When I finally got serious about fiction writing, my long career as a newspaper reporter and editor both gave and took way.
Many of the lessons learned in news writing translated well to fiction: clarity, punctuation, grammar.
But some lessons also were hard to overcome, the biggest being yes, I can make things up (despite what the governor of Maine and others may think of journalists).
Now that I’ve been writing fiction for several years also have had several stints as a fiction editor and manuscript consultant, I’m seeing an interesting turnaround: My experience with fiction writing and editing is having a positive impact on my role as a newspaper editor.
I had a chance to think about it deeply this weekend as I helped edit an entertaining and compelling two-part story that, hopefully, will appear in the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel soon. The reporter and primary editor did a great job of turning it into a well-researched good read and I’d like to believe my input helped make it more complete and readable.
I realized while I was editing how much fiction editing and news editing had merged for me. Here’s a list of lessons that I’ve found important whether you’re writing fiction or a news story. It isn’t everything, but the things I come across most often in both types of writing. Some of them I’ve blogged about before. That’s OK. They’re worth repeating:
• Avoid confusing punctuation. Too many extraneous hyphens, ellipses, parentheses, semi-colons and my favorite, the unnecessary quotation mark, distract the reader. Part of the reader’s brain will be hung up on that punctuation instead of paying attention to the words.
• Write like you speak. Assuming you speak with proper grammar, of course. In other words, avoid jargon and complicated words. Don’t be afraid of got (I HATE obtained). Don’t use subject, suspect, individual, the hated “gentleman” when what you mean is person. Or man. Or woman. Or robber. Don’t say “he exited the car (who the hell talks like that?). “He got out of the car” is fine. Honest. And for god’s sake, don’t be afraid of said.
Don’t write like a policeman writes a report or a town administrator addresses the selectmen or like someone with a stick up his ass. You will not be penalized for using plain English. Not only is it easier to read, but it gives the writing confidence. It’s the writer telling the reader the story, not the cops or town administrator or the guy with the stick up his ass.
• Adjectives and adverbs. Ugh. As a reporter and later an editor, I always tried to keep these at a minimum. Your words should be good enough to tell the story without a lot of embellishment. Most adverbs ending in ly are unnecessary. Quickly ran, suddenly fell, and the like are pointless. Many adverbs and adjectives have become cliches: brazen daylight robbery, tragic triple murder, bizarre hoax. I found once I started editing fiction the weakest writers used way too many of these. The best writers use very few. If the story is strong, it tells you it was tragic, quick, bizarre, without hitting the reader over the head with it. I’m not saying never use them. Hell, you’ll see some in this article. But know when they’re needed.
• Speaking of hitting the reader over the head: ironically and coincidentally. Just don’t. If it’s ironic, or more often, coincidental, it will be obvious to the reader. You don’t need to say so. Worse, ironic is frequently used instead of coincidental. If you don’t know what irony is, look it up. Anyone who writes should know the definition.
• Subject-pronoun and subject-verb agreement. Get out a grammar book and be sure you understand these. It’s all part of writing clarity. If no one knows which “he” is being referred to, or it reads as though the fireman is on fire, not the house, your writing is not doing what you want it to.
• Strunk and White said it best: Omit unnecessary words. Need I say more?
• It’s all about the characters. Whether it’s a news story or a mystery novel, people want to know about people. You can’t have the other Ws (we’ll get to them in a minute) without who. Aside from putting people in the story in general, quotes help give a news story credibility and life. Same is true for fiction. Dialogue is so much more readable than exposition. In news writing, knowing the people involved helps inform the story. In fiction, knowing characters helps form the plot. If you don’t know who the people are and why they do what they do, everything else is weaker.
• The five Ws. Every cub reporter is told (or should be) that a story must answer who, what, where, when and why. When I edit a news story, I don’t want to have any questions at the end. Same thing goes for a mystery novel. Leave out any of the Ws and you have major holes. And a note: Why is ignored the most. Never, ever leave it out.
• Read. This is important on so many levels. It makes the writer better informed, which has a direct impact on the quality of the story. Just as important, the more exposure to writing, the better your own will be. I can tell from the news copy I edit who reads and who doesn’t. I can also tell from the fiction I read.
• Know and respect your craft. This means do your homework. Proofread. Check your sources. Make sure your research is complete. Know sentence structure, proper punctuation, spelling and style. As an editor I have no patience for writers who expect me to care more about their work than they do. When I was editing fiction, almost exclusively novels by first time writers, I was appalled at the lack of respect for the craft by many of the writers I edited. It’s the number one writing sin.
• If you’ve gotten to this point, this probably isn’t an issue for you. Still, take the time and pay attention to people with solid advice, particularly advice specific to something you wrote. I’m frequently amazed by writers who expect an editor or reader to slog through their work, but won’t take the time to read a style book, an editor’s notes or a critique. Who think reading feedback from an editor is too much work or doesn’t have anything to do with what they wrote. It speaks for itself.
Writing is a gift and a joy for those who are able to do it for a living. It’s hard work to get it right, no matter how talented the writer. Understanding the work involved and being willing to do it is the first step toward being a good writer. True for newspapers. True for mystery novelists.