JOANNA ELM, Author, Journalist, Attorney

So You Think You Can Be A Journalist? It’s Not That Easy


Twice this week I was flummoxed, maybe even a little miffed, by things I heard about the craft of writing (specifically screenwriting) and journalism (specifically investigative journalism.) In the latter case, I received an email from Brad at MasterClass and this is what it said: “Bob Woodward Teaches Investigative Journalism.” In the email trailer, Woodward promises to teach students how to research,  gather information, interview people, and how to find the story and build the story. Wow!

World Experts

James Patterson

For those scratching their heads over the proper nouns peppering the last paragraph: MasterClass is an “online education platform bringing worldclass experts to students globally.” Thus, Helen Mirren teaches Acting; Thomas Keller teaches Cooking, Shonda Rhimes (of TV’s Scandal) teaches Writing for Television, Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) teaches Screenwriting, and James Patterson teaches Writing. Each MasterClass costs $90 for a series of video classes, a workbook and feedback from the class. In the interests of full disclosure, I took the James Patterson MasterClass and loved it. What the heck, it was only $90, and if I’d wanted to try out for a Patterson co-authorship, I could have also submitted a line or two from my current WIP (work in progress.) More to the point, anyone writing, or trying to write commercial fiction these days really should listen to what the master has to say when he is willing to share his insights. Patterson, after all, is the world’s bestselling author. No ifs, ands, or buts.

Anyone Can Be A Journalist ?

Bernstein and Woodward in the WaPo offices

Oh yes, the other proper nouns in my first paragraph are Bob Woodward who is an authentic investigative journalist and one of the best in this country (along with Carl Bernstein, he broke the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of Richard Nixon as President of the U.S. in 1974)  and Brad. I don’t really know who Brad is but he is associated with the MasterClass program in some way, and he sends me emails from time to time letting me know about new MasterClasses.

In any event, what got me somewhat hot under the collar about Brad’s latest email offering the investigative journalism Masterclass was the small print quote from Woodward (see photo.) This is what it says: “Anyone can be a journalist. All you need is a desire for the truth.” -Bob Woodward.

Utter nonsense

Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford portray Bernstein and Woodward in the movie

This statement, of course, is utter balderdash  (an old English expression meaning nonsense.) As a former investigative journalist myself, I can tell you, and as any truly legitimate reporter/ journalist will tell you: You cannot become a journalist, never mind an investigative journalist just by tuning into an online video course.  It takes months and months, maybe years, of on-the-job training to figure out how to best gather facts, how to verify them, and how to communicate them — and even then many realize they simply do not have what it takes to be reporters or journalists.

A “desire for the truth” may be a start. It certainly will be a requirement, but it is not sufficient in and of itself, not even close. That is why, reporters, if they are on newspapers or work for media organizations who are serious about their role in a democratic society, usually start by covering small events, by writing short news stories in which they show they’ve answered the who, what, why, where, and when questions of any story.

Paying One’s Dues

Woodward himself had to pay his dues before he was accepted on the Washington Post (where he and Bernstein broke the Watergate story.) After serving five years in the U.S. Navy and after admission to Harvard Law School, he got a two week trial at the Washington Post, but was not hired because of his lack of journalistic experience. It was only after a year’s stint on the Montgomery Sentinel, a weekly Washington D.C. suburbs newspaper that WaPo took him seriously enough to hire him.

And, Then There’s The Movies

Last week, I also attended a Palm Beach Writers Group lunch at which the speaker addressed the subject of What Makes a Book A Movie. Much of what Patricia Wakely Wolf, an actor and writer, said made sense: For example, “as opposed to books, movies can’t capture intricate detail; movies don’t rely on the inner thoughts of characters, screenplays are formulaic, structure must be adhered to; authors can spoonfeed detail to their readers, but movies have to communicate detail instantly in a gesture or a look, and protagonists in a movie must have agency, that is they have to make things happen rather than wait to have things happen to them.”

Simple Advice

Patricia Wakely Wolf

Her advice to novelists who are hoping not only to have a book published, but also to have Hollywood come knocking for the movie rights was to think in terms of frames and scenes (from Fade In to Fade Out) as they are writing their books. Sounds simple.

Too simple, in my opinion.  It’s difficult enough to master the basics of writing a novel, never mind to be thinking in terms of writing it as if it was a movie unfolding in front of your eyes. A skilled storyteller like James Patterson (see above) might be able to do it. Elmore Leonard, a master of dialogue, is another author who can do it.  But I don’t think most novelists multitask in that fashion. Not even accomplished bestselling authors like Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl fame.

In fact, it is instructive to read some of the interviews Flynn gave about being signed up to write the screenplay of her own book — a rare event by Hollywood standards.


Studied Screenplays As A Child

Rosamund Pike, star of the blockbuster movie, Gone Girl

For starters, Flynn did not acquire her screenwriting skills overnight.  In various interviews, she revealed she had studied screenplays from an early age. “I read film scripts at the age of 12, hunting down screenplays before the age of the Internet.” She said she had sent away for mail-order screenplays and read them while watching the movies. She read screenplay books, studied adaptations of books like A Simple Plan and The Talented Mr. Ripley,  and after David Fincher was named as director of Gone Girl, she re-watched every David Fincher movie.

Hazy Outlines & Hot-Pink Stickies

Back then, Flynn also told the Los Angeles Times: “I had a number of abandoned screenplays on my laptop so I understood the form. But understanding the form only takes you so far.” Flynn described how she listened to an audiobook version of her novel and wrote down the story lines that were absolutely necessary. It was a “masochistic challenge to look at this 500-page book, and say ‘well, I’m going to have to lose about 2/3 of it.'”

Finally, when she had a “hazy” outline of what the movie might look like she slapped a hot-pink stickie onto her laptop which read: It Is a Movie. “It was a reminder not to be slavishly faithful to the novel,”  she said. “A film is not a series of scenes from the book.”








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