Many people see journalism as a route to literary success. Certainly, bestselling authors like Cathy Kelly and Deirdre Purcell served their time behind the newsdesks of various newspapers. I had a burning ambition to be a writer, couldn’t see myself doing anything else, so I decided journalism would be a good way of achieving my ambitions while earning a crust.
As soon as I began in journalism, I realised that the disciplines of journalism and creative writing were not as compatible as I had imagined. In fact, the journalist and the creative writer are completely different animals. There is some overlap; a flair for words and an interest in the world around you are essential requirements for both disciplines. But there the similarity ends.
Journalists conduct their work in the public arena. They thrive on being the centre of all that’s happening. In order to be noticed in a competitive environment, they have to be able to shout louder than everyone else. They know that their destiny is in their own hands and they are always looking for opportunities to sell themselves. They tend to be gregarious, with a good line of convincing chat to encourage sources to talk to them. They live life at full throttle.
However, in order for a creative writer to be successful, they must carry out the bulk of their work in private. They usually shy away from the limelight and balk at the thought of promoting themselves. They share journalists’ interest in people and their stories, but are more likely to be onlookers at life, only taking part in interviews when they have to. They cocoon themselves in rooms lit only by candles and are more focused on their interior worlds.
For journalists, words are a means to an end. Their central aim is to get their point across in as few words as possible. Their skill lies in their ability to produce concise, readable prose. Creative writers, meanwhile, use words to paint pictures. Because they have more time to produce their words, their work tends to be more elaborate and stylised.
Journalists are often constrained by time and word count, whereas the creative writer has free rein to let their imaginations soar. Journalists are often of a more practical bent; they want to keep things simple and they thrive on deadlines. Meanwhile, creative writers see daydreaming as an important part of their process and feel that deadlines interfere with the delicate nature of that process.
There is an overlap between the two disciplines. Both journalists and creative writers are skilled at putting a fresh spin on a tired story. Creative non-fiction, where people use their own experiences to create a story, has a prominent place in newspapers, with the rise of the regular column. In fact, novelists such as Sarah Webb and Marian Keyes are regular contributors to newspapers and magazines.
No doubt, both disciplines can learn from each other. Creative writers can learn from the journalist’s ability to promote themselves and to be concise, while journalists can learn from the creative writer’s ability to engage with their subjects in a deep way and see the people they encounter as more than just a quotable source.
The moral of the story is, don’t become a journalist because you want to write. Become a journalist because you want to be at the heart of the story, because you’re glued to the newswires, because you thrive on guts and glory. If you want to be a creative writer, simply write. Writing can be fit into any other career path you choose to earn your daily bread.