How I Write: Fiction Meets Journalism

Category: Writing

I lead a double life. At work, I write. Then, when I finish work, I write. The first variety is journalism, the second is fiction. And yes, I know what you're thinking: ‘Not much of a stretch - you journalists just make it all up anyway.’

Sadly, I don’t. Although, since the pressure of deadlines can mean writing a story in fifteen minutes, it would be useful if I could. But my job is to inform, in as accurate and balanced a way as possible, and also in a way that’s quick and easy to absorb. Readers don’t want to have to re-read a sentence to get the sense of it. So, stylistic quirks are out. Long sentences with sub-clauses are out. And a preponderance of polysyllables is definitely frowned on.

I do my job. I do my job right. And that’s where it all starts to go wrong.

I do my job. I do my job right. And that’s where it all starts to go wrong. I have no control over what appears in the paper under my name. My accurate, balanced, readable prose will be mangled beyond recognition by the cretinous, dastardly sub-editors. I will have met a precise word count given to me by the news editor, but once the subs get their hands on it, all bets are off. The subs are responsible for fitting the stories on the page, and if something more newsworthy comes in (think royal babies, political punch-ups, a new series of Poldark), they slash like horror movie villains. Reporters quickly learn to write stories as inverted triangles, with the most important information in the first paragraph. Subs are supposed to cut from the bottom up, although you still get the occasional lunatic who thinks it’s fun to cut every twelfth word.

(Actually, the real reason reporters hate subs is pure jealousy. Subs are not only useful for correcting our mistakes before they get into print, they are also supreme wordsmiths and we can only marvel at their genius. Remember gallant little Inverness Caledonian Thistle beating the mighty Hoops? ‘Super Caley Go Ballistic, Celtic Are Atrocious.’  Then there’s the bridge blocked by a traffic jam: ‘Car-Strangled Spanner.’ Not to mention ‘Tortoise Theft Leaves Owner Shell-Shocked’.)

Journalism has helped me enormously as a creative writer. I just start: I don’t have to think myself into it, as someone with another type of job might have to. It’s removed any mystique: I’m motivated by deadlines, not the muse. And its constraints give me something to fight against when I write short stories. I love playing with different sentence lengths, wacky sentence structure and flamboyant vocabulary. I adore dialogue. And I often aim for a twist in the tail, secure that the end of the story won’t end up on the cutting room floor.

Thanks to the SBT, I’m now working on my first novel. Other writers tell bloodcurdling stories about the perverse and irrational demands of agents and editors. Ha! Put them in a locked room with a sub, and I know who my money’s on.

Olga Wojtas

Half-Scottish and half-Polish, Olga Wojtas has spent most of her life in Edinburgh, but has also lived and worked in Aberdeen, Grenoble, Newcastle and Washington DC. The day job is journalism; she began as a reporter and features writer on the Evening Express in Aberdeen, then became the first Scottish correspondent of the Times Higher Education Supplement where she was latterly Scottish editor. Since 2009, she has been freelance. Her first published short story, "Finlay's Battle," appeared in Cencrastus in 2003. Since then, she has had a number of short stories published in literary magazines and anthologies in the UK and USA, and is currently working on her first novel.