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Just Like Writing a Play! (Only with Real Life)

"The language of journalism is not like speech, but it is closer to speech than most other forms of writing...It also explains the journalistic obsession with quoting, the attempts to represent speech in prose."
--301, Clark and Scanlan, America's Best Newspaper Writing

As I venture into some of my first attempts to write news, I couldn't agree more with this statement. First of all, there's hardly any room to be flowery and over-explanatory. When you have a 400-word limit, you're usually working hard to shave off words, rather than add more of them as padding. This forces you to say what you need to say in as concise a manner as possible, which automatically leads you to use simpler language than you might use for an academic paper. Ideally, any kind of writing should have this kind of simplistic clarity, but with an essay the tendency sometimes is to repeat what one has just said while tacking another idea onto it. In a news story, you have to explain the whole situation in all its complexity using a very finite amount of words. I've found myself quibbling over "the"s and "and"s, something I've never done before. And it makes you aware of when you're really using more words than you have to; I can feel I'm using tons of unnecessary words in this blog right now, but since there isn't a word limit, I'm just letting myself go crazy. It's hard to write with that constant editorial sense in the back of your mind.
Amidst all this foreign territory, the one thing I can really grasp onto is the need to keep the writing voice closer to everday speech and to use helpful quotes as much as you can. As a playwright, I'm all about capturing different characters' voices, so whenever I hear somebody talk in a unique way or use an interesting phrase that tells the story so much better than I could, I automatically feel like I should quote it. I agree with Clark and Scanlan that this should be done in moderation, especially when you're trying to quote officials and experts who use a lot of jargon the average person wouldn't understand. But I do think that the plainer language you can use, the better, and usually the language of people just speaking off the top of their heads is much less artificial than the plain prose you as the writer sit and agonize over and revise. The people you talk to are the ones your audience is going to relate to, most likely, so I think the real task of newswriting is how to weave the different voices of the people you interviewed into one well-crafted story that has a good flow. That's so much like playwriting (except, of course, you don't make the lines up in a news story). But even when creating fictional dialogue, there's a point where the characters' voices kind of take over and the writer's work is really in honing and shaping the narrative structure so that the voices don't overwhelm the overall plot. Anyway, that's how I'm finding my way into this kind of writing.

Comments (3)

It's great you're able to find ways that relate news writing to your personal interests. I might not share your relationship with theatre, but I definitely felt the same "word-crunch" pressure doing our peer profile. And as you said, I, too, am noticing unnecessary wordiness when I write. I never realized how often I overuse prepositions. For instance, I habitually use “of” and might say something like, “I think of news writing as simple and factual.” When I could just say, “I think news writing is simple and factual.” I even found a cute, brief article discussing how our language has become “prepositionalized”. Anyone who might want to read it can visit this address: http://www.wilbers.com/Prepositions.htm

Richelle Dodaro:

Matt, I definitely agree with you on how news writing forces you to write as simply and to-the-point as possible. I've always had a problem with being too wordy and not getting to the point, so this news writing has been good practice for me, which it seems like it has been for you as well. It's funny that you even find yourself debating whether or not to use such simple words as "and." That just shows how concise and simple news writing really should be.

Greta Carroll:

Just as Richelle, April, and you (Matt) have suffered from difficulties keeping within the 400-word count and staying concise, so have I. Apparently this is a common problem, or at least it is for those of us who consider ourselves writers (whether playwrights, creative writers, or academic essay writers). News writing is quite a different style of writing. However, while it is different, it does have its relations to other forms of writing. I really like how you have related this new form of writing to playwriting. Seeing it in that light will probably make it both easier and more enjoyable for you. I also like how you point out the importance of using everyday language. And I think it’s particularly important to be aware of this because what language we consider to be normal, everyday language might not be considered so to other people. However, if we take a second look at our articles with this in mind, we might begin to spot nonstandard, complex words that find their way into our writing.

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