Guest Post by Annette Gartland: Writing Creatively as a Journalist

In the early days of my blog, I wrote a post called Journalists and Writers – Two Very Different Species. The post was based on my own experiences with journalists and creative writers, and it’s received quite a lot of hits since it was first published.

Recently, the journalist and poet Annette Gartland posted such an elegant rebuttal in the comments section of that post that I invited her to put together a guest post. This post seriously raises the tone of my blog and I hope you’ll find it a meaty read.

A former colleague once told me that if I wanted to do creative writing I would have to leave journalism; that the two ways of writing were incompatible. I understood what she meant, but now, some 33 years later, I am still a journalist, and I still write poetry.

Are creative writing and journalism incompatible? Are journalists simply news machines, pumping out the latest – often biased – information with no concern for the nuances of language and the beauty of words? Or is there room for creative flair in everyday reporting?

Some would say don’t go into journalism if writing is your objective. I would disagree. I wish more journalists actually cared about writing, and spent time learning about grammar and punctuation. Thankfully, many do.

Journalists of course need to be interested in people and events, but a passion for news and communication and a love for words can go hand in hand.

Good journalism is not just about facts, figures, and deadlines; we need to be fast and accurate, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot also write prose that sings. And good headline writing is not just a technical skill; it requires talent and creativity, too.

Now that I have my own website, I can be much more creative in my journalistic writing than I used to be.  With so many people blogging, and so much of our communication happening via Facebook and Twitter, the line between traditional journalism and other writing is blurring more and more all the time.

I’m at an advantage because I’m a freelance. I’ve adapted the way I work so that I am not on a news treadmill. On my website, I can write lengthy, in-depth articles, blend travel writing with socio-political analysis, and choose my own angles.

Essay-style journalism is nothing new, however; The New Yorker, for example, has always run long-form articles of great literary merit.

In an article for NPR (formerly known as National Public Radio) in the United States, the organisation’s media correspondent, David Folkenflik, says long-form journalism falls into two categories: “investigative or watchdog reporting” and “richly textured nonfiction narratives that delve deeply into the human experience and may have nothing to do with that day’s headlines”.

Many journalists are purely newshounds, with no interest in creative writing. This is particularly true on the tabloids, but I learned as much about writing when working for the tabloid Irish Press as I did on broadsheets. It takes skill and creativity to reduce a day’s events to ten paragraphs.

Radio and TV journalists can get away with being less-than-competent writers, but print or web journalists who write badly are dependent on sub-editors – most of whom have a real love for words and grammar –  to make their work readable.

Any creative writing I now do is all the better for the training I received at journalism college, and as a sub-editor on The Oxford Times. Learning how to sub-edit definitely makes you a better writer.

I wrote from an early age – about my experiences and from my imagination. In my last year at secondary school, I won a creative writing award and, for my prize, I chose Harold Evans’ book ‘Newsman’s English’. It was clear that journalism would be my priority.

(I still balk at Newsman’s in the title of Evans’ book, but the former editor of The Sunday Times certainly knows his stuff.)

There are lengthy periods when I don’t write a single poem, and I would perhaps write more poetry if I weren’t a journalist. But working as a journalist brings me into contact with people, places, and situations that I don’t just report on; places in particular also inspire me as a poet.

Australian researcher and communications tutor Janet Fulton has written a comprehensive paper entitled “Is print journalism creative?”

She says the idea that print journalism can be creative is not universally accepted because “making a story up” goes against the fundamental understandings of journalism. “Further to this, society’s understanding of creativity is that a producer must have no limitations to be able to create and the rules and conventions a journalist works within are seen to constrain their production of creative media texts.”

Fulton points out that the Western understanding of creativity implies that a creative idea comes from nowhere but the imagination of the individual. “This understanding is rooted in the Romantic ideal of a lone genius, slightly mad, who must be free of any constraints to be able to Create.”

She concludes: “Rather than using a narrow, person-centred view of creativity, encouraging a broader understanding could lead to better journalistic practices.”

For Fulton, all genres of print journalism have structures, and practitioners of all genres can be creative within their own structures. “In the domain of journalism, the assertion that hard news writing can be a creative endeavour could provide a better understanding of work processes and improve writing practices.”

Fulton notes that numerous journalism awards mention creativity in their criteria.

Middlesex University in London, the University of Bedfordshire, and the University of Strathclyde in Scotland all run combined creative writing and journalism degree courses, and the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, Surrey, is planning one. There are similar courses in the US, Australia, and Canada. The London School of Journalism runs creative writing courses, but separates them from journalism studies.

I’m happy that I did a straightforward and very practical journalism course, where I was given a solid foundation for the working years to come. I don’t think it would have served me well to be taught about creative writing at the same time.

It was later that my creative side blossomed again, and, a few years ago, I did try to stop being a journalist so as to concentrate fully on poetry, and a monologue. I realised, however, that reporting is in my blood, and probably always will be. But I also love creative writing.  Thankfully, for me, the two are not proving incompatible.

I’ll keep straddling the two worlds and, when asked, I’ll describe myself simply as a writer.

–        Janet Fulton’s paper: http://ejournalist.com.au/v11n2/Fulton.pdf

© Annette Gartland

Annette Gartland is a writer (journalist and poet), radio and video reporter, editor, translator, reiki teacher, and DJ. Her website, Changing Times, is at http://time2transcend.wordpress.com/

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