How to Transition: Journalist to Novelist

In her article of 8 July 2022 on the Writer’s Digest website, Mary Ford, debut novelist, writes about her transition from an award-winning journalist to a novelist.

Mary Ford

MARY FORD is an award-winning journalist who spent 28 years as the editor of two small-town community newspapers in Massachusetts: the Cohasset Mariner and the Hingham Journal. She met her future husband, Conley, in 1971 in California where she was teaching English and has always been fascinated by his story. Conley and Mary were married in Los Angeles and were featured on the Newlywed Game with Bob Eubanks. After their first appearance, the popular couple was asked back for the Alumni Game. They came in last both times. Their incompatibility has lasted for nearly 50 years. Boy at the Crossroads is Mary’s first novel.”

Mary says, “Being a journalist and novelist have one big thing in common: writing. But that’s the easy part. It’s the how to write that is the challenge.

Journalists report. They provide information. They explain and sometimes, overexplain. They try not to leave it up to the reader to draw their own conclusions. Their job is to stick to the facts and deliver the story in a concise, readable way that provides the reader with what they need to know.

A novelist doesn’t have to adhere to the truth, worry about attributing quotes with the person’s title, follow AP style, or wrap the story up in 800 words. A novelist can be more creative and depart from the facts.

A journalist tells what’s happening: Saturday’s temperature broke records. Water restrictions are now in effect.

A novelist shows what’s happening: Sweat trickled down my forehead and cheeks on Saturday. When I turned on the tap to wash my face, nothing came out.

When I retired four years ago after 35 years in journalism, the best advice I received as I started drafting my novel was to “leave the newswoman behind.” After all, no one wants to read a novel that reads like a 250-page report.

As I embarked on my new career as a novelist, I took classes at Grub Street Boston, a creative writing center. I listened and welcomed criticism during the workshopping sessions. After the class finished, I paid my instructors to critique my full manuscript and give me honest feedback. I also joined writing groups.

A big advantage that journalists have is a thick skin. They are used to being edited, having their stories cut, and having parts rewritten for clarity. After a decades-long career as a newspaper editor, I welcomed the direction and criticism.

A big challenge today for the plethora of self-published authors is to find a good editor and listen to their advice.

A journalist asks the questions such as: What does this mean? Is this clear? Is there another side to the story? What’s next? In other words, the journalist is writing for the reader.

While a novelist is free from the restrictive rules of newswriting, it’s still important that their writing is clear and doesn’t get bogged down in unnecessary prose. A novelist should also write for the reader and not for themselves. That’s an important distinction.

Budding novelists, who are new to public writing (not simply journaling or writing for their own enjoyment), can be too attached to their own words. They need to put themselves in the reader’s shoes and think like them.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of having been a journalist is news judgement. A good reporter knows what the story is. Over the years, I mentored dozens of reporters and contributors. When hiring a new reporter, I always asked: “Are you a writer first or a reporter first?” They almost always answered “writer.” That was the wrong answer! It was much harder to teach them to report than to write.

Recognizing a good story is paramount for a journalist or a novelist. No amount of wonderful description or flowery language is going to make up for the lack of a good story. That’s where writing classes and groups can help. Fellow aspiring novelists can provide excellent feedback. Take comments to heart like: “That’s confusing.” “What’s your point?” “Boring!”

Over the years, I have found that good writing is more of a craft than an art. That doesn’t mean there aren’t brilliant, talented writers out there. Their books fill the classics shelf in the library. But a working writer with a good story—writes, rewrites, and revises—and then does it again until they are comfortable with their manuscript.

Discipline, not procrastination, is part of a journalist’s life. Today, in the world of competitive breaking news online, a reporter has to get down to the business of writing right away. There’s no putting it off.

I was the editor of two weekly newspapers for nearly 30 years. They were going to come out every Thursday and Friday, without any blank pages, no matter what. We had to get the job done week in and week out.

The best advice I have is to “do it!” Write as if there was an editor standing over your shoulder needing the story. If you want to be a published novelist, there is no way around the hard work of writing. Books don’t write themselves.

Outlines for novels can seem daunting. The synopsis, even more so. A synopsis is something you’re going to need because it’s vital to selling your novel if you’re going to query agents or publishers. And the outline is going to save you time while you’re writing your novel. Starting with your premise, expanding your outline, and then writing your synopsis is the perfect way to understand exactly what your story is about and how to get it done.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.