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Journalism hacks from an old hack

I came to my journalism career about 40 years too late. I had the instinct and the drive to pursue a topic like Woodward or Bernstein. At least I thought so. In 2000 I was 21 years old, working my first job out of college, ready to really sink my baby teeth into the local government beat of a small city newspaper.

I imagined a lot of noise in the newsroom: Clacking of keyboards, copy editors barking obscure grammar rules, the whooshing of deadlines as they fly by. The phrase “Stop the presses” yelled at least once or twice. I imagined a bottle of whiskey in my desk. A dark alley where a guy in a trench coat handed me secret government files in an unmarked manila envelope.

That didn’t really happen like the movies showed it. The noise did, but talk too loud on the phone and you’d get shushed.

The newspaper career I imagined did not exist in the early 2000s. I found myself teaching people twice my age how to use Google. I had to explain to the higher-ups what WiFi was, then convince them to wire up the newsroom. And the actual journalism was less seedy secret meetings, more sitting in an overly bright public meeting hall and recording what people said.

The experience taught me some valuable things about writing. Today I still use these tricks from my newswriting days to craft fictional stories. Maybe they’ll help you, too:

  1. Observe real dialogue. Write down what people say, word for word. Listen in on a conversation and try to hear all the ums, ahs, likes, slang, twang, and “Dang!”s.

  2. Read it backwards. Start at the end of a passage or short story and read it in reverse from the last paragraph to the first. This will reveal non sequiturs and sentences that refer to something that was never introduced in the first place (this is usually a copy/paste mistake).

  3. Get to the point. Newswriting is short because it had to be – limited real estate on physical pages are a great motivator for writing concisely. But it helps get your point across too – as an exercise, try to tell a complete story in as few words as possible while still giving the who, what, when, where, why, and how. Here’s a trick: Get rid of every single adverb.

  4. Write fast. Develop a shorthand in your writing – whatever you can do to write as fast as you think. You can always edit and expound on your points later. Writing fast doesn’t have to be good – it just has to get as much of your ideas out there as possible. (See #3 above).

  5. Observe everything. When you go into a packed room, count how many people are there; concert venues even line them up for you! Look at objects and mentally say their name or describe their color and shape. Doing this kind of exercise when you’re not writing will prepare your brain for when you do; you’ll have a much better idea of what 300 people looks like versus 50.

As a bonus, try carrying a notebook and write down your observations as they happen in real life. Transcribe dialogue you overhear. Write down what the antique vase resembles in shape and weight. Keep writing about its dimensions and get weird with your metrics – how many golf balls tall is it? Is it wider than a PlayStation?

Go out in the world and see it, smell it, feel it, hear it. Leave your phone at home and just bring a paper and pen. Sketch with your words – make us experience what you experience.

There! You’re a journalist! Now go and write!

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