The craft of writing
And a book about TikTok
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By Sara Hagen
Freelance writing can feel nebulous at times, especially for beginners. And knowing where to start can be the most difficult part.
We can read all the books, listen to all the podcasts and attend all the classes but at the end of the day writing is like a muscle which strengthens with use.
We only gain confidence and become more advanced the more we put our fingers to the keyboard. But remember this: if you are writing, you are a writer.
Author Charlie Jane Anders writes in her craft book, Never Say You Can’t Survive:
Nobody ever wants to admit how confused we all are. To make matters worse, there’s a lot of intentional mystification around writing, to make a messy, clunky, trial-and-error process feel more like some kind of secret ritual that ensures success. When really, we’re all just stumbling around, and walking into walls over and over again.
Yes there is a lot of trial and error to the writing process but there are tips we can pick up along the way.
Today I have some helpful writing advice to share from experienced freelance journalists. There are also some editing resources and books listed below that help with things like craft, passive voice, and hard-to-read sentences.
Shoshi Parks is a freelance journalist and the author of such works as Can Citizen Scientists Prevent Another Pacific Newt Massacre?, History trail trekking on the path of the doomed Donner Party, and The Quest to Protect California’s Transcontinental Railroad Tunnels.
One piece of journalistic writing advice Parks gives is to “learn how to write a good pitch and do your research in advance!” She says: “You may have the best idea in the world but if you don't present it well, no one else will be able to tell. In order to get people to pay attention, you have to have some idea of what the finished story will look like.”
Parks’ does a lot of anthropological journalism. She mentions the importance of balancing research with the 5 Ws when pitching. Knowing the who, what, when, where, and why of a story is essential information for pitching and it helps explain why you are a good candidate to write it, she says.
Parks wrote an NPR piece beginning with the line: “In the mid-19th century, Americans developed a frenzied culinary affair with turtles.” What a way to hook a reader! She says the key is to tell a good story. She continues: “You want to get people hooked immediately so start with some juicy fact or idea instead of telling it chronologically. You want them to wonder what's coming next within the first two sentences.”
Every journalist has their own method of putting a story together; Shoshi Parks admits her method “is a bit unconventional”. She doesn’t outline. Her process involves interviewing and researching, then letting the story “ooze onto the page”.
Freelance journalist Tiare Rath, a tech and personal finance expert, says that outlining is good for long-form journalism, but “journalism is very standard otherwise” with the inverted pyramid method and using nut graphs.
It may be helpful when starting out to be more structured and then get a feel for what your personal style is. Freelance writer and broadcaster Leigh Banks says “the basic rules of story structure haven’t changed”, and “the thing is, journalistic writing allows you to command all sorts of different styles of writing in all sorts of different markets.”
The key to finding stories is always to be a reader yourself. Parks finds ideas “literally everywhere” including in novels, visiting new places, in movies, and simply by talking to people. Rath says to “observe news and trends” as well as to read and know what’s already been reported. Banks agrees that stories are everywhere. She says they can be found in magazines, social media, and on the street, from your mum, from your enemy.
What do journalists read? Parks reads everything. She actually reads “more fiction than non-fiction” and finds that a lot of story ideas come to her when she’s wondering about the world the author has created. She also follows BBC and Washington Post regularly, as well as publications like The Atlantic, Smithsonian Magazine, National Geographic, Atlas Obscura, Travel + Leisure, and Hidden Compass. Rath reads local news, Pulitzer and Emmy award winning journalism. She mentions the importance of studying the styles present in prolific journalism.
Writing Book Recommendations
New podcast episode
We have another fantastic Summer Reads podcast episode out today! And it fits very nicely with the theme of this newsletter because in this series we are talking to freelance journalists about the art of writing books.
This week we are speaking to the prolific tech writer Chris Stokel-Walker about how he got a book deal to write about YouTubers and how persistence paid off when it came to pitching a second book about TikTok.
Triumph of the week
Finishing all our work with half a day to spare and then packing for a tropical holiyah!
That feeling when
You put your out of office on and delete your email app from your phone.
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Bye for now!
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