Monash University Publishing | Contacts Page
Monash University Publishing: Advancing knowledge

The Return of Print?: Contemporary Australian Publishing

CHAPTER EIGHT

The Transition to Book

Problems of Narrative Structure in Journalists’ Manuscripts

SYBIL NOLAN

Journalists are sought-after authors of trade nonfiction, thanks not only to the stories they bring to the table but also to their superlative agency. The best of them are immensely energetic individuals with bulging contact books, networks most writers can only dream of, and established paths into the topics they write about. They are trained to believe the truth is out there and tend to be tenacious about hunting it down. They know the meaning of a deadline and usually stick to it. Last, but not least from a publisher’s point of view, they understand the value of publicity and are well placed to obtain it.

Yet while books written by journalists make up a significant segment of trade nonfiction publishing in Australia, comparatively few journalists break through to become bestselling authors in their own right. Nielsen BookScan data shows that eight such homegrown journalists featured in the top 100 Australian nonfiction titles of 2014. All were experienced authors with several titles to their name, and most were also media celebrities in their chosen fields. They included former rugby international and popular broadcaster Peter FitzSimons, Andrew Rule of Underbelly fame, ABC TV’s Annabel Crabb and the novelist, TV broadcaster and former model Tara Moss.

After this high-profile group, another seven journalists featured in the second hundred titles on BookScan’s list. Behind them would have come many more, trailing down the list with sales results ranging from respectable to disappointing, or failing even to find a publisher. Making the transition to book is not nearly as easy as it may seem to journalists setting out to produce their first bestseller. One of the main reasons is the writing. Journalists’ professional training and years in harness can habituate them to ways of writing (and thinking about writing) that differ distinctly from the ways of other authors. Geoffrey Wheatcroft, a journalist who has worked in publishing, broached the subject in a recent review of Nick Davies’s book Hack Attack: How the Truth Caught Up with Rupert Murdoch. Davies, a British freelancer, is surely one of the best-known names in contemporary journalism for his brave exposure of phone hacking in the Fleet Street tabloid press, yet his writing is problematic for Wheatcroft:

Like many of the best reporters, his work is less happy at book length, unconstrained by deadlines and length limits. So we get much fancy prose and fanciful imagery. Abuse of power in a democracy ‘needs concealment like a vampire needs the dark,’ or ‘the story hit the power elite like a fan dancer at a funeral.’ And when describing his anonymous contacts Davies sounds like a thriller writer decidedly manqué: ‘I’ll call him Mr Apollo,’ ‘I’ll call him Mango,’ ‘I’ll call her Lola.’ (Wheatcroft 32)

This critique reminded me of developmental editor Scott Norton’s observation that some journalists have ‘a limited stylistic repertoire that becomes apparent only when sustained over the length of a book’ (159).

Illuminating these limitations is the main purpose of this chapter. Given the ethical and legal obligation for editors to protect the author’s work, the difficulties that many journalists confront in negotiating the transition to book publication are not often discussed publicly. Editors are bound by a professional code (usually tacit, but in some contexts written down) to respect the author’s work and creative vision (van Emden; Lee): paying respect involves keeping mum about the editing performed to improve a work. Freelance editors employed by publishing houses may also be bound by contract from making disclosures about authorship and editing. Only in rare instances have the inner workings of the editor–author relationship been exposed to public gaze—as in the case of American writer Raymond Carver and his editor Gordon Lish (Wood). While the consequences of exposure can be immensely damaging, the constraints on frank discussion of journalist-authors’ work can be equally destructive.

As a nonfiction editor with a background in journalism, I have worked with many journalists, assessing their book proposals or early manuscripts, performing structural edits and copyedits on their work, and talking to them in workshops and other settings. In the process I have encountered some astounding textual infelicities and narrative missteps. This experience leads me to conclude that journalists who turn to writing at book length often encounter obstacles that are less a matter of talent than of training: journalists’ training, while it fits them well for the highly specific demands of their primary professional role, apparently creates internalised impediments to effective writing in longer genres such as the 80,000-word book of nonfiction intended for general readers.

