Nellie Bly: I was a newspaper reporter. I worked for several different papers, churning out multiple stories a week, interviewing people, writing many different types of news stories, and ultimately, learning how to be a better, faster, tighter writer.
While I have never published a novel, I have had thousands of newspaper articles published over the years, so here are a few things I learned in the newspaper business that I think can apply in any sort of writing situation.
Write a good lead.
How many news article do you actually read every day? For the most part, people just skim a news story for the highlights. Journalism students are taught to write a good “lead” (the first 1-2 sentences of a news story) that will essentially capture the entire story into one or two neat little sentences. If it’s a feature story (a nice, feel-good story), it’s even more important to write a solid lead that will make people want to read the entire article.
This can be applied to fiction writing as well: write a good opening scene, or even better, a great opening sentence. I’ve actually decided against buying a book in the bookstore if I open it up to Chapter 1 and the opening sentence or scene doesn’t even remotely capture my attention. One of my favorite opening scenes is in a suspense thriller called The Romanov Prophecy by Steve Berry. Here’s the opening sentence:
“In fifteen seconds, Miles Lord’s life changed forever.”
Wham pow! I know something incredible is going to happen in the next couple of pages and it made me want to find out what changed his life.
Do your research.
When I worked for my college paper, one of the hard and fast rules we had was to have at least three sources (people that you quoted/interviewed) in your story. This is a good rule because when you have multiple sources, you have a better overall view of the story you are trying to tell, plus it doesn’t allow just one person’s bias to rule a story. This is the same whether you are writing a news story or a fictional story. I know historical fiction writers consult multiple sources when researching an era, and even contemporary writers need to do their research when writing about specific subjects, rather than lean on their own opinions of bias.
You never know when you’re going to come across a good story, so always keep a notebook with you. A few years back, I literally stumbled upon a story. A 16-year old girl and her father were driving home with a large load of manure in the back end of their pickup truck. The girl lost control of the truck and rolled it into a ditch. Thankfully, she and her father were fine, but the manure was strewn across the highway for more than thirty feet. I came across this accident about two minutes after it happened as I was driving home, and since I had my trusty notebook and a camera with me, this accident became front page news (yeah, it was a rural community, so this was bigger than the time a piglet escaped a hog truck and decided to wander around downtown for a good hour. True story.).
But having a notebook isn’t just for journalists. How many times have you had a sudden inspiration for a story, and not had anything to write it down on? I’ve filled hundreds of notebooks with story ideas, notes, character sketches, even actual scenes! I wrote the ending of my first novel while sitting in a courthouse waiting for the trial I was covering to come up on the docket. I also have a running tab of ways for people to die by musical instrument that I’ve written while sitting in several symphony concerts (hey, I’m writing a murder mystery set around an orchestra!). You just never know when inspiration will strike.