Master Storytellers: The Intersection of Journalism and Creative Writing

Journalist with a laptop and notepad out

In the 2020 film “News of the World,” Tom Hanks plays a former Confederate Army officer who makes his living traveling the Reconstruction-era West, reading the newspaper aloud for the price of a dime. His audience, mostly men, crowd together in rough rooms, unbathed, unshaven, illiterate, and courteous only because for an hour, they can sit rapt like children, listening. Their reaction to the reading is so profound, the viewer is hard pressed to remember that they are hearing the news.

This is the power of story.

In This Article:

Journalism vs. Creative Writing: Fact and Story

The character in “News of the World” reads news. Journalism. And yet, the people listening hear only stories. The saga of settlement in the West chronicles how communication stretched to accommodate settlers’ hunger to know and understand events outside the isolated circle they occupied. People who reported these stories were indispensable.

But many journalists write creatively, too. Charles Dickens. Mark Twain. Ernest Hemingway. Joan Didion. Neil Gaiman. Geraldine Brooks.

These writers are all accomplished novelists — many of them award-winning authors.

And all of them started their careers in journalism.

Working as reporters, these writers learned that good stories connect people, making them feel like they belong — like they are part of a whole. A writer’s loyalty is always to the story, and to remain faithful, they must accurately portray the human condition in all its glory and pain and joy. This requires firsthand observations.

However, there is a difference between journalism and creative writing, despite these authors’ ability to translate their skills from one genre to the next. Journalists report truth, are responsible for accurate information and context, look at multiple points of view and, finally, build stories based on gathered facts, not opinions.

Journalistic writing also develops strong writing skills. For example, Ernest Hemingway started his writing career at age 17 at The Kansas City Star. He credits The Star with equipping him with expertise he used throughout his entire career.1

In 1940 Hemingway said, “Those were the best rules that I ever learned for the business of writing.” “I’ve never forgotten them. No man with any talent, who feels and writes truly about the thing he is trying to say, can fail to write well if he abides by them.”1

He was referring to The Star’s basic style rules. The first few: “Use short sentences. Use short paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative.” 1

Those tenets affected his spare and direct style, certainly. But his gritty news beat on the 15th Street police station, General Hospital and Union Station played out human dramas in real life and real time.

Another journalist and novelist, Charles Dickens, reported on the courts in London. He used those details in “Bleak House,” among other novels, to show the absurdities of the law. His work “Great Expectations” explored the great chasm of the haves and have-nots in Victorian England. “David Copperfield” and “Oliver Twist” showed the injustices of child labor, something he personally experienced and strived to end during his life.2

Mark Twain started his career as an apprentice typesetter before becoming a reporter. By the age of 18, he was traveling and contributing articles to several newspapers all the way from Kansas to Philadelphia and even England. His years in Hannibal, Missouri living and working on the Mississippi influenced his seminal works, “Huckleberry Finn” and “Tom Sawyer.”3

Creative and Journalistic Writing Skills: Six and Six Storytellers

When assessing the difference between journalism and creative writing, we should know that both journalists and creative writers must possess the skill of keen observation as well as the ability to transform what they observe into something meaningful for a reader. To begin, a writer must be able to do four things well: 

  • Research
  • Interview
  • Write
  • Edit

This is true no matter what a writer’s chosen discipline may be. Reporters must research a story to write it accurately — and, obviously, they interview sources every day. They must also be skilled at editing their own writing on a tight deadline.

Likewise, creative writers must research for accurate and believable fiction in any genre (not only historical fiction), and even creative writers interview experts. Producing work requires discipline, and due to the highly competitive market for short stories, poems and novels, a writer must edit their own work to perfection before publishing.

But there are other skills shared between journalism and creative writing in English.

One of the first things a journalist learns when covering stories is to ask six key questions: who, what, when, where, why and how. Reporters must find answers to these questions, then answer them — usually in the first sentence of a news article or broadcast. Reporters depend on these questions to get facts that form a complete story, whether it is just a few paragraphs reporting a fire or a long investigative exposé.

Likewise, fiction writers rely on six creative elements: point of view, characters, setting, plot, conflict and resolution. The writer carefully uses the six, crafting an entire story, whether it is 500 or 50,000 words. Just as journalistic writing must answer their six questions, creative writing must consider these six elements to build a story.

Storytellers Through Journalism and Creative Writing

Strong stories depend upon structured narrative, characters and plots that guide the reader. Journalists who are adept at storytelling techniques capture the complexity of real-life events and experiences. By borrowing storytelling techniques from creative writing and using literary devices such as metaphor, simile and allusion, writers engage their readers on a deeper level. Richer storytelling makes reading more enjoyable — fiction and nonfiction alike.

Both creative writers and journalists depend upon effective use of language to evoke emotion and even affect action. Some of the most famous journalists used vivid prose to highlight social dilemmas and urgent issues. This language, when skillfully employed, enhances the necessary objectivity of journalism. In other words, when language is vivid and the story well-constructed, there’s a much higher chance that the reader will remember key aspects of news.

Carl Sagan, in his work “Cosmos,” states, “Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs.”4

Sagan is pointing out how writers embrace the timeless, vital task of writing. On the page — whether paper or digital, no matter whether fiction or nonfiction — the power of story is what attracts the reader and keeps a writer striving for connection. The strengths of both journalism and creative writing help writers tell the story accurately and create a story that speaks to the reader, transporting them somewhere they’ve never gone.

Earn a Professional Writing Degree at GCU

If you are inspired to tell stories that educate, encourage and connect people, you can get started in creative and journalistic writing in English at Grand Canyon University. Earn a bachelor’s degree in professional writing for new media and learn the art of writing for various media platforms. Complete the form on this page to learn more.

1 Miller, J. (2023, Feb. 7). A Newspaper Taught Hemingway to Write. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved on Jan. 31, 2024.

2 McEvoy, C. (2023, Sept. 19). Charles Dickens. Biography. Retrieved on Jan. 31, 2024. 

3 Mark Twain. (2021, Mar. 31). Biography. Retrieved on Jan. 31, 2024. 

Sagan, C. (1980). Cosmos: An appreciation. [Manuscript/Mixed Material]. Retrieved on Jan. 31, 2024.

Approved by faculty for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences on Feb. 9, 2024.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.

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