Writers vs Journalists – Two Very Different Species

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.

Advertisements

41 thoughts on “Writers vs Journalists – Two Very Different Species

  1. I am a writer, however I am at the place where I am trying to see what kind of writing I want to do, what best fits me. This article was helpful, thanks for the post.

    Like

  2. Hi there, This is an interesting blog post, and I do agree with a lot of it, but I would have preferred to see a headline saying Creative writing VS Journalism. I am a journalist and a poet and of course work very differently when doing each of those types of writing, but, when I am being a journalist, I am still, of course, writing.You do talk about the overlap, and that’s good, but I would never say to a budding journalist, “don’t do it because you want to write”. I certainly don’t thrive on guts and glory, and my love of writing is as much a factor in what I do as my love of communicating, of getting information across. In radio, and TV, journalists can get away with not knowing how to write, but I think that any journalist using the written word needs to have writing skill. (When working on newspapers, I often sub-edited the work of journalists who had good contacts and knew how to get a story, but couldn’t write well at all.) I may well be focused on what is happening in terms of news, but I do look behind the scenes and go off the beaten track, and I do think there is creativity in the resulting articles. Now that many journalists have set up their own websites, we can more easily escape the word-count strictures and free up our style. I think the line that you draw between creative writing and journalism is becoming less marked, and I think that is a good thing. (I am, by the way, much less good at selling myself than a lot of creative writers I know!)

    Like

  3. Another couple of thoughts as I reread the blog. I don’t see words just as a means to an end, either. Yes, in an urgent news situation, those words have to be pushed out at high speed, but they still need to be the right ones. And headline writing is a real writing skill. Sub-editors are journalists with a real love for words and grammar. In my news features, I would hope I paint pictures; I try to.

    Like

    1. Thanks for that. Would you consider gathering your comment together and resubmitting it to me as a guest post? You make a lot of interesting points which deserved to be shared. My view may have been coloured by my own encounters with journalists.

      Like

  4. I would love to. It is an interesting subject. A dear colleague (a Turkish journalist, who sadly died young) said to me that if I wanted to do creative writing I would have to stop being a journalist. I totally see what she meant, but, yes, I have plenty to say on the subject, so it would be a pleasure. Will do that now. Will make a nice break from the heavy subjects I am dealing with here. Please Facebook message me an email address to send it to. Thanks.

    Like

  5. Hello! I read your blog and it was really helpful, though I am still confused about creative writing and journalism. I’m a first year in a creative writing program and I’m considering my dad’s advice about transferring into journalism because I’d have a better chance of earning money. Journalism is interesting but at the same time, it scares me because I just hate public speaking(not sure if that’s related but from what I’ve just read, it has something to do with writing for the public, right?) and I love the creative writing program. But the problem is, I live in a third world country and I don’t particularly belong to a wealthy family. Shifting to journalism is really the most logical choice there is, because I could still write and, at the same time, probably have a stable job (assuming I succeed).
    I’m just asking, do you think it’s wise to go for journalism or stay in my creative writing? Pleeeeaaaaase reply.

    Like

  6. Hi Nero, this is Annette, a journalist and creative writer. (I wrote a guest post for this website that you might find interesting. It’s about being a creative writer and a journalist. I truly believe that one doesn’t exclude the other.) Firstly, don’t worry about public speaking; unless you become super famous and are in demand to speak, public speaking doesn’t have to be a part of journalism. It’s only if you decide to work in radio or TV that you’ll need to be speaking to the public on mike or on camera. If you are simply writing, you don’t need to. So, if journalism does attract you in the end, don’t worry about that. You do, though, need to be inquisitive and eager to grapple with and understand issues, and be interested in people. You need to be willing to approach people and get out there where it is all happening. There are many journalists today, of course, who just sit behind computer screens, and many who are doing their job just for the money, but this is not what I consider to be real journalism. I think that if you love the creative writing programme, you should stick with it. Don’t just go into journalism thinking about the money. Wait and see where the creative writing takes you. Journalism is a demanding profession and I think you need passion for the job if you are to succeed. Best perhaps that you try and make a go of your creative writing, and perhaps take another job when and if necessary to boost your finances at the beginning. Ideally, it would be great if you could just concentrate on the writing that you clearly love. I truly believe that if we follow our hearts and put passion and energy into what we do, the money does come. (I wasn’t from a wealthy family, but was lucky not to have dependents when I began working.) If you don’t have dependents, I wouldn’t hesitate about doing what you love; don’t be pushed into something that doesn’t appeal to you. With the current economic situation, and the focus on the Internet, there are not so many newspaper or magazine jobs around as there were when I started out 35 years ago. Getting yourself known on the Internet is a good idea; you could set up a blog and get writing on that. Get yourself known. Then, today, there is also the crowdfunding system, and that can help people launch projects. I would advise learning some editing and proofreading skills; they are invaluable whatever you decide. (Hopefully they’ll teach you some of that on your course.) Which country are you in? How old are you? All the best, Annette

