Is every journalist a frustrated novelist?

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

I was doing some of that random blog-surfing that happens when I’m blocked on a particular feature, and I discovered this rather illuminating article by American journalist Jessica Harbour. She talks about the fact that many journalists seem to be frustrated novelists. It’s certainly true of some of them. One of my colleagues quit to write her novel, another claimed to be doing so, but turned up again working for The Telegraph a matter of weeks later. I’ve had a short story or two published and have extensive non-journalistsic gaming writing in print. I’m sure many of my colleagues are frantically scribbling away on their bestsellers in their spare time.

However, there some reasons why I disagree with Jessica’s idea. For one, I think that for many people being a journalist is an end in its own right. It’s one of the most competitive professions to get into in the UK, with many, many times the applicants for starter level positions than are actually available. (I once saw some quite frightening figures on the number of journalism and media jobs available compared to the number of journalism and media studies places available in universities, but I can’t find them on the net, sadly.) There are enough ambitions within that field to distract most people from the idea of writing the great English novel: becoming an editor, getting your own column, getting on a national paper, etc.

Secondly, once you’re writing for a living it gets harder and harder to go home and spend a few more hours writing things with no hope of payment in the short term. Jessica’s ahead of the game here, because she actually has written her novel. I find it increasingly difficult to write anything without immediate prospect of payment. This blog is part of an effort to overcome that mental block.

Lastly, I think the harsh reality of working to daily, weekly or even monthly deadlines sometimes drains the glamour out of publishing for journalists. The need to fill those pages (or websites) to a fixed deadline is a harsh, repetitive grind. This is the reason so many journalists become cynical and grumpy, and more than a few turn to drink.

So, yes, I think there are aspirant novelists amongst the hacks of the world. I also think there are aspirant novelists in most professions. Yeah, there are probably more in journalism than most professions, but it’s far from a common dream. Journalism is good at crushing the dreams out of you. The skill of being a good journalist is hanging onto them.

From my own point of view, I’m a journalist. I enjoy being a journalist. I enjoy researching and writing features, and I enjoy combining the visual and textual elements to make up a section of a magazine. If I hit upon an idea for a novel I really, really want to write, I’ll go for it. Until then, I’m a journalist who moonlights as a writer.

Adam Tinworth Twitter

Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.