Journalism And Creative Writing – Difference, Much?

The Surbiton Writer’s Group is a group for people who write in any genre; journalism, creative writing, blogging, rapping – anything that involves wanting to put words down on paper or a screen, whether it’s writing for a job, with an intention to be published or for fun.

While I’ve been chatting with people about the Group we’ve discussed the differences between creative writing and Journalism.

“Surely,” said one person, “Journalism is creative? I really like Polly Toynbee’s writing in The Guardian. That’s very creative!”

Listening to 3 writers of Fantasy Fiction talk so eloquently and expressively about creative fiction writing at an author talk at Waterstone’s book shop in Kingston caused me to think about it again.

Isn’t everything that is newly created and written down creative, whether it’s online, for a newspaper, a business or a blog?

Isn’t it all the same process, the same ideas – including the books Baroness Rebuck publishes at Penguin Random House?

What exactly are the differences?

Journalism

The most obvious difference is that in Journalism, you are collecting together facts and then writing about those facts. You choose words that are easy to understand for the target audience you are writing for.

Most importantly, you don’t make things up.

The facts must be well researched and well supported. You also need quotes to support your story. You stay in the background and remain objective.

When I am writing a factual piece the facts lead the words, not the other way around. 

Journalism is non-fiction, not fiction.

When I am doing creative writing the ideas lead the words

In creative writing, ideas do not have to be factual. Unless the veracity and detail of the facts are important to the story I’m writing, I don’t necessarily have to research them as deeply as I would do when writing a journalistic piece.

I can take liberties and chances. I am in control of what I write. I can choose which words to use from the ground up.

But does that mean journalism isn’t as creative as creative writing…

Here’s a ‘for instance.’

Amy McCulloch at the writer’s talk at Waterstones book shop, said she chose to research the history of China in depth because she felt it was important to setting the scene in a way that was authentic to her as a writer. But she didn’t need to – it was her choice.

At the same talk, Tom Pollack said that his London locations are real, but they don’t have to be 100% factually correct. That’s all part of the creativity of writing the setting in fiction.

A Writer Writing

Journalism expects factual accuracy. It also expects that a pattern of writing is adhered to.

The first paragraph of an article needs to sum up for the reader what the rest of the article is about. Ideally if a reader reads nothing more before they put their IPAD down or throw the paper onto the seat on the train, they should have the salient facts of the entire article.

But if you are reading a column by Polly Toynbee it seems to be more creative because it allows her freedom to write in a way she chooses, a point the member of the Surbiton Writer’s Group made.

Is that sort of journalism Creative Non-Fiction? 

“Well no,” I said in reply, “that’s a feature, or an opinion piece,” I added, confusing things further. “What isn’t seen is the editor at their desk deciding which of those words make it into the published edition.”

“That’s the same as fiction writing!” they said.

Word counts are crucial to journalism. There is an art in being given 250 or 500 words in which to sum up and explain what the article is about, including quotes.

It focuses my mind on what words are important, which words are superfluous. Flowery language is a luxury, not a necessity. Your word budget has to do the job and your first para’ has to sum that up exactly.

So is journalism as creative as creative writing?

I’ll finish by saying something that I read in a blog recently. It was in a post about different types of writing that journalists do.

The journalist was asked what type of writing was most ‘them’; writing for online articles in a popular daily online magazine, writing long feature pieces in a broadsheet newspaper or writing a book.

“All of them,” was their reply. “Each voice is my writing and I have to be able to do each equally well.”

The jury may be out for people reading between the two genres but there’s still plenty of creativity in journalism – they are simply different sides to the writing coin.

© Carrie Henderson 2015

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