When Robert Hale asked me to pen a book about journalistic writing, my immediate question was how could I make it stand out from all the other ‘how-to’ guides to journalism and plain English already cluttering college bookshelves, library catalogues and recommended reading lists? In the event, we quickly agreed that our contribution to the canon should have two unique selling points. Firstly, it should cover all forms of written journalism, from news writing to essays, rather than focusing exclusively on the business of reporting or crafting features (as most do). Secondly – and perhaps more ambitiously – it should be as much a critical appreciation of good journalistic prose as a step-by-step guide to the nitty-gritty of how to produce it. To this end, it would need to include not only made-up examples to illustrate the ‘dos and don’ts’ of written journalism, but extracts from classic (and not-so-classic) journalistic texts. I will spare readers a rant about the agonizingly labour-intensive business of clearing copyright permissions (suffice it to say, I am much greyer than when I started out). For what it’s worth, though, I think the book benefits greatly from the inclusion of excerpts from Orwell, Gellhorn, Wolfe and the like – and lesser-known contemporary writers whose work also sparkles – primarily because showing is always better than telling when it comes to explaining how to do something, but also because few ‘how-to’ guides have ever taken this approach.
So what of the book’s structure? As Journalism is the latest volume in an already established series – the Hale Expert Guides – it was felt that it would be wise to adopt a similar overall format to its fellow titles. For this reason, it is divided into two parts, respectively labelled ‘guide’ and ‘aid’: the first section introducing the various forms journalism takes, and the second focusing on specific technical aspects of writing, from how and when (if ever) to use first-person narratives to the importance of active sentences. Peppering the text throughout are examples of good (and, occasionally, bad) practice by named journalists, which have been chosen to illustrate key points about the writing process. As for the sequencing of chapters, I took the view that it was best to start with ‘the basics’: moving from the simplest, least fussy, most formulaic form of journalistic writing (news stories) towards longer-form, more colourful articles (features, reportage) and, in turn, less objective, more opinionated ones like essays, reviews and comment. And, of course, no book about journalism in the digital era would be complete without a chapter devoted to the multifarious pithy and more immediate forms in which it is composed for today’s web and mobile platforms.
But for which audience, or audiences, is Journalism intended? The simple answer is anyone and everyone with an interest in writing – a realization brought home to me ever more clearly as I progressed through the book. For all its limitations as a form of literary expression – a subject I address explicitly at the outset – there is so much variety to journalism, so much invention, so much, in essence, to love about it that I hope this book can be read as a celebration of its subject, rather than a dry, mechanical re-run of any number of previous tutorials on how to string an article together with passable competence. What I would like readers to take away from it is (if you’ll pardon the conceit) a feeling of itchy fingers – the sense of wanting to sit down at the nearest keyboard and have a go at it themselves. Although I expect the book’s primary readership to be trainees and early-career journalists working for newspapers, magazines and websites, I’d also like it to appeal to a wider constituency – the great mass of people out there who, from time to time or more regularly, feel the urge to put their thoughts and observations down on paper, to blog, or to interact with others via social media.
We live in an age when more of us than ever before are effectively journalists already, not only keeping diaries or journals, compiling information on our pet likes and dislikes or exchanging banter, gossip and speculation with our peers, but publishing all this material for the whole world to see – even if we don’t always consciously think of it as journalism. Much of this ‘citizen journalism’ has evolved out of the online firmament, and, as such, is busy establishing its own conventions customised to the needs and demands of today’s mobile, 24/7, forever-on-the-go audiences. At the same time, it is challenging the ways many traditional forms of journalism I explore in this book are done, as news stories and features written by professional practitioners are reshaped and reconceived as three-dimensional, multimedia packages replete with hyperlinks, video footage and discussion-threads.
Yet, for all this flux and change, the mainstays of prose journalism remain remarkably resilient. Indeed, the Internet itself – once seen as the enemy of long-form writing – has lately spurred its renaissance, with sites like http://longform.org/ and http://longreads.com/ curating the best new and ‘classic’ features, reportage and other non-fiction articles from across the web, and http://www.theawl.com/ commissioning lengthy pieces from scratch. Moreover, most people who go into journalism as a career, rather than flirting with it as a hobby, still need to master its tried-and-tested forms if they are to make more than a partial living from it – whether in print, online, or on radio or television. Here in Britain, the best way into the industry is still to enrol on a university, further education or private-sector course accredited by the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ). The fact that the NCTJ diploma remains one of the few sure-fire passports into gainful employment – or, indeed, sustained paid freelance work – rests on the industry’s continuing confidence that it ‘does what is said on the tin’. Sure, this means equipping trainees with the ever-growing suite of digital skills they need to succeed – but, above all, it rests on nurturing their ability (and eagerness) to write.
Journalism: The Essentials of Writing and Reporting is available to buy now.