Saturday, December 22, 2012

Writer, once again

I was thinking of doing another photo post on my blog because jet lag has me lacking creativity and wakefulness to construct coherent essays. But because I want to free up my evening, I'm going to try to write to you rather than take the easy way out by posting pictures rather than fully-developed thoughts.

Today I wrote my first journalistic piece in quite a long time. Though I've only spent a few months away from studying to be a writer, my experiences during that time have altered my perception of style and construction. I see merit in boring arguments, in academic essays that cut straight to the point rather than reeling in their audience like a fish with bait.

There's something really special and unique about the art of journalism. For those who have never written something themselves to be published in some sort of publication, I'll try and explain as best I can:

Even for the articles that are meant to educate and inform, there is always an initial angle of drawing in a reader - a consumer. As writers, we want people to want to read our stuff. It's how we make our living and how we keep writing in general.

So when I was trying to construct a story for the first time in months today, it felt very strange re-entering the fray. Much of my time as of late has been spent writing really boring academic papers. I've had the idea of introductions that end in a thesis and a topic sentence at the beginning of every paragraph stuffed down my throat for so long now that I can barely remember what it is to write a regular journalistic lead.

And I feel that there is a really problematic disconnect between the way writing is conducted in these two seemingly similar but actually very different (in practice) fields.

When I became an aspiring journalist, I always pictured myself as being a part of a lucrative and respected career. Journalists are writers. Writers are revered for the work. Surely the same is true for journalists.

But the terms are not one in the same.

One of my most depressing memories goes back to my Sociology class in high school when our teacher (who I'll come out now to complain about for his blatant political leanings and rude and short-sightedness about the other side of the aisle) gave us a list of careers and asked us to rank them in our heads according to respectability. In an official listing that he gave us later, journalism was ranked among the lowest respectable trades.

I couldn't believe this. When there are reporters embedded with soldiers in other countries and humanitarian journalists sharing stories from all over the globe, how can we call this an unrespectable career?

Well I guess it goes back to that idea of selling a product with a lead. Journalists are like salespeople. We gamble away some of our credibility because our writing becomes a commodity to be sold. This doesn't have to be a bad thing. But often times, it is.

Being a commodity in a good sense can actually amount to something really terrific. Because journalism is so palatable to a general public, it can communicate ideas more efficiently than more scholarly writings. It captivates the attention of its audience. In fact, that's how journalists are taught to write (except with hard news), which is why they make for such good storytellers and why even though there is a decline in the commodification of news for a profit, there is still a need for well-reported stories in some form. Even if it's in 140 characters or less.

Personally, when I'm looking to be informed on a topic, my first teacher of choice is a journalistic article. The writing is snappy and inventive, it uses clever tools and cultural references to clarify information, it caters to a younger demographic and aims its writing style at a more elementary age group. This doesn't mean journalism is stupid, but that it's more about the information than the actual presentation.

When I look back on all the essays I spent hours writing for my classes in London, I cringe at the amount of time I took putting together source lists and footnotes. All that time that I could have been doing research and compiling knowledge, I spent spewing out citations. I recognize the importance of sharing sources just as much as the next person - and especially as a journalist who recognizes that the paucity of secret sources is what makes them acceptable when necessary. But I also don't understand why I should need to know four different citation styles just so I can get an adequate grade on a paper. Surely if I am more concerned with function over form, I will be a more successful writer? That's been my thought process these past several years and as of now it has not steered me wrong.

So when I went back into my toolbox to retrieve my mental notes on how to properly write a lead for a journalistic essay, I was really proud that the manual was still somewhere in my head. Because while it's good to be able to write scholarly articles to pass a test, it's the journalist's style of writing that you will always return back to when it comes to being a casual (and happier) writer.

The skill of a journalist, after all, is in creating a psychologically palpable story. It reaches out to you and pulls you into a scene, rather than making you stand on the periphery and examine it like an academic paper might. And as someone who considers herself a literary mind, I've always enjoyed being thrown right into the thick of a story.

Thank goodness I'm returning back to the school that I feel more comfortable in this coming quarter. And thank goodness I'll get to return to the style of writing I enjoy and thrive in. I can see now that I have chosen the right path for myself. Others can be so stifling.

Finally, I taste the sweet freedom of being a short-form, casual writer again. I love it.

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