    Like

    1. Thanks for your reply Annette! It was really, really helpful. I’m seventeen and I live in the Philippines.
      Ever since my dad suggested journalism, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I researched about it, researched what are the traits of becoming a good journalists, and I realized, I had too little knowledge about journalism.
      I found out I don’t actually have to be a loud person to become a good journalist. I found an essay about introverts and shy people having potential as good journalists because they tend to listen more attentively. And I found out I do have the qualities of becoming a journalist. I’m not afraid of asking why things are the way they are, I like to probe into issues that I don’t understand obsessively, I have an open mind for everything, and I always, always want to know the truth.
      You’re right, doing journalism for money isn’t real journalism. But during my stage of doubt, I realized if I stay on my creative writing course, I would be settling. I would be sitting in a classroom, thinking about the things I could have been doing if I were in journalism instead. I always felt out of place in creative writing because everyone has something to write about, a childhood memory or a lover. The only thing I had passion in writing were the ones I make up in my head. Fiction. I find writing poetry and creative non-fiction dull (sorry if it’s offensive) and I definitely do not want to analyse books written by people who lived three hundred years ago.
      But I love writing. The thing I love to write about besides fiction is the truth. And that is I think what journalism is about, right? Writing the truth?
      I had already decided to shift to journalism next year (this year won’t do it; I’m not quite confident about my grades and the school I’m in is the best one in the country so they’re strict about it) and I started a blog, though it’s in its baby phase.
      And I’m sure I’m not shifting for the money anymore. I’m sure it’s what I want.
      P.S. Yes I read your guest post right after I read this one. And thank you so much because it erased my doubts about fiction and journalism. Of course if I want to be a journalist I have to make sure to separate the two, which is fine 🙂

      Like

  7. I agree with this… I got a job as an editor, already knowing I didn’t want to be out in the field as a reporter.. I am definitely way more into literature/philosophy than I am into journalism.

    But, something has to pay the bills, and it’s about as close a fit as I can get (I never wanted to teach). For the most part I edit other peoples stuff, but for content purposes in the new media landscape, I often have to cover “news” stuff or practical info also as part of my job duties. That is the most boring part of my job honestly (but the journalist types love this part and always push for more news on our website) *yawn*

    I’m much better when I can just choose a topic and let my creative brain kick in than just covering breaking news or whatever is happening. Same with a cultural piece, opinion piece, etc.

    I also work with plenty of other journalists and editors… My style in general has clashed with them for the most part, and in my current job, I’m the only person I know of that went through the creative writing track of an English Dept. Most everybody else are all Journalism/International Affairs/Poli Sci types… Many don’t read much, not that into novels, but are all about news/magazines.

    This has only solidified my distaste for “journalistic” “practical” “overly informational” “to the point” “tedious” “strict adherence to AP style”… style writing. I once thought I could do both…no thanks!

    I’d probably hate being out in the field and interviewing people, thankfully I don’t have to do that. Some people get off on it though, and are all about uncovering info. I dread having to call people, or seek out breaking news, much less interview somebody in person. Journalism is wayyy more about getting information/news in a practical format than it is writing/literature…

    Even with the bumps and clashes, I still love my job, but writers and journalists are two different breeds. I think journalism and writing folks can both be editors and bring different things to the table though. However, I’ve found it rare for a person on the journalism side to be a good short story/creative writer (or good at any creative/nuance/literary style/sarcasm/humor really), and probably not many writers would be good in the field as beat reporters. I fully admit the pure journalists are better at writing better super practical ledes/titles and providing more practical info (often at the expense IMO of oversaturation and boring the reader to tears).

    Editor is kind of a catch all position. But if they could, writers would much rather be at home writing a novel, journalists would rather be out in the field breaking a story and getting their byline in the limelight.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing those insights into your working environment. I can identify with a lot of what you say. It sounds like you’ve managed to find the best of both worlds by choosing to be an editor.

      Like

  8. I have many disagreements with your generalisations about journalists, kokolight (I dislike phrases like “journalist types”, for instance). It certainly sounds like you are not cut out to be a reporter, but there are many, many different kinds of journalist, some of whom write very creatively (I once won a creative writing prize, actually.) I, for one, love novels and also write poetry, and am an editor and proofreader, but I am also a dedicated news hound (and that’s nothing to do with getting my byline in the limelight; it’s all about the story, and delving into something, and getting to the bottom of things). Maybe you could read my guest post (link earlier in this thread). You don’t want to be a reporter and that’s, of course, fine, but there is no need to generalise like this about a profession in which there are all kinds of people, some of whom are doing an amazing job against very great odds.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Maybe kokolight has met too many hacks, Annette. I have unfortunately met more of the types of journalists kokolight describes than ones like you, but I appreciate your wise perspective.