A burgeoning corpus of writing by journalists and journalism scholars analyses the production of book-length journalism (including, but far from limited to, Hartsock; Kramer and Call; Keeble and Tulloch; Marshall; Ricketson). This essay approaches the issue from a different perspective, that of the publisher. It is not interested in the literary subjectivity of journalists, nor is it intended to add to the extensive literature about editing that offers solution-focused advice. My approach here is adopted from creative arts scholarship, especially in the field of the performing arts. I am particularly indebted to Grove, Stevens and McKechnie’s term ‘thinking in four dimensions’, which they coined in relation to the study of choreography. Its idea of an extra dimension of cognition also neatly evokes the process of what might be called ‘thinking about thinking about writing’, which is the focus of this article. I am interested in the problem of narrative structure in journalists’ manuscripts, and in describing from different angles some of the conceptual problems journalists face when they turn their hands to writing at book length. My hope is that publishers and editors will find this discussion useful in the commissioning and development of trade nonfiction.

My methodology is in two steps: first, I review discourse analysis studies of news texts, suggesting their relevance to the structure of longer writing by journalists; secondly, I analyse a sample of textbooks widely used for teaching journalism, examining their pedagogic rhetoric. The rhetorical forcefulness of these texts supports my hypothesis that journalism training tends to inculcate journalists with writing habits and ideas about what constitutes ‘good writing’ that must be reformed in order for these new authors to make the successful transition from journalism to book.

Discourse Analysis and the Struggle for Meaning

For more than a quarter of a century, the news media have constituted a major locus of study for linguists and media studies scholars who use the tools of discourse analysis (Bell). Despite this there has been only limited application of discourse analysis methods to book-length nonfiction by journalists, and where such studies exist they are mainly concerned with ethical issues—for example, Philip Mitchell’s study of the ethics of speech and thought representation in literary journalism. Most discourse analysis concerned with journalism takes the news text, whether written or spoken, as the ultimate object of its study.

Such research can usefully be extended to book-length texts produced by journalists. Particularly relevant is the contribution of Allan Bell, an experienced journalist and distinguished academic sociolinguist (Trudgill). Bell has documented how news story structure works against comprehension, because of its apparently arbitrary deployment of the elements of ‘who, what, when, where and how’. He finds that the ‘discontinuous, non-chronological’ structure of newswriting inhibits readers’ understanding of news texts (‘Discourse Structure’). He cites research by Ohtsuka and Brewer into the effects of ‘event structure’ (the actual order in which events unfold) and ‘discourse structure’ (the way these events are related in the text) on reader comprehension. This research demonstrates that, in order to comprehend a narrative, ‘the reader must be able to derive the underlying event sequence from the given text sequence’ (3).

Ohtsuka and Brewer produced several variants of the same text, then took a sample group of 100 students and tested their comprehension of the different versions:

[They] found that readers understood the canonical/chronological version of a story most easily. There was a significant drop in comprehension level for a second version of the same story which was presented in directly reverse chronological order, and for a third version which told some of the events using flashbacks. A final version contained ‘flashforwards’ which could not be immediately related to what had already been narrated, and here comprehension was little better than chance. (Bell, ‘Discourse Structure’ 99)

Bell argues that newswriting is most similar to the third version of the text, which used flashbacks and was more difficult to understand than the chronological version (‘Discourse Structure’ 99). Reading Ohtsuka and Brewer’s own description of their experiment makes it clear that the flashbacks in version three are produced by simply reordering events in the original story, rather than introducing substantial discourse around secondary events. Event structure (e-structure) can be represented as follows:

e-1, e-2, e-3, e-4.

Canonical structure closely follows event structure. But the reordered events of flashback text, in contrast, read like this:

e-1, e-3, e-4, e-2 (Ohtsuka and Brewer 7).

And a more developed flashback text might look something like this:

e-1, e-2, e-3, e-4, e-5, e-1, e-2, e-3, e-4, e-6, e-7.

In Ohtsuka and Brewer’s experiment, flashbacks were created simply by removing narrative context and reintroducing it significantly later in the event sequence. This is strongly analogous to the process of newswriting, in which, as one journalism trainer has written, the reporter has to decide which information to ‘judiciously jettison’ (Jervis 82). The most newsworthy aspects of the story go at the head of the text, the least towards the end, in an arbitrary hierarchy of value determined by the journalist and associated subeditors. Their decision-making involves concomitant determinations about what context to force further down the discourse order, or to lose altogether if the story has to be cut because of limitations on page space or bulletin duration.

