The longer I practice journalism the more convinced I become that the most critical aspect of the craft is the choice and arrangement of the materials. Journalism should be factul, honest and fair. It should be truthful but it is not the “truth.” Rreaders must decide what larger truth to extract from any story. They should be confident that every bit of material is individually accurate and, just as importantly, that it is relevant. Considered together these bits of information chosen by the journalist should accurately represent the entire story. In a sense journalists must strive for what fiction writers call verisimilitude, or the ring of truth. Only they, unlike novelists, are not allowed to fabricate situations to bolster their story line. Rather the story should be the sum of the judgments of what to include and how to lay things out.
I been thinking about this concept of “journalism as judgment” for some time and was inspired to sit down and write about it today after reading “And I Quote,” a lovely set of suggestions that Poynter Institute writing coach Chip Scanlan gleaned from other writers. Scanlan begins by noting that:
“Writing is a solitary act … . (but) we can fill the emptiness with the voices of other writers.”
In addition to being inspirational, the assembled quotes from writers both famous and not-so teach valuable lessons, such as the virtue of brevity and the need to achieve it through revision. I loved this quote from Peter De Vries :
“When I see a paragraph shrinking under my eyes like a strip of bacon in a skillet, I know I’m on the right track.”
Scanlan uses Ernest Hemingway to illustrate the need to choose material carefully and with an eye toward ensuring that what gets left out does not subtract from the picture:
“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them … The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”
I haven’t time to explore the other tips. I burned up too many minutes searching for background on Peter De Vries. But satisfying curiosity is part of the process. Scanlan quotes mystery writer Sue Grafton on this pint:
” Writing isn’t about the destination — writing is the journey that transforms the soul and gives meaning to all else.”
At least that’s what I imagine when I sit down at this blog each morning before heading to work.
(Postscript: Ten minutes after posting I corrected a misspelling of Scanlan’s name. Not that this is a recurring problem 🙂