      Like

  9. ^ ^ Of course there is some generalizing there, but it’s based on real world (albeit anecdotal) experience working for three different media/publishing companies, from small ones in a small city, to a big office in Midtown Manhattan. The degrees weren’t made up, for example, nor were their interests. It would be a much longer post that I don’t have time for to get into individual nuances. Of course, everybody is different, but in the grand scheme of things, I think my post rings true. I have nothing against journalists, don’t get me wrong, and they do many things better than me. I was just offering some anecdotal experience, no need to take offense. The main point is, that there are a lot more journalist/int affairs/poli sci/communications etc people out there in the media world in my experience than you’re creative writer/lit people. It was the same in college, far more journo/poli sci/comm majors than creative writing majors.

    Like

    1. You are of course entitled to your view, kokolight, but I do think we need to be careful about what we write, and try not to generalise as you do at the end of your last sentence, but then that is my view. I’m not taking offence personally, but it does irritate me when people talk about “writers and journalists”, separating the two like that. Of course, there are more journalists interested in such things as international affairs than writing creatively, but, as I say in my guest post, one thing doesn’t exclude the other, and many journalists are wonderful writers. (Many aren’t, of course, and need a huge amount of sub-editing! Their readers don’t even know how badly they write.)

      Like

      1. It’s clear you’ve both had different experiences and both are valid. Journalists have strengths that writers could learn from and vice versa. I would say that there are niches you could find in journalism, kokolight, that would let you show your creative side and bring you in touch with the right kind of passionate journalists.

        Like

  10. I guess I’d be less grumpy if creative writers referred to “creative writers and journalists” and not “writers and journalists”. I may sometimes do radio, and am often running about the place interviewing people, but I spend a huge amount of my life sitting and writing; as do many of my colleagues. I may be considered a bit pedantic here, and will stop going on about this now, but I do get irritated by the fact that many creative writers think that other writers are not really writers. We may not always be as creative as you guys because of the nature and strictures of journalism, but we are writers, too 🙂

    Like

    1. Valid point, I’m most certainly talking about the world of fiction, novels, short stories, plays, etc. Sorry if there was confusion, the quality of writing by many journalists I’ve worked with, many who have written books is top notch. Many are also super intelligent. It’s more in our subject interests and style that I’ve been the odd ball out in my experience. I’ve noticed most of my kinfolk tend to take up careers in teaching or freelancing, or just working whatever job to foot the bills to fuel their creative pursuits. I like the benefits that come with a full time job though, and the life of a teacher really isnt for me. I also definitely share the notion to move around and explore the world that many journalists have.

      Like

  11. Those are well-made points, Annette. I suppose ultimately, our comments are drawn from our own experience. I guess kokolight hasn’t met enough journalists like you! George Orwell was brilliant.

    Like

  12. It sounds like one day setting up your own website could be a good idea, kokolight. You clearly love words and writing. But then, I am able to rely on my savings for the moment to keep my own website going and I am struggling to develop the business side of my brain (if there is one!) to make it a going concern. I am now a nomadic webworker, though, and am loving the freedom of that. I am a big believer in following your dream and tracing your own path 🙂

    Like

  13. I’d like to say thanks for the insight into two totally different (and yet not so different, as Annette would vouch for) worlds of writing. My main goal at this stage in life is to become an author. I think journalism and creative writing are both highly intriguing paths, in the sense that you are able to focus on highly specific or general subjects, you are able to share your passion with others , and you are able to craft your writing with impeccable word choice, flow, dramatization, and creativity. Personally, after reading this, I believe I would like to go to school for creative writing. After doing some research I have come to realize that it lacks job security, and stable income, but, like Annette, I am a fluent believer in pursuing your life long dreams. Creative writing seems to be the more “creative” choice, hence the title, job opportunities, and the abilities it teaches you. Money, to me, is easily outweighed by the satisfaction earned from living passionately. Doing what you love is far more fulfilling than loving what you earn, and I know that with the many obstacles/challenges that will be cursed upon me, I will be able to tackle these difficulties with an optimistic approach. I will learn and grow and, one day, succeed. “He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.” – Socrates. Words that fuel my every day determination towards living a happy life/ doing an everyday job that I love!

    Thanks again, and if there is any advice to be given towards my personal vision, pertaining towards the wonderful field of writing, all comments would be more than noteworthy.

    Cheers!

    Like

  14. Just seeing this, but I wanted to say thanks. I’ve been blogging for only a few months now, but have always enjoyed writing, and was wondering about the distinction between creative writing and journalistic writing – which is how I found your article.

    The way I see it, writing is a continuum. There are offshoots (e.g. scientific/academic writing, business writing…), but I see those as constituent parts of a broader set of occupational activities, and not the main focus.

    ‘Journalistic vs. Creative’ seems to me a plausible description of the two extremes. I think it can take a while to develop one’s ‘voice’, but I consider myself as taking a creative writing approach to matters of journalistic interest.

    Thanks again!

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s