Author: Lynn Franklin Published: December 02, 1998 Last Updated: May 20, 1999
National Writers' Workshop
If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of Giants.- Sir Isaac Newton, 1675
Too few journalists appreciate Newton's idea of building upon past discoveries. The emphasis on breaking news focuses attention on only the present. Yet the same deadline pressure that forces journalists to live in the present also creates the best reason to steal writing techniques: Reporters simply don't have time to reinvent the wheel.
While the basic commitment of any nonfiction writer is to the unvarnished truth, the language of the newsroom is fundamentally no different from the language of Shakespeare: a story is a story is a story, whether spun out of the fancies of a Gertrude Stein or the notebook of an experienced reporter. And most of the devices and techniques needed by narrative journalists can be taken or adapted from the classic masters of literature.
Our literary inheritance includes the craft of character and place description, foreshadowing, symbol, mood, rhythm and pacing, story craft and plot; these are also apparent in two modern nonfiction classics: Joan Didion's "Slouching Toward Bethlehem" and Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff." The most directly useful techniques come from the realists: John Steinbeck, Harper Lee, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
In "To Kill a Mockingbird," for example, Harper Lee reveals the secret of writing good description: It is a quality called movement. Movement is obtained in part by making your words serve multiple purposes. In her hands description does much more than just describe. It sets a scene, creates mood, hints at character traits. If it is to move the story along, description should always serve at least three purposes - but take no more space than if it served only one.
From "To Kill a Mockingbird":
Calpurnia was something else again. She was all angles and bones; she was nearsighted; she squinted; her hand was wide as a bed slat and twice as hard.
Not only does Harper Lee tell us something about Calpurnia's physical appearance and personality, she tells us about the personality of the narrator. Scout clearly had firsthand knowledge of the hardness of Calpurnia's hand.
Other devices can be found in works by the authors mentioned earlier. The first chapter of Hemingway's "Death in the Afternoon" explains how journalists can reveal a character's inner personality by describing his exterior actions. The opening of Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" reveals a way of using place description to set mood. Twain made his dialect readable by using rhythm; his works provide an excellent example of using rhythm and pacing to keep a story moving. Twain's work is also a great place to learn how to write without falling into cliché.
For an excellent use of symbol, read chapter 3 of Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath." His "Of Mice and Men" uses foreshadowing to build tension and character; Jane Kramer used these same techniques in her nonfiction "The Last Cowboy."
The journalist would be foolish to ignore this heritage. It obviously applies to narrative nonfiction, but even inverted pyramid stories can be improved through the use of literary techniques. Once you know where to look for techniques, you'll find many, many ways to stand on the shoulders of these literary giants.
Lynn Franklin is the moderator of Writer-L, an e-mail writing workshop.