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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The Value In Listening To Writers Talking About Writing

The point about writing is that other people read your end product –  right?

Right.

But there’s also value in listening to writers talk about the writing process itself.

This is not only because writers like words – and that makes for easy listening – but because hearing about their writing process opens up insight into the world of writing from A to Z.

Writing is a hidden, personal place. It’s the place writers go to when they are shut in their sheds like Roald Dahl, or tapping at their laptops in offices consumed by noise, fear and deadlines like journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Berstein in the film All The President’s Men. 

Roald-Dahl-in-writing-hut

When writers wind backwards from the end result you gain insight into how you go about “this thing called writing” in the first place.

First up. What is writing anyway?

Looking at the gallery of quotes about writing at goodreads.com, one thing becomes apparent.

Every writer thinks about writing differently or at least they say different things about the same process.

Stephen King, the author with a knack of telling us how the backwaters of the US make minds twist to horror, wrote a book called “On Writing, A Memoir Of The Craft.”

In it he’s given perhaps the most universally applicable quote of all:

“You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will.” 

One online dictionary defines the craft of writing as either “the activity or skill of writing” or “the activity or occupation of composing text for publication.”

Ah ha! So writing is an activity, a skill or an occupation and can also be for publication. It all becomes clear now.

Or does it? 

Listening to writers talking about their writing process is as fascinating as the work they produce.

This is because the words on the page are the visible peak of a large iceberg submerged beneath.

We all know that icebergs are dangerous don’t we – we’ve seen Titanic struggle and sink in TV dramasdocumentaries and blockbusting movies.

The writing process: what lies beneath!
The writing process: what lies beneath!

Listening to writers talking about their craft helps us navigate through 

Hearing about what happens after inspiration strikes, how the worlds are crafted and created, what frustrations get in the way of the plot or the perfect sentence and how editing finishes the result, are all nuggets of information that help us other writers on our voyage towards publication.

We might find an iceberg glancing across the bows but with understanding of how the writing process works for other people, we can swerve out of the way before disaster strikes.

Sometimes journalism and creative writing meets as you find in this You Tube clip from the BBC series “5 Minutes With” Philip Pullman.

Pullman democratises writing, saying that we all tell stories but writers know ‘what to do’ with a story to make it into a book. Then it’s the journalist who knows how to research and ask the right questions and how to open up the interview that makes it a success.

Both are fascinating insights into the writing process itself.

To quote Mr King:

“So okay― there you are in your room with the shade down and the door shut and the plug pulled out of the base of the telephone. You’ve blown up your TV and committed yourself to a thousand words a day, come hell or high water. Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want.”

Thank you for your words, writers. To know a little bit of your iceberg, helps us with ours.

© Carrie Henderson 2015

Writing Tips – Using A Writing Plan

It might seem antithetical to the creative process or even restricting to have a writing plan.

There might be lots of reasons it doesn’t sound like you.

Your writing process could be more fluid and flexible, one that allows inspiration to evolve before you put words to paper. You might not want to tinker with what works well for you.

Devising a writing plan doesn’t have to stop your natural writing flow. With a bit of adjustment, it can help rather than hinder.

Writing Plan SurbitonWritersGroup

What is a writing plan?

It’s a timetable that defines how much time you will write daily. 

A writing plan is a framework you can use to set deadlines as well.

Setting out clear blocks of time to write and defining what you do with that time can be a useful tool in getting past the barriers that prevent you from putting your writing ideas into action.

If you are aiming to submit for publication or a competition deadline or have a date for self-publication a writing plan can help you achieve your objective.

Here’s how it works

Let’s face it, the short story you are working on, the book you are writing, the lyrics you have in mind or the poem you have scribbled on the back of an envelope isn’t going to write itself.

It’s down to you to get the words finished

For some people the very idea of committing words to paper can be intimidating.

Thoughts like “I can do that – they aren’t finished in my head yet” or “oh no, putting words on paper means they have to be right first” can get in the way of making a start on that project.

Using a writing plan helps you take the steps forward to get a draft completed

Getting the draft completed is a really big step on the way to getting it tied up and finished.

You will be half way there!

Here’s what to do

Life stuff sure gets in the way of writing. Boy, oh boy does it ever.

That last minute call to ask for a lift, that shopping trip you have to do, that TV programme you can’t miss and that phone call that you have to take. It all gets in the way.

Most people write in their spare time. To have a writing plan means making a choice to timetable regular writing into some of that spare time.

“Oh but…”

No buts! You can start small.  Starting small with a writing plan will still reap rewards.

The great news is that even 15 minutes writing time every 2 days will mean you’ll end your week with more words than you started with.

Try adding in a deadline

Some authors talk about setting deadlines to help focus their mind on the writing task in hand.

If you want your writing plan to work because you have a deadline you will need to adjust your plan.

For a writing competition you might need to produce 1000 edited words in 2 months time, for instance. A writing plan can help you meet that deadline.

Writing maths

Work out how fast you write for. Most people can write at least 500 words every 2 days.

If you write 500 words every 2 days and your writing plan sets aside 15 minutes every 2 days, you should have 1000 words in your draft version at the end of 4 days.

Finishingabook the surbitonwritersgroup

Fantastic!

It is, isn’t it. Using a writing plan in this way makes the enormity of the deadline feel more achievable.

It’ll help break your writers block and you’ll feel the sense of achievement and satisfaction that you’ve completed a step on the way to achieving your goal.

That builds confidence which in turn builds incentive to continue.

Oh but…

That again.

It is true that you’ll have to put aside other commitments. It starts with making it clear to yourself that you’ll be writing to a writing plan and then to others who also need to know.

Once that’s done though, you have bought yourself valuable writing time. Before you know it, you’ll have your first novel!

Do tell us your tips for using a writing plan in the comments below. Do you use one? Does it help?

We’d love to hear from you.

© The Surbiton Writers Group 2015.

Contact: surbitonwritersgroup@gmail.com

Writing Tips: Using Visual Prompts For Writing Practice

Writing is about forming ideas into words. 

But where do the ideas come from?

Writers often say they are about writing from experience, from the things that inspire them.

Publishers, readers, teachers and advisors say that this is essential as it gives an authentic tone to the writing.

Practicing writing in many different ways is also important to developing skills. It’s akin to an artist using a sketch book.

Can art and writing combine?

Whether you are doing a big piece of writing or practicing, visual prompts can help words flow.

You can use visual prompts to flex your imagination and run wild and free with new ideas.

What you write doesn’t have to originate from personal experience. Because of this, you can explore imaginary situations, characters and realms that your day-to-day writing or your big writing project doesn’t accommodate.

Here’s an image to practice writing from:

Writing Prompt Surbiton Writers Group 1

..and some questions to ask yourself: 

  • Where is the setting
  • How does this scene fit into a plot
  • What characters are present
  • Who is absent from the scene
  • What happened just before this picture was taken
  • What happened just after this picture was taken

Get your notepad ready…

Write as much as you can about this picture. There’s no right or wrong way to do this, all you have to do is write until you want to stop.

All done

Great! You’ve exercised your creative brain by giving it new inspiration to work with.

Does what you read surprise you?

Writing from a new visual prompt cuts through the inner critic, the voice inside us that acts as our writing editor.

It also combats our fear of choosing the wrong words.

By trying something fun and new, it can turn your writing on it’s head.

You can produce work that is original and breaks through your writing patterns – a trap that all writers fall into.

Try it and see

We’d love to see what you’ve written. Go ahead and post it in a comment below..

© The Surbiton Writers Group 2015.

Contact: surbitonwritersgroup@gmail.com