Power of journalistic writing
Following on from last week’s article in which I explored the essence of the journalistic spirit, I want to reflect on the power of journalistic writing and how we aim to put it into practice at The Korea Times. Plus, I want to share a couple of rules which I (try to) abide by when I write.
First, the reason why the pen can be mightier than the sword, especially when good journalists use one, is because they are trained to write in a simple, accessible style.
However, achieving this is a difficult task because it involves three interdependent steps. The first step is to fully understand a subject, the second is to find the best way of presenting your understanding so that any reader can grasp it, and the third is to write as clearly as possible, to eliminate any possible margins of misunderstanding.
The understanding part of the simple-writing process is tricky because there are often multiple facets to a story and stressing one side comes at a cost to the others. Reporters are continually advised not to lose balance ― in other words, listen to all parties involved without bias before deciding the focus of a news story. A biased story is worse than no story at all.
How a story is presented is the next consideration. Even having a thorough understanding of a subject does not necessarily mean a journalist can effectively write about it. If writing an opinion article or editorial, a good understanding of a subject does not necessarily mean a journalist can effectively create an article that presents a persuasive point of view. Some articles become pure alphabet soup that one can’t make head or tail of or, they resemble the first draft of doctorate thesis or worse still, plunge into a rhetorical abyss.
Writing is closely related to persuasive presentation but can be even trickier if one can’t write clearly. Some experienced writers say that writing comes not from the head but from the fingertips, meaning it requires a great deal of practical experience.
Those who read books authored by reporters understand how naturally the narrative flows within them.
Although it is not the best example, Bob Woodward’s books such as The Commanders and Bush at War are good examples of journalistic writing.
Woodward is a compelling read primarily because his books touch on areas that are not accessible to the general public.
But one problem I have with The Washington Post reporter’s work is that essential nuggets of information in his books are often provided by the key characters he deals with, leaving questions lingering over whether they are biased accounts of historically significant moments.
Besides, reporters invariably prove to be all too human, so expecting a completely objective account of things as they happen might not be possible, however hard we try.
Then, how do we go about making our writing compelling at the Times?
Our progress begins by selecting articles that fit the unique position of our newspaper ― an English-language newspaper in a society where English is not the primary means of communication.
Our criteria for selecting stories is, besides providing coverage of the day’s top stories, we aim to offer foreigners a snap view of Korea and familiarize them with all things Korean.
Every morning, we hold an editorial meeting in the newsroom, which is attended by editors and, in their absence, their deputies. They usually discuss items posted by reporters covering daily events on their beats and other subjects that require special coverage.
Once the selections are made, reporters are given their assignments. Interactions between reporters and editors are strongly encouraged before, after and while reporters are writing, a collective effort that aims to cover all aspects a story. Reporters file articles that are first checked by editors and passed to “copy editors” who are native English speakers. Articles for the first two pages are also edited by the managing editor.
At each stage, reporters, editors and layout specialists are asked to question what they are given in the hope of coming up with a better story ― a better headline, better copy and better layouts.
Still, the most important part of this compelling writing process ultimately lies in the skills of the writer because, however well edited, an article can’t be changed drastically from its original state.
Then, what are my rules on writing?
I try to lay out “ingredients” which will be included in an article I am writing, and list them in an order. By sticking to this plan, all key pieces of information become included in the final article.
Then, try to limit the number of words used in a paragraph to 30 and you will end up a format that is easy to understand.
Last but not least, the key writing skill is not in laying out all the facts you know but giving as much information as you think readers can comprehend. The art of good writing is similar to being on a constant diet ― reduce excess both in terms of ideas and words. If you are successful, you will get a simple and compelling story and, if not, the readers feel frustrated and give up reading in the middle of your article.