I took the old-fashioned route to becoming a journalist. These days a lot of young people take degrees in journalism or, I can hear you groaning, media studies. But I learned the job the hard way on a local weekly newspaper in a sleepy market town in Devon. I wrote about flower shows, parish council meetings, golden weddings and village fetes. It wasn’t exactly cutting edge stuff but it taught me skills that I still use today.
For a start, it taught me to write accurate, up-to-date copy and to get people’s names right. When you’re writing a novel you can come up with any name you like for your characters – and spell it however you like too. When you’re writing for a newspaper and magazine, you have to check the spelling of every single name as you go along. Don’t simply assume that Jane is spelled Jane or Ian is spelled Ian.
The worst thing of all is when you get your facts wrong. I once covered a parish council meeting in the middle of Dartmoor where the villagers were up in arms about double yellow lines being painted outside the village hall. My shorthand was a bit ropey in those days and I mistakenly reported that one particular councillor supported the idea. The day the paper came out he marched into the office and shouted at me for getting his views completely wrong. That’s the disadvantage of writing for a local paper – your readers live right on the doorstep.
The second thing my local newspaper training taught me was that every piece should grab the reader’s attention as speedily as possible. This can be quite a challenge when you’re writing about boring planning committees or the winner of the best jam competition – but believe me, it can be done.
The third thing I learned was that the image of journalists conveyed in films and TV soaps couldn’t be further from the truth. Even JK Rowling came up with the appalling Rita Skeeter and her Quick Quotes pen. But being boorish and uncharming never got a journalist anywhere. Our job is to get people to talk to us – so you need to be polite, charming, sympathetic and endlessly patient.
There was one book that taught me more about writing than any other and that’s Daily Mirror Style by Keith Waterhouse. He wrote it in 1981, when he worked the Daily Mirror, describing it as “a polemic against shoddy or tired writing and a plea for fresh and workmanlike writing.”
His tips include using specific words (such as red and blue) rather than general ones like “brightly coloured” and concrete words (like rain and fog) rather than abstract ones like “bad weather.” He preferred to use positive phrases, such as “he was poor,” rather than negative ones like “he was not rich” and advised using short,snappy sentences, although not always of the same length.
You can still buy used copies of Daily Mirror Style on Amazon and eBay and I can’t recommend it highly enough.