Recovering Journalist Syndrome

Writers editing story

Photo by Boris Peterka * stock.xchng

I just emerged from a kick-tail edit by Kat Heckenbach. A good edit is like a good session with a personal trainer. It hurts, but you put yourself through it anyway because you know it will make you stronger.

The area where this particular story needed the most help was in drawing out the POV character’s emotional state. Kat noted that another news writer she works with has a similar problem — what she called “reporter mode.” An apt description.

Journalism can beat out of a writer any tendency to amplify emotion, because news is meant to be factual, not subjective. We’re discouraged from using adjectives. Similes are OK, sometimes, but metaphors are right out. Descriptions get pared to the bare minimum. It’s hard training to overcome. More like brainwashing, sometimes.

I remember a reporter who profiled a high-tech firm. Her story described the company’s office and mentioned that they played U2 music. She felt it was a detail that conveyed a lot about their corporate culture. Her editor took it out because it wasn’t “germane.” A later story about the same company — in a major national newsmagazine — mentioned the U2 music.

Which brings me to one of the contradictions I found in journalism. News writers are often instructed to keep the text spare. Just the facts. But the stories that get wide readership, the stories that win awards, the stories that writing instructors point to as great journalism — are all filled with rich language and revealing details — like that U2 soundtrack. It’s as if there’s a disconnect between what readers want and what editors think readers should have.

When journalists make the transition to fiction writing, we need to hang onto what the readers want, and forget all those journalistic proscriptions against adjectives and metaphors and details that aren’t “germane.”

I took Margie Lawson’s seminar “Empowering Characters’ Emotions” at the Florida Writers’ Conference several years ago. (Clearly it didn’t all sink in.) But I remember a fellow sitting behind said, “I guess I need to learn to cut loose with the metaphors more often.” I felt the same way. I neglected to ask whether he, too, was a recovering journalist.

Another resource for building character emotion is The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. But workshops and books aren’t enough. Sooner or later, you have to hand your weakling manuscript over to a trainer who’ll buff it up. Especially if you’re a recovering journalist.

About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

5 comments on “Recovering Journalist Syndrome

  1. Well, I finally read your revised story this morning, and what didn’t sink in before surely has now :). Great job, and so glad to help. Another thing that makes an edit great is a writer who takes things to heart–and still sticks with her own style and voice :).

    Maybe there needs to be a support group for “recovering journalists” who have aspirations as fiction writers :).

  2. Thanks for sharing this post, Kat. It definitely spoke to me as we had talked about this at our last Brandon Christian Writers meeting. Journalistic style can sometimes feel like it burns the passion out of your writing. I agree that the stories that hold my interest best are the ones with some “real life” in them. I want a little more than just the facts – I want to learn something unusual that I didn’t know before and something that makes me connect on a deeper level to the subject of the piece. I’ll be sharing this one!!

    • Thanks, Cheryl. I’m glad this was meaningful. In addition to burning the passion out — great phrase, by the way — I think the editorial process in journalism robs writers of their voices. The highest praise goes to those journalists that bring passion and voice and, as you said, real life, but in practice by the time all the editors at a paper are through with each reporter’s story, they all sound the same.

      Thanks for sharing!

  3. […] don’t know whether he is also a recovering journalist, but he’s […]

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