I am both a journalist and an author. Are the two mutually exclusive? Obviously not. You do a google search for “journalist and author” and you come up with a lot of results of people who are both. There’s even a Web site for it: The American Society of Journalists and Authors, or the ASJA. Not sure how many journalists also write science fiction and fantasy novels (the ASJA is the “nation’s professional organization of independent nonfiction writers” according to the Web site), but I think it’s a safe bet I’m not the only one out there.
My story is that, while I wrote in high school on my own time (and for class assignments), I never really considered a career as an author or as any kind of writer. I started out in college as a psychology major. Then I had a friend who talked me into taking an Introduction to Mass Communications class with her, and the next semester I because a journalism major. I now have my master’s degree in communication studies and journalism.
That’s the short version of my education story. What does that have to do with my writing?
1) My journalism training taught me how to write well. I was already sort of a grammar and spelling nut, but journalism taught me how to be even better. In several of my journalism classes, you misspelled a word? 10 point off. You misspelled a name or got a date wrong? Your paper dropped from a B to a C. You learned how to proof your own work. It was a hard truth, but you get a name wrong in a story about a murderer, and you could end up losing your job over something like that.
2) It taught me how to write efficiently. I learned early on that I tended to “prattle on.” I learned less how to write like I speak (which means going off in tangents a lot that have nothing to do with the original topic). While my writing an article is definitely different than my writing a novel, journalism training helped me to focus, I guess is the best way to describe it.
3) It taught me the importance of research, and it made me better at researching a topic. It taught me the importance of sources, and of knowing what makes a source a good one. Stephen Kinzer told me once that a journalist’s knowledge is about an inch thick and a mile wide, and it’s true. You end up knowing a little bit – or more than a little bit, depending on how in depth your research is and how long you’ve been working on it – about a whole lot of different topics.
4) It taught me how to use the phone. It’s true. Growing up, I hated talking on the phone. I didn’t even like calling someone to set up a hair appointment. I either talked to you in person or you probably would get a letter from me. (Yes, I was born before that thing we call e-mail.) That changed really quickly.
5) It taught me to learn quickly and to depend on myself. Part of a journalist’s training is, honestly, “trial by fire.” On an internship one summer for a daily newspaper, my first story was interviewing a U.S. Senator. It was kind of intimidating. You don’t get a day or two to settle into what you’re doing. You’re expected to jump in feet first, and if you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re SOL sometimes.
These are just a few things that journalism has helped me with, but I think they’re important, whether you’re a fiction or nonfiction author.