Last week, one of my journalism professors called me a “writer.” But she didn’t stop there. She accused me of having “the soul of a writer.” That was all very nice and I was, of course, flattered and humbled. I happen to have a great deal of admiration and respect for her… she has been (journalistically) where I have yet to travel. Although I know, based on my grades in her class, I am able to competently write news; it was not my news writing that she was talking about.
Through a series of events that are not all that important, she recently became aware of my blog and has had occasion to stop by here and read some of my “free-form” writing. It is decidedly not news writing. Indeed, I’m not quite sure how I would categorize it. Be that as it may, her observation wasn’t exactly all that surprising. In all humility - and I have written about this before – I know that I am a writer, and a pretty good one at that. But the soul of a writer? Ok, I’ll take it.
What was surprising is that she said it was a quality that she did not possess. Huh? She said in class once that she has wanted to be a journalist since she was a kid. She’s been writing – for money – for many years. She is a writer! How is it that I could have the “soul of a writer” when she didn’t?
So this all has been bouncing around in my head for about a week now. It’s making me think – something I already do far too much of. I began to compare the different kinds of writing and what it is that makes good writing in the various genres stand out.
Is it “soul?” Do some forms of writing need it while others don’t? Is there a difference between an author and a writer? How about a journalist and a reporter? What distinguishes an essayist from a columnist? These and other sorts of writing are vastly different from each other – but the bottom line is that a writer writes. I am better at some forms of writing than others… and yes, some forms require something special.
In news writing, there are a number of rules. Some, like spelling and grammar, are applied pretty much across the board. Other rules or “style” are no less rigid but may vary depending on the publication one is writing for. Most use the Associated Press (AP) style. Furthermore, news writing doesn’t allow for bias, ambiguity and opinion. There is no use of the first-person – ever. The writer can’t be in the story. I know, I know – save it. No one is perfect, especially Fox News.
The point is that given the facts, the quotes, the attribution and the research, the “art” of news writing is much more mechanical than that of, say, a column or an essay. The flow is top-down. We give it all up in the lead - who, what, why, where, when and how. It’s called a reverse pyramid, the detail becomes less and less important towards the end of the story. There is no room for flair, build-up or suspense. Leave your profundity at the door - this is news.
Profile and feature articles have a little less rigidity, but they too are dictated by rules. Although I enjoy writing them slightly more than straight news – it is still not among my preferred genres. I like news for reasons other than the writing. I like the discovery, the curiosity and, of course, the power. The writing, others’ and mine, represents a vehicle. The beauty is in the accurate, efficient, coherent and responsible transmission information.
News writing doesn’t allow for self-expression, that is not its purpose. Clever vocabulary, grammatically complicated - but correct 100-word sentences have no place in news writing. News writing comes off the street, not out of my head. Is there “soul” in news writing? Maybe not, but the passion of getting the story and getting it right – the soul of the journalist certainly does exist.
It is interesting that I can rattle off these 800-odd words and be relatively happy with their arrangement, their flow and their purpose in one sitting - in just about one hour. But when I have to follow the rules of news writing, I struggle and re-write… I throw my hands up and come back to it… it just plain doesn’t come easy – and that’s after the “reporting” part is finished. It could take hours to write 800 little words. I might be good at it – someday, but I’m still learning.
I usually don’t title these posts until I’m all done and staring at the blank title field. I knew what title of this one was going in...