Can journalists make the switch to fiction?


There’s a long list of successful authors who were once journalists but you can be sure there’s a much longer list of journalists whose novels never got off the hard drive or the back of a beermat.

I’ll admit I’m hoping the answer to this question will be yes for me, as I have been a journalist for most of my working life and have been attempting to make that leap to fiction. I’m currently seeking representation for my first novel while working on the first draft of my second novel.

But let’s be completely objective and take a look at what natural advantages and disadvantages news scribblers can expect on the rocky path leading from fact to fiction.

Uphill struggle

1. Lack of staying power. Journalism has always been about concise writing and fitting the space available. But things have taken a more radical turn with the advent of ‘mobile first’: some top news organisations are now advocating stories of 500 words or less. I worked under strict length guidelines for a long time with the result that I am now hard wired to have any story wrapped up within 1,200 words. I believe that has cramped my style in short stories, where I struggle to get above 1,500 words. And it makes me unconsciously (until this moment) write short chapters. One to work on.

2. Empty tank. The need to constantly come up with new story ideas in the day job can suck the creative juices dry. But it’s not just the idea mill that demands creative energy, more creative effort must go into the researching and crafting of those articles, with precious little inspiration left for other subjects.

3. Ingrained style. Journalism is about spelling it out, clarity all the way. You inevitably develop (and overuse) favourite words and turns of phrase. Newswriting is a genre in itself and you become steeped in it, consuming the work of others and probably imitating them too. There is some scope for introducing emotion or descriptive writing in feature articles but that still remains inside a set framework.

Grease the wheels

1. The groove. You’ve already got the habit and the discipline of writing on a daily basis. You have to produce texts that are coherent and correct, over and over again. That is definitely worth something. Language and storytelling skills build up over time, and the grammar, punctuation and sentence-building muscles become strong.

2. The Professionals. Once you have worked as one kind of professional writer, it should be possible to make the transition to a different category, shouldn’t it? Deadlines are not a problem. The same goes for the editing process. A good journalist can’t be precious about their work. They have to accept tough editing decisions and be prepared to rewrite if necessary.

3. Eye of the magpie. Journalists listen to conversations and watch situations differently. Could there be a story in that? is the reflex thought. They are keen observers, interviewing someone while at the same time taking in their appearance and the surroundings with a view to writing about it. I notice the same dynamic at work as a fiction writer. When I hear or see something sparkly that could be used for a story, I pick it up, magpie style, and stash it away somewhere for safekeeping.

There can be a hint of scepticism from people in the literary world when journalists stray into their territory. Are they interlopers who’ve jumped the slush pile because of their name or connections? I don’t know about that. Most journalists are (semi-)unknown and publishing industry outsiders. But some may have a platform and platform has become important. My guess is the publishing industry is so spoilt for choice they don’t need to give anyone special treatment.

Have I forgotten anything? It would be great to be able to add to the list of advantages (especially) or disadvantages (if you must) for journalists turning to fiction. Are there any journalists-turned-novelists whose work you’ve enjoyed, or not? I can think of three recent Irish examples – Kathleen MacMahon , Rachel English and Shane Hegarty, only one of whom has ‘given up the day job’ and it hasn’t all been plain sailing for her.

8 thoughts on “Can journalists make the switch to fiction?

  1. Have you read The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman, a journalist who used to work for the AP? I loved the book. Didn’t like his second one. Another journalist who writes great novels: Anna Quindlen.

    Another advantage for journalists: depending on their specialty, they may see more of the world than a person whose horizons are limited to his family, friends, and neighborhood.

    1. Good point about seeing more of the world unless it is a superficial kind of country-hopping, in which case more could be learned by really knowing somewhere well. I’ve heard of The Imperfectionists and Still Life with Breadcrumbs. Thanks for the tip – must check them out.

  2. I think with any profession where you’re used to writing, it can be a mixed blessing when it comes to fiction. You’ve a wealth of experience with the written word, but some habits need to be discarded in favour of others. But I’m longing to read your fiction so I do hope you succeed on your journey.
    Laura Barnett, with her debut novel out today
    is one of many journalists who’ve made the transition.
    Another is Harriet Lane whose second novel I reviewed earlier this year

    1. Thanks for those links Anne. From your reviews, I prefer the sound of Harriet Lane’s book. Just shows plenty of journalists are still making the swtich. I agree that the bonus/baggage of having writing experience applies to lots of professions and anyone with that background has to learn to break and remake the mould.

  3. Greetings cousin! Have just come across this excellent piece by you. It summarises beautifully the difficulties and opportunities related to moving from one genre of writing to another. For years my training as an academic writer weighed heavily on my sense of ability when it came to my secret fiction-writing ambitions. In the end, I believe that once I made the commitment to give my creative writing some time and space, my academic training stood to me: discipline, routine, time management, technical writing skills, an understanding of structure and pace etc. The gulf between journalism or academia and creative writing can seem wide but there are bridges that connect them.
    PS. Hope to see you soon! x

    1. Hello Sarah! Lovely to hear from you. I was just talking about you last night to the members of a new writer’s group I’ve joined, and the great encouragement you gave me when I was first considering making a serious attempt to write fiction. That must be four years ago now. So glad I took the plunge. Roll on August xx

  4. very well written. but my problem with longer fiction texts is the end of the story. in articles you know how to finish: with an intelligent question, a surprise, or so. but how the hell should i let my protagonist die, or become prime minister, or shall they finally marry – is it credible? unfortunately i am too much a journalist than a writer: i can’t begin the story without knowing at least two end versions. so for the moment i am redigesting my stories like a cow its gras, and i can’t come to an end.

    1. Thanks Sandro! Well maybe you would be surprised if you start the story and see where it takes you. I’m just writing the final few scenes of a novel with only a vague idea of how it will end. Sometimes I just throw the characters together and see what they do. It’s fun!

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