Creating a story versus reporting one

Jessica Parsons

The English writing major is such a broad program. In fact, the English department is the largest on campus. Because of this, I’ve taken a variety of classes about writing and literature.

These courses include studying literature in the Bible, medieval literature from Shakespeare, principles of technical and professional writing, creative fiction writing, report and news writing and the list goes on.

There is one genre that I can’t seem to grasp, and that is nonfiction. I discovered this before I got into journalism, as I felt nonfiction would help me with why I transferred to Northern in the first place: technical writing. I’ve discovered that I was wrong.

Nonfiction today is still undefined. My professor in my seminar class during this syllabus week did his best to define it as…well..not fiction. But he kept repeating that nonfiction writers are not journalists, because the job of the creative nonfiction writer is to “manipulate” facts and create a story out of something so simple.

I’m not sure why this bothers me. All last year, I was a copy editor here at The North Wind, and just within that time period, I’ve learned a lot about journalism. The job of the journalist is to report the news using facts. Of course, being this semester’s Opinion Editor, opinion pieces grant more freedom in that area because it is then up to that writer to decide how they feel about the news given and provide their claims for why they agree or disagree. But I’ve realized that creative nonfiction is extremely different from journalism and teaches an approach that almost feels the exact opposite of journalism.

As a journalist, I’m trained to look at the facts and use them for what they are: the truth. How I or anyone else feels about it is beyond the point. But we are also trained to find a story in hopes to differentiate our piece from the previous, because it’s all been done before, right? So “how can I make my piece different” is often the thought one keeps in mind when approaching a new story.

This idea isn’t necessarily not how nonfiction works, but from what I’ve picked up on so far, the difference is creating a story from the facts verses finding one. That’s where the manipulation comes in.

One can argue that it’s all about perspective, but again, the point of a journalist reporting the news is to purposely keep their point of view out of it. This is what we call bias.

For opinion articles, this is necessary. This should also be the case for commentators, for instance, like on a television platform, but we can-or at least should-be able to tell the difference as it would be labeled as such. But that’s a story for another time.

This topic is important to explore because I hope it will encourage other writers to think about what industry they want to work in, surrounded by so many different types of writing. Specifically, here are the differences I’ve found between creative nonfiction and journalism.

Nonfiction is an art while journalism is a structure. When writing a news story, there is an equation-a right and a wrong way. Simply, the important qualities of a story (i.e. the who, what, when, where, why and how) are found at the beginning and then followed by the rest of the details. On the other hand, nonfiction, as it’s taught today, requires a juicy development in hopes to hook and intrigue a reader that craves more.

Nonfiction is undefined while journalism is universal. Journalists follow a style called AP, or their publication’s style. This is an agreed-upon pattern that is found universally. The lack of definition for nonfiction writing requires its writer to create their own rule and style, which then requires the reader to accept that train of thought and perspective.

Nonfiction is flexible while journalism is stiff. If your writing is not flexible, and not unique, it is not your own story which is the purpose of the nonfiction genre. We know before reading a story that we’re about to see that writer’s point of view on the same tangible, or intangible, at hand. That shoe on the floor by the door may be brown, but is it really? It’s that kind of flexibility or philosophical approach that you won’t find in a newsroom.

The good news is there is an intersection where journalism and nonfiction meet, and if you’re unsure which of these two writing genres you belong to, consider that the two are best paired within an opinion section-such as this one-as well as feature stories in magazines and other creative publications.

My argument isn’t that one is better than the other, but that the two are very different from one another and if you’re struggling to find which one you belong to, ask yourself if you’d rather create a story or report one.