I’ve been learning a lot about writing lately just by working for Jeffrey Ougler, who handles the district news at the Sault Star.
I’ve read newspapers all my life – I remember reading some of the articles when I was ten or eleven – and yet I’d never considered how a newspaper article is constructed. All right, I knew about the “Who, What, When, Where, Why” part, but I think that’s as far as it went.
When you write a piece of fiction, you’re building to a climax and resolution. In other words, the important stuff comes closer to the end. In a newspaper story, the important stuff comes first. Space constraints may require that the story be cut, and if the end goes missing, there’d better not be anything important in it.
Fiction is about showing, not telling. Newspaper articles are about telling. Showing is good, but that’s why you take photographs. It’s interesting to write an illustrated story. I don’t have to describe my characters, partly because I’m usually writing about local people who may be known to my readers, but mainly because they’re almost certainly in the photograph.
Pictures also save words, although perhaps not a thousand words each. That’s good, because word count is important. A feature article can go longer and spill over onto a second page, but most articles have to be short. Jeffrey has limited space, and has to fit whatever news he can into it. I feel like I’ve been well-trained for this in writing flash fiction, where stringent word counts are the rule. (I don’t get to put pictures in flash fiction – bonus points for newspaper stories!)
I got my first assigned piece this week, covering the opening of Algoma Manor’s new building. Up until this point I’ve had to come up with my own stories, which was a learning experience all by itself. Jeffrey also asked if I could write the story up immediately after the opening for inclusion in the next day’s paper.
There was another learning experience, coming home with my notebook and camera still steaming to write the story and turn it in. It’s not how I’ve been used to writing. Most of my fiction stories sit for at least a day before I read them over again and rewrite. Of course, if I did a lot of that for the paper, the “news” would be more like “olds”.
It’s good discipline, learning another way of writing. It’s not the best-paid job in the world (which is, in part, why I need another) but it allows me to flex a different set of writing muscles, and thinking muscles, too. It’s another of those things I never thought I’d be doing, which only goes to show you never know where life will take you.