Good writers read. They read a lot. And they read widely.
If you’re a journalism student, the best advice I could give you would be exactly that – to read, and read widely. Most importantly, it would be to read not just journalism.
I imagine that’s probably difficult when you’re doing a journalism course – you’ll be spending most of your time reading examples of good (and bad) journalism, lots of critical theory stuff that you can’t see the point of (there is one, don’t worry), and learning other vital-yet-kind-of-dull things such as media law and, shudder, shorthand.
So why spend your valuable partying time reading yet more books?
Simply because it’ll make you a better writer.
Sure, it’s important to read the best journalism. But to make your writing richer – to give you a range of different ways to bring colour and style to your writing – look beyond the news media.
So, why should journalism students read Raymond Chandler particularly?
For one, it happens to be the 50th anniversary of his death this year, so it’s kind of appropriate. But mainly because he had a way of making language work for him that was both very inventive, but also accessible and accurate. (Although, ironically, he was a failure when he got a job as a reporter.)
For those who don’t know him, Chandler created private detective Philip Marlowe – played most notably by Humphrey Bogart in the movie adaptation of The Big Sleep. Though he didn’t invent modern wise-cracking detective fiction (that was probably Dashiell Hammett), he certainly turned it into an art form.
I’m not such a big fan of his plots – they tend t0 be a bit convoluted and sometimes contrived. But the dialogue, description and atmosphere are superb.
Here’s Marlowe sitting waiting to meet a potential client in the rarified atmosphere of the Gillerlain perfume company in The Lady in the Lake:
“I lit a cigarette and dragged a smoking stand beside the chair. The minutes went by on tiptoe, with their fingers to their lips.”
Chandler is also very good at conveying the ugliness of moneyed Los Angeles:
“This room was too big, the ceiling was too high, the doors were too tall and the white carpet that went from wall to wall looked like a fresh fall of snow at Lake Arrowhead.” (The Big Sleep)
Not to mention the ugliness of his characters:
“Anna Halsey was about two hundred and forty pounds of middle-aged putty-faced woman in a black tailor-made suit. Her eyes were shiny black shoe buttons, her cheeks were as soft as suet and about the same colour.” (Trouble is my Business)
Yes – some of his work has become cliched. Probably his best-known line is the classic “a blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window”. And it’s true he had a tendency to overdo it in some of his novels.
But if Chandler used unexpected imagery to create simile and metaphor in really new and imaginative ways, can you do the same in journalism?
I’d say yes – as long as you remember that you’re not actually writing hard-boiled detective fiction.
Think laterally about language. Expand your vocabulary – and also the way you use words.
Crucially, though, don’t just fling words together. A lot of mediocre magazine-style journalism (think local papers, London freebies and giveaway magazines) involves using colourful adjectives and idioms without really thinking about them or knowing what they mean. (I posted about this here – it infects even the Financial Times.)
Instead, think carefully about what words mean and how you can play with them for effect.
The best response I got to a feature on data accuracy in direct marketing was for a line about how databases of personal information become less accurate over time:
“Like flesh, data decays…”
It was just different enough to snag the attention and the imagination of the editor – but still relevant and accurate enough not to be cut or rewritten. And zombie movie fans liked it a lot.
Also, it’s short. You don’t need to go on for paragraphs to prove what an imaginative writer you are. In fact, do that and you tend to reveal quite the opposite.
- Read a lot
- Read widely
- Enjoy words
- Use them imaginatively
- But be precise
Coming up: It’s important to read beyond journalism – but are there any journalists who are really worth reading for their prose style? Why, yes. A forthcoming post will take a look at some business writing and other journalists who really know what they’re doing…