Bell asks provocatively (he knows the answer from his own professional experience) why journalists ‘write in an order which we know to be less easily comprehended, when one of their declared goals is reader comprehension’ (‘Discourse Structure’ 100). His observations offer rich scope for understanding journalists’ problems in longer narrative. Many book editors will have experienced apparently arbitrary arrangements of event-time in manuscripts by journalist-authors. At its most incomprehensible, such writing is somewhat akin to a telescope on a free-swinging stand. The focus of the text moves backward and forward in time, sequentially foregrounding events which, counter to readers’ intuitive sense of story progression, share no discernible patterning of time, and seem only to reflect some unknown imperative of the author. The results can be giddying, depriving the reader of the depth of perspective necessary to make sense of a text or judge its value.

Even if an editor convinces a journalist-author of the desirability of writing in chronological order, the writer may still reach for language that performs the foregrounding function. Nick Davies’ phrase ‘like a fan dancer at a funeral’ (283) is a form of flag waving: he flaps in our faces, ‘Hey, over here, this is important.’ Such crude signalling is inimical to the immersive reading experience that underpins successful narrative nonfiction.

Journalists habitually toil in a literary space in which immersive reading happens by accident, if at all; even if they are sophisticated readers themselves, they may be ill equipped to understand the requirements of writing for immersive reading. Most news media vehicles (whether print, online or broadcast) are curated miscellanies of content that compete for the attention of already distracted readers or viewers. Even feature writers know they have just a few seconds to secure a reader’s attention. In this sense, the publications journalists write for are more akin to reference works than to narrative nonfiction. Their repertoire of paratextual conventions may include banner headlines, keyword headings for search engine optimisation, and a hierarchy of display to direct the reader’s attention. Their in-text conventions include short sentences and loosely linked one-sentence paragraphs that compound readers’ difficulties in understanding news (Bell, ‘Discourse Structures’ 90), and become straitjackets in writing longer nonfiction.

In summary, writers who are trained in the narrative mode of newswriting are taught to write in ways far removed from event structure. Experienced journalists become immensely adept at writing short pieces in which they produce the effect of heightened focus. Their discourse structures ignore the impact of time on comprehension, and bizarre language choices may be used to add emphasis. The deliberate omission of context (signposting, in editors’ terms) further militates against reader comprehension and the pleasure of immersive reading. Why, to echo Bell’s question, do journalists do it?

Bell says that ‘the answer lies in a marriage of journalistic values, journalistic practices and technological development, which is strong enough to overturn the drive to comprehensibility’ (‘Discourse Structures’ 101). News story structure, Bell suggests, can be partly explained by the ‘stop-watch culture’ of the newsroom, wherein the fundamental imperative of journalism is ‘the drive to get the news first’. This culture ‘is embedded deep in the news ethos, and radically affects the structure of the news text’ (‘Discourse Structures’ 101). In the news regime, the freshest angle on a running story must go at the top, whether or not it is the strongest, and even if it is actually older than the information it replaces. Bell’s analysis makes it clear that journalists are trained to prioritise a particular aspect of a story in reckless disregard of the consequences for comprehension. Narrative becomes hyper-malleable, a series of paragraphs deployed in a discourse structure often far removed from the underlying event structure. As discussed below, the process of journalism education and training means that these lessons about news structure may have been deeply internalised.

The Rhetoric of Journalism Training

Traditional newsrooms are hierarchical in structure: at the top sits the editor of the newspaper or TV or radio news service, below him or her a ladder of senior journalists (news editors, chiefs of staff and subeditors) manage the reporters at the front-line of news gathering. Discussions up and down the hierarchy about the stories produced in the newsroom can be extremely robust. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, the reporter is expected to carry out the hierarchy’s instructions. Deadlines and the imperative of timely production—Bell’s ‘stopwatch culture’—make this necessary.

These expectations are reflected in the language of journalism textbooks, particularly those related to the fundamental skill of newswriting. Such texts tend to be notable for their use of what linguists call directives: utterances ‘expressing an obligation on the reader either to do or not do something’ (Hyland 216). In academic and educational writing, the nature of such directives can range from textual suggestions (e.g. to refer to the work of another author) to more emphatic directives about what to do (‘an instruction to take a real-world action’) or how to think (‘an injunction to understand a point in a particular way’) (Hyland 217). The approach a writer takes will depend on the purpose of and audience for the work:

