Lessons from Journalism: On Not Sticking to the Plan

Lessons from Journalism Series

Any success I’ve found or might one day find in creative writing is due in large part to my experience as a reporter. I studied newspaper journalism in college, I wrote for the features section of two daily newspapers over the span of eight years, and I continue to freelance for media outlets and non-media outlets who use feature stories for their website or magazine.

Sure, I took some poetry classes in college and enough other lit-ish classes for a minor in writing; and I completed an honors thesis in poetry. But I lived, breathed, and ate journalism for the four years of my undergrad. As a professional reporter, I never once considered that I might one day write a novel. Or multiple novels.

Today, my work-in-process book is the fifth I’ve written. I’ve two finished drawer books, one first draft that may never move further, and one novel on sub with my agent. The how-to mechanics of writing a book, I taught myself (craft books are my jam). But the reason I’ve been able to finish these books, to move them beyond a concept or premise, is because of journalism.

I can’t count the number of lessons my journalism experiences have taught me about creative writing, but I’ll distill the collection to six. Let’s start with …

Lesson No. 1: It’s OK if you don’t stick to the plan.

I am a plotser with the soul of a panster gazing longingly at the island of plotters.

If that sentence made any sense to you whatsoever, you can skip the next three graphs. And if you’re like, What in the name of Stephen King are you talking about, a brief glossary:

Plotter: Someone who capital-P Plots their novels. Seriously hardcore plotters have such detailed outlines and notes that, when they start writing, they know everything their character will do, say, wear, and think. They know when the characters cough, blink, or flick off the antagonist. (I’m exaggerating. Probably. But I’m not a plotter, so who knows. I know there are writers out there with that sort of detailed planning process.)

Pantser: The writers who write by the seat of their pants. They put the pen to paper and let the characters drag them along. What’s gonna happen at the end? In the middle? In the next chapter? The next sentence? Who knows! That’s part of the fun!

Plotser: A mixture of the two. Instead of a detailed outline of the entire novel, a plotser has some bullet points. When they start writing, they might have an end in mind, along with a few major plot points, but they won’t be totally sure how to get from A to C until they close in on B. 

That final space is where I live, a result of both enjoying the pantsing method and finding it too chaotic. This hybrid method maintains the fun of discovery, but I’m not going to drive myself off a cliff. It’s a space that feels comfy and right, and I think a large part of that is because of my experience in feature writing, which sculpts plotsers. 

This is how writing a feature goes, an example I’m pulling from a story I wrote while I worked in marketing at a community college:

  • Step 1: Get an assignment. The head of a tuition-assistance program on campus sent me an FYI about a student graduating from the program. My boss and I decided to feature him in an upcoming issue of the newsletter.
  • Step 2: Schedule an interview with the student.
  • Step 3: Stalk the student. All that means is, I’m snooping him on social, I’m googling him, I’m interviewing his advisor about him, I’m seeing what I can find out to incorporate in the story and help me write questions before our interview. I didn’t learn anything unexpected, and my questions ended up looking like pretty much all the other questions I ask when interviewing a graduating student: How’d you decide to attend this college? Tell me about your experiences in XYZ  program. What are your plans after graduation? How has the college in general and your XYZ program experiences in particular helped you achieve your goals? Even though the questions are the same, student stories vary drastically. 
  • Step 4: Interview the student.

This is the step where you gotta be most open to ditching the plan, even if years of experience have taught what that plan is most likely going to look like: I knew the interview would take 15 or 20 minutes, I’d thank the student for his time, and then I’d write the piece in an hour or less.

We chatted, and I wrapped up with the last question I always use to wrap up: “Is there anything I’m missing? Anything important that I didn’t ask about or that you’d like to share?”

This student said, “Can I tell you about back to my birth?”

My gut groaned. I swear, my belly grew a mouth and some vocal cords to go “Ughhhhh.” We don’t have the space to get into your life story, I thought. This is a 400-word thing. But I said, “Sure.”

And the student proceeded to tell me that, when he was born, he didn’t have enough oxygen and was eventually diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Doctors told his parents he may never walk or talk. Throughout his life, everyone said not to go to college, that he could never do it. But his dad was like, “Eff that garbage, go to college if you want.” (I’m paraphrasing. What the grad actually told me was, “My dad was one of the few who said, ‘You can do anything.’”) 

Five years before our interview—before this student who was told he’d fail if he went to college but earned his associate degree—his dad died of colon cancer. The student said when he attended that week’s commencement, it would be in his dad’s honor.

Plans change, and you have to be open to it. Even if you’ve planned out your novel, spent months working on the details and specifics, doing research and interviews. Even if the idea has been percolating for ages. 

But if I’d stuck with my OG plan for that student profile, readers would never know the hardships he faced, experiences that make a reader cheer extra loud for his accomplishments. You have to—have to!—be able to pivot to accommodate that wonder. Your readers will thank you.