Why and How I Write (4)

Almost everything I write is in the literary rather than the journalism style. The casual reader may not notice the difference, but for a writer the distinction is crucial.

In broad terms, the literary style leans toward beauty of expression while the journalistic stresses the provision of information. Where the literary is creative, the journalistic is factual.

The literary is dominant in most published books. It is the only style used in fiction. But the journalistic approach is the sine qua non in newspapers and periodicals, even when the topic may be something artistic. Characteristic is the rule that the first paragraph of a story—ideally the first sentence—should state the essence of what is to follow. The literary first paragraph, on the other hand, can start anywhere. The text then leads the reader to the subject matter by any route the writer chooses.

Granted, there’s a good deal of room for each style to borrow from the other in day-to-day writing. But the mechanics of each cannot be deviated from.

And those mechanics are subtly different. For example, in the literary style, a series is separated by commas, with the last comma before the connecting word, usually “and” or “or.” For example, “Humans, birds, insects, and reptiles are covered.” In the journalistic style, that last comma is omitted. That same sentence would read without the comma after “insects”: “Humans, birds, insects and reptiles are covered.” In the literary style, the em dash (—) has no spaces before or after it: “Humans, birds, insects, and reptiles—including snakes—are covered.” In the journalistic style, the sentence would read: “Humans, birds, insects, and reptiles — including snakes — are covered.”

The rules on the mechanics for the two styles have been collected and published in two books that govern what is acceptable. The literary rule book is The Chicago Manual of Style (University of Chicago Press). That for journalists, referred to as “the newspaper bible,” is The Associated Press Stylebook (Associated Press). The most recent edition of the Chicago manual, the seventeenth, came out in 2017; the Stylebook appears to have a new edition every year—the 2020 edition will be available soon.

Ironically, I write for one online periodical, the Washington Independent Review of Books, which requires journalistic rather than literary style. Even writing about books doesn’t absolve me of the obligation to write like a journalist.

This post and foregoing three on why and how I write may explain why I always laugh when someone says, “You know, I should write a book.” Writing is lifetime vocation, not an afterthought.

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