Whether writers decide to establish an equal or hierarchical affiliation, adopt an involved or removed stance, or choose a convivial or indifferent interpersonal tenor, they are at least partly influenced by the dominant ideologies of their disciplines which are exercised through the patterns of the genre [of academic writing] they are participating in. These ideologies help establish cohesion and co-ordinate understanding through mutual expectations and so provide writers with the means to display their credentials as disciplinary insiders and to persuade readers of their claims. (Hyland 219)

Textbooks, Hyland notes, are ‘generally far less equal encounters’ than scholarly journal articles (219). This is certainly reflected in journalism textbooks such as Sally White’s canonical Reporting in Australia, which through two editions (1991 and 1996) was used by hundreds, if not thousands, of university-educated journalists. The second edition was in use at RMIT’s journalism school when I left teaching there in 2003. At the time of writing it was still available in the campus bookstore of the University of Melbourne.

Although the economic forces reshaping the news media industry in the post-digital era have led to the gradual abandonment of the traditional newsroom, many of the journalist-authors writing today would have been trained under the old system, and during their formal studies would have been exposed to texts that emerged from the newsroom tradition.

Until the end of the 1980s at least, there was great emphasis laid on on-the-job training, which occurred not only in newsrooms but also in adjunct training carried out by senior journalists and shorthand teachers. This training framework also produced influential texts such as Bob Jervis’s News Sense (1989), written by a long-serving cadet counsellor at the Adelaide Advertiser’. Wittingly or unwittingly, Jervis depicts the closed shop of the mid- to late-twentieth-century newsroom, a universe constituted by arcane rules relating particularly to language and its production. In this universe, ‘word wastage is rife in cadet copy’ (115) and cadets ‘as a race are woefully ignorant of the existence of voice in grammar’ (17). Some write ‘too long’ (94) or ‘lack confidence in written expression’ (92–93), some use clichés (94).

White’s Reporting in Australia, though it primarily addresses journalism students in the university context, also emerges from this newsroom framework. Reporting in Australia excludes from its scope genres other than the traditional journalistic ones of hard news, soft news and features. White’s style is authoritative, her advice firm, as the following examples illustrate:

The language of news ideally uses simple words, snappy sentences, short paragraphs, strong verbs, the active voice, few abstractions and a minimum of modifiers and value-laden words. (143)

Many journalists are fond of ‘you’, especially when they write soft news. Because it is a straight appeal to the reader, it seems less cold and formal than the third person. But it is the lazy writer’s way out. A reporter does not always grab attention with the kind of linguistic whistle. (158)

Denotative words are unambiguous and value-free. Connotative words are more dangerous because they are value-laden and often pejorative. (160)

The pedagogical strategy here reflects the fact that many journalism students struggle to unlearn the canonical narrative structure that they absorbed from childhood, and the idea that good writing is affective. Journalism instruction resembles instruction in just about any counterintuitive skill set, from learning to ride a bicycle to mastering classical singing. The teacher has to create the illusion of firm ground beneath the learner: if the learner does not look down, and just follows the rules, one day they will achieve competence effortlessly and unselfconsciously.

More recent journalism textbooks, though they tend to countenance alternative modes of telling news, still make use of strong directives. Stephen Lamble’s News as It Happens: An Introduction to Journalism contains a chapter, ‘Writing News for Print’, which includes almost three consecutive pages of bulleted lists outlining ‘common conventions’ of journalistic style. Half of these bullet points begin with ‘Do not’, ‘Never’, ‘Always’, or ‘Avoid’ (137–40). Many of these points are nothing more than genre conventions, but they often stray into the territory of rules about what constitutes good writing. A clear instance of this is journalism’s almost slavish reverence for active voice. Lamble’s advice is typical:

Use active voice, not passive, when writing. Active voice is more direct and has greater impact. “The crocodile ate the man” is active, but “The man was eaten by the crocodile” is passive—it is also more words (138).

What is true for newswriting is not at all true for book-length nonfiction. Passive voice is immensely useful for building stronger transitions between sentences and for placing emphasis just where the writer wants it. Far from being a sin against good writing, it plays a creditable role in creating memorable reading experiences. Speaking from my own experience, I find that the ‘active voice good/passive voice bad’ doctrine is one that journalists find particularly hard to abandon, perhaps because it aligns so well with their professional model of agency in the world.

