Writing Lessons I Learned as a Television Reporter

From a lithub.com post by Nancy Johnson headlined “On the Valuable Writing Lessons I Learned as a Television Reporter”:

For more than a decade, I had a front-row seat to the biggest stories making news—from the killing of Jeffrey Dahmer in a Wisconsin prison to the 2000 presidential election recount in Florida between George W. Bush and Al Gore. I went into journalism with wide-eyed idealism, wanting to tell stories that held the powerful accountable and gave a voice to everyday folks. What I didn’t count on were the storytelling and writing lessons I’d pick up as a television reporter that would serve me well years later as a novelist.

1. Seeking truth
In college journalism classes, we heard over and over again the old axiom that “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Journalism put me on a path of relentless pursuit of truth, objective truth. When possible, I interviewed people on every conceivable side of a story—Democrats and Republicans, the accuser and the accused—to get to the facts, the truth. What I learned was that truth can be murky, and that it largely depends on one’s individual perspective or worldview….

The bitter divide between Black and white America during the 2008 presidential election inspired my debut novel, The Kindest Lie. I brought a range of Black experiences to the page, from a displaced auto worker and a frustrated hair stylist in a small Indiana town to a chemical engineer in Chicago who’s not advancing in her career. Each of them has a unique experience of race….

I was curious to explore what a segment of working-class white America believed to be true about their circumstances and trajectory in this country….Truth can be as varied as people’s lived experiences. What I know for sure is that there are universal truths about love, forgiveness, and sacrifice that we all share, and they are the threads that connect all of my characters. Journalism put me in the hunt for truth, but fiction forced me to look deeper to find the layers of meaning in that truth.

2. Building empathy
I’ll never forget hearing Oprah tell the story of why she left news to start her own talk show. During her reporting days, she often cried with the victims of tragedies, and newsroom management insisted she toughen up. She never did. Instead, she became the queen of daytime television, inspiring people around the world to emote. I had a similar experience. Early into my first television reporting job at a small, independent station in Kenosha, Wisconsin, I covered the story of a star high school football player who was killed by gang violence. I remember sitting with his mother in their kitchen crying alongside her.

At first, I felt embarrassed to have been so unprofessional on the job. But when I watched the replay of that story, the unbearable heaviness of that mother’s pain was palpable. She had been vulnerable with me, and my empathy toward her gave the viewers a way into her story. Over the course of my career, I interviewed hundreds of people who lost loved ones, homes, and livelihoods. I think the viewers cared because it was obvious that I did.

The poet Robert Frost is quoted as saying, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” If the most heart-wrenching scenes in my novel don’t gut me, something’s wrong and I can’t expect the reader to feel anything….

3. Paying attention to detail

Some of the best award-winning photojournalists in the business taught me to turn away from where every other camera is pointing at a big news event. Looking behind me, I always found the real story. On the scene of a raging fire, most reporters trained their eyes on the blaze, the skeleton of the home, and the arson investigators at the scene. I’d often look on the ground and find the stuffed animal in the rubble and search for the story of that child. Or I’d see a diamond ring shining through the ashes and understand there was an untold love story.

Those are the details I bring to novel writing—it was important for me to tell the reader that the overwhelmed shopkeeper character, Lena, smoked Newports and that Ruth’s hair smelled of “avocado and coconut and promise” the night of her Obama election party. Ruth’s brother, Eli, lost his job working the production line at the plant and began spending way too much time on a barstool….

Every seemingly small detail or moment carries meaning, and those astute observation skills of reporting taught me that.

4. Focusing on the individual to explore large, complex issues

When I sat down to write my novel, I knew I wanted to tackle big, important issues, but I wasn’t aiming for a treatise. I had learned in my journalism days that the way into any macro topic was through individual stories….

The next time I felt the weight of history on an election was when Barack Obama became President. That election—the fragile hope—inspired me to write The Kindest Lie. I brought the racial and economic strife of that time period to life through the lens of Ruth, Midnight, and their families. It had long become clear to me that you often have to go narrow and deep to see the bigger picture.

5. Writing for the ear
Television taught me to listen to good writing, to train my ear for the rhythm of language. Every day when I sit down at my computer to compose a scene, I read aloud what I wrote the day before. I listen for discordant notes or a turn of phrase that doesn’t sound right….

Broadcast writing is also crisp and concise. My fiction is spare, and I’m conscious of the economy of words, never saying more than what’s necessary. I know when to get out of the way of a good story, to end a scene or a book when nothing extra is left on the bone—only the essence of what needs to be said.

The Kindest Lie is available from William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 2021 by Nancy Johnson.

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