A Struggling Writer Tackles Journalism: Moving from Creative Writing to Journalistic Reporting
Guest Article by Cesar R. Bustamante, Jr., Multimedia Journalist
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I can’t recall when I started writing but I can recall when I took it seriously. I was in 9th grade history teacher asked the class what each one of us wanted to be when we were older. When it was my turn, I said “writer.” I remember an expression of awe in her face. She paused as if recognizing what I only recognized seconds later that I’d said the right thing to question that didn’t really have a wrong answer. I wrote before then of course but never took it seriously as something my life should be about.
Afterwards, I took on any project that was writing related that came my way. Took creative writing classes, signed up as editor for literary journals, even did poetry readings despite my shyness. And somehow it led me to journalism.
I tried journalism thinking it was going to be similar to the writing I had done prior: personal non-fiction, poetry and creative short-stories. I thought after gathering the quotes and facts, you’d still be a lone writer at a coffee shop, writing articles in a notebook while sipping your pretentiously overpriced coffee on the side.
But it really wasn’t like that. I mean, yes, sometimes you were sipping your pretentious coffee in a café, but journalism is a different beast from poetry or prose fiction. And it’s not because journalism is about immediate informative truth. Great fiction and poetry tell truths that can inform how you live your life or how to bear the weight of it. And it’s not really because journalism is a strict and structured form. It is, but in all works of art, the mastery is about working within its limitation and sometimes breaking it. Poetry has its lines and stanza, prose fiction has its plots and characters.
The real difference for me is the starting process. I face the blank screen of a computer, the empty lines of paper, all the same. But when writing a journalistic article, you know what it’s about!
I write down the nutgraph, the paragraph that tells you what the article is about, as soon as possible so that I don’t lose my focus. And everything I write from there on circles around it. Everything expands, elaborates, or deepens your understanding about that one paragraph that is often just one sentence. In fiction and poetry I move around a scene, I play with the words, with the characters not always too sure what they’ll do or who’ll show up or what words will suddenly fit. Sometimes I knew to some degree where it would all ends up but for the most part I’m trying to find out what this damn story is going or what these stanzas are meant to mean.
In journalism, you know what the story is about. Your words are as clear as day or you’re not doing your job. You are the absolute tyrant of the piece. You know its borders and you keep to them. It’s 500 words, most important facts in the beginning, main argument here, contrary opinion there, etc. Then if you’re lucky to have it, a final quote (kicker quote) that ties to your anecdotal lede (in journalism it’s spelled lede, not lead).
As much as journalism has felt like I’m trying to master a completely different beast from any of the other literary forms, it has helped fine-tune my writing in general. I still write prose and poetry, both non-fiction and fiction with wild abandon. But with a journalistic eye I can edit my sentences to be more direct and make sure my lines to get to the point when needed.
And despite the strict structure in journalism, there is room to maneuver so that you can add flare to your article. Sometimes that means I can use a little poetic wordplay here or maybe I can write the news so that there’s a plot twist there.
When the word “writer” fell unexpectedly from my mouth in 9th grade, I didn’t realize how fitting it was. I didn’t say novelist, poet or essayist. I didn’t say playwright or journalist. I said writer. I have wanted then and still want now to work with words. To play in almost any field they are used creatively.
I must admit that I may not be a King in any single form; my strengths as a writer come from having been a Jack in almost all forms.
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