Conclusion

The reasons why journalists often struggle when engaged on book projects are more complex than they first appear, and may not be apprehended by publishers who commission from them. This essay has examined issues associated with narrative and the heavily inscribed directives of journalism education, which teach journalists first and foremost that narrative structure is hyper-malleable, and often conflate the journalism style manual with rules of good writing. Understanding the professional journalist’s disciplinary preparation for writing, and their deeply learned experience of writing in journalistic genres, will make it easier for publishers to assess the potential of journalists creating their first books and to play a positive role in their development as authors. Without that understanding, damage can be done to the author’s career, their book project, the reputation of the editor who works on it, and to the publishing house’s bottom line. Difficulties in a writer’s transition from journalism to book can prove a critical limitation on their value to trade publishers.

Rank Author Title
7 Peter FitzSimons Gallipoli
32 Andrew Rule Kerry Stokes: The Boy from Nowhere
57 Annabel Crabb The Wife Drought
64 Peter Rees Anzac Girls: The Extraordinary Story of our World War I Nurses
76 Tara Moss The Fictional Woman
78 Matthew Condon Jacks and Jokers: The Extraordinary True Story Continues
88 Robert Wainwright Sheila: The Australian Beauty Who Bewitched British Society
100 Kathryn Bonella Hotel Kerobokan: The Shocking Inside Story of Bali’s Most Notorious Jail

Table 8.1: Australian journalists in BookScan’s top 100 non-fiction sales, 2014
Compiled by the author from Australian Nielsen BookScan data, and used with Nielsen BookScan’s permission. Only titles attributed entirely to journalists were included in this sample.

 

Works Cited

Bell, Allan. ‘The Discourse Structure of News Stories.’ Approaches to Media Discourse. Eds. Allan Bell and Peter Garrett. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1998. 64–104.

———. The Language of News Media. Oxford: Basil Blackwell,1991.

———. ‘News language.’ Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. 2nd ed. Ed. Keith Brown. Boston: Elsevier, 2006. 615–17.

Davies, Nick. Hack Attack: The Inside Story of How the Truth Caught Up With Rupert Murdoch. London: Chatto & Windus, 2014.

Grove, Robin, Catherine Stevens and Shirley McKechnie. Thinking in Four Dimensions: Creativity and Cognition in Contemporary Dance. Melbourne: Melbourne UP, 2005.

Hartsock, John. A History of American Literary Journalism: The Emergence of a Modern Narrative Form. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2000.

Hyland, Ken. ‘Directives: Argument and Engagement in Academic Writing.’ Applied Linguistics 23.2 (2002): 215–39.

Jervis, Bob. News Sense. Adelaide: Advertiser Newspapers Ltd, 1989.

Keeble, Richard Lance and John Tulloch, eds. Global Literary Journalism: Exploring the Journalistic Imagination. 2nd ed. New York: Peter Lang, 2012.

Kramer, Mark and Wendy Call. Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide. New York: Plume, 2007.

Lamble, Stephen. News As It Happens: An Introduction to Journalism. Melbourne: Oxford UP, 2011.

Lee, Jenny. Structural Editing course materials, Master of Publishing and Communications program. University of Melbourne, 2004–10.

Mitchell, Philip. ‘The Ethics of Speech and Thought Representation in Literary Journalism.’ Journalism 15.5 (2014): 533–47.

Nielsen BookScan Australia. 2014 nonfiction sales data, Sybil Nolan email with Michael Webster, 3 Mar. 2015. Email.

Norton, Scott. Developmental Editing: A Handbook for Freelancers, Authors, and Publishers. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2009.

Ohtsuka, Keisuke and William F. Brewer. ‘Discourse Organization in the Comprehension of Narrative Texts. Technical Report No. 428.’ Illinois: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1988.

Ricketson, Matthew. Telling True Stories: Navigating the Challenges of Writing Narrative Nonfiction. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2014.

Trudgill, Peter. ‘Editor’s Preface.’ The Language of News Media. Ed. Allan Bell. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991.

Van Emden, Eva. ‘Ethics for Editors Seminar.’ Vancouver Editor. Vancouver Editor, 7 Nov. 2014. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.

Wheatcroft, Geoffrey. ‘How the Murdoch Gang Got Away.’ New York Review of Books 8 Jan. 2015: 31–33.

White, Sally A. Reporting in Australia. Melbourne: Macmillan, 1991.

———. Reporting in Australia. 2nd ed. Melbourne: Macmillan, 1996.

Wood, Gaby. ‘Raymond Carver: The Kindest Cut.’ The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 27 Sept. 2009. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.

The Return of Print?: Contemporary Australian Publishing

   by Aaron Mannion and Emmett Stinson